Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 August 2020

Money as incentive is enemy of creativity

Rather than rely on money to incentivise, take some time out to work our what really motivates you.
Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

Sit back. Comfortable? Close your eyes and conjure up an image of lush greenery. Behind you, majestic mountains. Ahead, the sea. The air is clean, the food is fresh.

No, really, do this. Sit comfortably and sink into the image. Breathe it in.

Imagine liberating your mind, primarily from money – from money as incentive at the very least.

Money. It slows you down. Makes you miss the answers. Saps away your intelligence.

This is what behavioural studies have found when people are enticed by money or a similar reward.

Want proof? Let me introduce you to the candle problem.

You get a box of thumbtacks, a candle, and a matches sitting on a table. The goal is to attach the lit candle to the wall without dripping wax onto the table.

People were timed figuring this out. It took five to 10 minutes for participants to realise that the thumbtack box is the key. Take the thumbtacks out and tack it to the wall, stand the candle in it, light it, and hey presto. Sorted.

Now imagine two groups. Group A is told they need to work as fast as possible, that their time will be used as the benchmark for other groups.

Group B get a financial reward if they are the quickest at solving the conundrum.

Convention tells us that money as an incentive equals better performance. Perhaps you have this system at work.

Wrong. Every time experiments that delve into this are carried out, the group promised monetary reward is the slowest, least capable, least able.

In the case of the candlestick problem, group B were, on average, 3.5 minutes slower than group A.

Give groups small, medium and large monetary incentives, and who performs the worst? You got it. The ones offered the most.

Yes incentive works – when tasks are mechanical and repetitive. And obvious. But introduce any, even elementary, cognitive requirement and money means disaster.

I bring this up because, as expats, the appeal is usually monetary. Does this mean you’re hemming yourself in and missing the out-of-the-box element of your life?

Reward narrows our focus. If the tacks are taken out of the box and put on the table along with the candle, those with financial incentives do best. Because the solution is obvious.

So if money does not motivate us, what does? What we learn from this sort of thing is that three things are important to us: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

So what can you do about it?

Well, I think a big part of the solution lies in being still, really still.

What do I mean by this? I mean not getting into the car for something you don’t need. Not giving in to the urge to fill time with some unnecessary activity outside your home.

We’re scared of being – just being, with our self. Not filling time forces you to think of what to actually do with yourself. Funny thing is, it is what most people aspire to. Not having to do things, but still having things to do.

Let’s imagine what that is for you.


Imagine living in a village with nothing on offer – other than the basics: food, shelter, a smattering of neighbours, views.

What would you be doing – reading, making something, contemplating?

I bet you the sky is spectacular at night.

Now imagine what it would be like to live like this. At the core, imagine that you don’t need to worry about money. That what you have is “enough”.

This could be yours – if you move somewhere like the village that hit the news last week.

The mayor of Bormida, an increasingly deserted village in Italy, offered €2,000 (Dh8,145) to anyone who took up residency in there next year. That, along with rent ranging between €50 and €120 a month, sounds like it is too good to be true.

And it was.

The mayor got more than he bargained for, and has been swamped with requests taking him up on the offer. He now states that his attempt to revive the fortunes of his village – population 394 – is only open to fellow countrymen and was misreported.

Regardless of where it is, if you were to live somewhere like Bormida, imagine what you could free your mind up to think, take on, figure out, if you had no monetary incentive to hem you in, and ideally no money worries in terms of affording life.

You would have self-determination. Freedom even. You grant yourself autonomy.

You could develop mastery – in something.

You could use this for a purpose. Something that’s about more than just you.

The desire to have purpose is the most mentioned thing when I talk to people who have liberated themselves from the shackles of daily money concerns and have arrived at their “enough”.

While you contemplate what that is for you, I’ll leave you with a smattering of comments from people who responded to the mayor of Bormida’s offer.

The last one nails it for most:

• Sounds wonderful. Trouble is with townies, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. I would paint, work on my art and live the country life. Would love it.

• Sounds interesting. Maybe I can grow some vegetables and herbs and lead a laid-back life, reading, writing and meditating.

• Where do I sign up? I could retire comfortably on that rent. Put my time towards something meaningful.

And here’s what holds us back: “I’m afraid it would Bormida death.”

Nima Abu Wardeh describes herself using three words: Person. Parent. Pupil. Each day she works out which one gets priority, sharing her journey on finding-nima.com


Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter

Updated: May 19, 2017 04:00 AM



Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email
Most Popular