Motivation Problem : The candle problem of our life

This piece is based on an epiphany while watching a Ted talk by Dan Pink.


Humans have a beautiful sensation, something that forces them to explore. It is a source of energy from within that gives birth to an urge of exploration, something so powerful that it can cause excruciating pain and also bring fascinating pleasures. Something that can easily make you lost, yet beautifully finds you and maybe even redefine you. It is called curiosity.

However necessary it may be, it has its drawbacks. It can make us want to try every possible option out. This disposition, in my opinion, is the mother of science. We gather knowledge by observations and experiments and live our lives based on what we find out. This is driven by what we want, what motivates us. And most of us mostly just want more money, which is what the business of our entire life is based upon.

So can science actually help us in at being more efficient at our businesses?

Of many possible paths from answering this question, let’s just allow me to take you to one of my favorite ted talks called, “Surprising Science of Motivation” by Daniel Pink where he wants to rethink how businesses are run. He stresses upon a gap between what science knows and what business does.

To make his ‘case’, he brings Carl Dunker’s “Candle Problem” to the table.

The objective of the game is to stick the candle to the wall such that its wax does not drip onto the table using only what is available in this image. See if you can figure it out.

Some try to stick the candle to the wall using just the tacks; that will not work. Some try to melt a side of the candle to use the liquid wax as an adhesive in an attempt to accomplish the task; a decent try that does not work. This problem needs an ‘out of the box’ strategy to be solved.

Allow me to add a new element, a step towards the solution by bringing the ‘power of incentives’ into play. This was actually done by Sam Glucksberg at Princeton. He divided people in two groups, and to one he offered rewards for solving the puzzle and the other was sent in without the material motivation. Greed is a step towards a solution, right?

Wrong. it took the incentivized group 3.5 minutes, on average, ‘longer’ than their bland counterparts to find that the box holding the thumb-pins or tacks is not just to contain the tool but is in itself a piece that solves the puzzle. This is a perfect example of “functional fixedness”. The thumb-pin container is to be emptied, mounted on the wall with the tacks and then the candle can easily be placed on it.

Why did the free minds grasp the idea faster than the paid ones? Before answering that allow me to present a variation of the problem by Glucksberg before making my point.

Who do you think had the upper hand now? It was the ones being rewarded that made the relaxed participants look like inferior beings.

Once the tacks are out of the box, it is very easy for the minds that have been narrowed down by the rewards to formulate the winning plan but for the bigger picture and to track solutions that lie on the ‘periphery of human vision’, requiring creativity, this strategy of rewarding is simply not valid.

Borrowed words from Dan pink would be, “Incentives are designed to sharpen our thinking and accelerate creativity. It does not only NOT work, in fact it does the opposite in some cases. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.” He talks of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators, and makes his argument that there is a difference between what science knows and what business does.

This is fascinating, the idea of a basic conceptual mistake that most humans are making in doing the twenty-first century tasks via methods of the previous set of a hundred years. I personally feel he is onto something bigger and is just thinking too small.

What if this idea is applicable to the more than just business? That brings us to what more do we want from our lives? Which should spark the question, what is the maximum that we can get? Sadly, for one it can easily be money. And I don’t mean just a few individuals, in today’s modern world it is entire societies or maybe almost the entire humanity which is encapsulated by this target.

Although some might refer to it as the meaning of life, there is more to breath than merely accumulation of the capital. Religion is big chunk of what should be seen as life, or the meaning of it. That is not within the scope of the ted talk, it merely brushes on a vastly ignored mechanism. God is a very prominent source of purpose. Even today philosophy classes talk about a superficial being. But what is exactly expected of us in this life by him? And can a research that relates to a principle meant to boost business affect it? Such questions are as beautiful as they are complex.

“Horror Vacui” is a google-worthy term, not only in the context of art where studded pieces come into existence due to it, but also for the amazing ability to cause the lack of an existence coming into being. “The Great Ancient Greek Mathematicians and Philosophers” that had amazing accomplishments ahead of their time were unable to devise the concept of “zero” maybe because they were afraid of the emptiness, of the void. It is vital to think of nothing, but then what of those whose lack of ‘horror vacui’ wipes out the concept of deity completely?

A sailor once came to a wise man and said that he had trouble recognizing God. Upon discovering his profession, The Imam asked him if he had ever been stranded in the waters such that death was inevitable. Upon affirmation, his inquiry for hope in that near-death moment left that sailor satisfied. That is the key concept, Hope.

Maybe this hope for a meaning can give meaning and that meaning new hope, and the story continues with fear. Aristotle from the western philosophy says that human just wants to be happy. Buddha from another part of the world believes that human just wants to avoid pain. Now if you toss a coin it will either be heads or a tails, what if the coin was to be in neither state?

Earlier in this piece we established that business is out of desire to earn. What if I told you there were systems in the real world where currency is not the only currency of the realm but an ulterior motive is also alive. Where the big houses, fancy cars, expensive gadgets, exquisite cuisines, exotic fragrances or any such worldly possessions are NOT what determines success. But then if these are not the criterion for success, it has to be an entirely different domain.

Imagine a place where you shall abide eternally with everything you soul desires and your eyes are delighted by, as mentioned in Surah Zukhruf (43:71). Where you get drinks that do not cause intoxication, as described in Surah Saffat (37:46–47). Rivers of milk and honey flow according to Surah Muhammad (47:15) A place where you don’t hear any ill-saying and just ‘peace, peace’. Surah Waqia(56:25–26)

This is the picture of heaven, but this is also NOT the true meaning of success . It is at best only a bargain. If it were then it is a life for one who lives to attain heaven only. To maximize utility of either this world in terms of money for personal gain or even of the next world in terms of good deeds for the same reason is just not the answer to every question.

Such as, is man really born to a prisoner of his desires? Are you and I meant to be trapped in a routine that promises a distant comfort and instant shackles? A farfetched hope and an eternal wait ? Is every choice we make based on an incentive to earn something? But then why do we have this ability to do fascinating things with what we call creativity? Why do we have that ability to enter a flow state where we temporarily become more than just humans, where thoughts in our heads transform into marvels of magnificence and for a brief moment in time we can transcend our limits? And how does this fit in to the purpose of our lives? And more importantly, what is our collection of worldly incentives doing with it?

Allow me to quote Dan Pink again , “ Incentives are designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, it does not work, but they do the opposite they dull thinking, and block creativity”.

People can say many things about what they call ‘the zone’. What I believe is that the state of being in the zone exists so an ordinary human can ping the concept that there is a greater force out there that should be identified, something that is bigger than himself, something intensively vivid yet the member of the normal world is oblivious to the implications of its existence because he is filled to capacity with his domestic routine.

If the arteries are narrowed the blood shall not flow properly. What do you think happens to the creativity of a child? It is choked with the passage of time mainly because it is not needed and the templates provided to him by norms for behavior would suffice for his entire life and he will never really have to apply his cognitive skills in his daily life. Just the way that the divide of the financially rich and the financially poor is increasing every moment the divide among the intellectually rich and the intellectually poor is going through the same motions. And most probably the percentage the mentally gifted with respect to the normal member of the human species is decreasing. How can this be possible with all the technology commonly at our disposal? What went wrong? What did we do? Or what did we not do?

We did not think of ‘what do we want from our life? ’ We need to know what we are actually meant for. What if I told you, there is a book that has solutions for philosophers and is written by an author that has the knowledge of psychology as if he designed it himself. someone who knows exactly how many ants there are on the planet and also that how many webs were spun since the dawn of time. an author who knows cosmos as intimately as the blueprints of every building on earth. An author with a vision that can monitor the world’s highest peaks and sea’s greatest depths simultaneously for each and every moment since the dawn of time till the end of the universe. He knows how many hair you have on your head and also the number of blood cells in your veins. Would you like to read his book, Quran? and could you answer the question at hand, that what is the purpose of life ?

In one word. ‘ibadat’(worship). Something so important has to make use of everything we have got. if we are designed for it then we must be equipped as well. What we already have must lead us to it. All our abilities, especially the ability to think. To worship is why we have cognition, so we can recognize our God. Can this be achieved via a lifetime of mechanical tasks with no thought process involved?

This is NOT a complete negation of the need for the mechanical tasks in any form. Imagine a computer. Something with a processor far ahead of its time. A brain that is unmatched in the whole world. But if the motherboard is refusing the simple mechanical processes like disk reads or writes, if the brain knows what to do but it is not being carried out, then the processor can never serve its purpose. Life is not without execution. Execution of thought. Thought of self as a part of the world that God created. And that God says, 
 “ My servant will not become closer to me but by doing acts obligatory upon him until I love him, and anyone I love, I will be his ear to hear, his eye to see, his tongue to talk and his hands to empower. If he prays I will answer his prayers and if he asks Me, I will bestow upon him everything he wants.” (Kafi Vol2, p353)

Some words make you feel something you can’t truly put into words. To those immune to horror vacui, this faith is not due to a feeling of emptiness but hope of a completeness. A complete set of ‘fear and hope’. It is to this God that we prostrate, but reward is NOT the reason why we do.

Let me show you something mechanical reflected in the research presented in the talk. Dan Ariely with his 3 colleagues played some games with MIT students. The games involved creativity, concentration, and motor skills. you might have anticipated the rewards. Three levels of them actually, say one group will get Rs500 as the prize money, other 1000 and the third a 5000.

for mechanical games things were exactly as they were supposed to be, people involving highest rewards worked best. But when even rudimentary cognitive skills were involved, higher the reward, worse the performance, something you can call the “distraction effect” where economic factor can steal the attention and render the use of cognition useless. If this were some locality issue, this would not have had the same results in a totally different population in a very different part of the world. The report says, “ .. Higher (financial) incentives led to worse performance.. “ and this is the Federal Reserve Bank of U.S.A. I am quoting.

Heaven and hell are the carrot and stick; the contingent motivators. And in the 21st century science knows this strategy works for only mechanical tasks. But then heaven is not supposed to be the ultimate fruit of this life. If heaven is not the purpose of worship then there lies a problem. The concept “do good, go to heaven period” becomes flawed. This does not feel right. This does not fit. ‘Worship’ is supposed to be the philosophy of ‘life’, not ‘heaven’.

Worship is not just bowing down five times a day. Instead having food so that one can bow to God with the energy out of it makes that culinary exercise a form of worship. It is a relation of the ‘abd’ (Worshipper) and ‘mabood’. (Worshiped). But we need a decisive statement to make sense of the abstraction. Something that can help us make sense of the world. To put all these variables into perspective we need a view point so high that it can reflect vast oceans of wandering thoughts into a single coherent vision.

Now I get to say the words I have been dying to say.

“I don’t worship God due to the greed of heaven for that is the worship of a trader. Neither do I worship him due to the fear of the hell, for that is the worship of a slave. I (Ali ibne abi talib) worship him because deserves to be worshipped.”

This quote of the ultimate man from more than a dozen centuries ago renders a gigantic set of philosophical confusions to a simple sentence that a child can memorize.

LSE (London School of Economics) alma mater of 11 Nobel laureates in economics after considering 51 studies on pay for performance at companies concluded that , “We find that (financial) incentives .. Can result in a negative impact on overall performance…” Most people target money in this world, Dan Pink’s research is on them. And then there are those better than that; they target heaven. This piece is for them, because they are also missing the bigger picture. Heaven is insignificant enough for a ‘truly insane’ individual to dispense as a model of clay. Aim higher, aim for ‘raza e khuda’(God’s will) to be with you. This is a perfect instantiation of intrinsic motivation which happens to be a basic building block for the solution to all this by Dan Pink in his prospect. He defines it such that, “intrinsic motivation is the desire to do anything because it matters and we like it and it is interesting and that it is a part of something important.”

Is that not just a rephrased version of what I was dying to say?

In his talk Dan Pink provides examples of systems that are built on the principal he suggests. one of examples is of two opposite ideologies set out to compile an encyclopedia at some point in the past. One of them goes by the book and hires qualified people to write, check, and rewrite, and recheck the entries. They gather information and organize it. They follow every guideline there is and they spend substantial amounts of money in doing so, just for their product to be perfect. The other group does not pay a dime. In fact it asks for donations. It has a rather awkward key though; it promotes users to write because they want to. Be it logic, common sense, intuition, gut, or anything in that zip code, the paid attempt should be successful and the other one shall perish. Allow me to reveal their names. Encarta and Wikipedia, respectively. This is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. The talk mentions three elements of the solution plan.

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

The three pillars according to Dan Pink. Allow me to briefly dissect and reassemble them to conclude this piece.

Autonomy was defined as “an urge to direct our own lives”. In my opinion this means to shatter the shackles of incentives for the accumulation of worldly wealth. If you don’t break through what is wrongfully being produced by the minds of the masses, you are already out of the game. is every normal person just living out his life in mindless routine serving the purpose of his creation?. let me simplify, are you even thinking of why were you created?. if you don’t then it is highly unlikely for you to develop the urge to direct your life towards something meaningful. This is Autonomy.

Mastery was described as, “ Desire to get better and better at something that matters”. When Muslims intend to perform their prayers they use words to formalize the thought. They say that this prayer is ‘qurbatan illallah’ which literally means ‘to be closer to God’. This is precisely what we are supposed to want to get better at. This also clarifies the direction of the first principle vector. We are to develop a relation with God; that is the perfect utilization of our mind’s thinking power, to identify God. Ali ibne abi talib a.s. did not worship a God he could not see(through his heart). For us, being closer to God is an idea that when merged with the minute details of our daily lives can transform us infinitely. The courage to do so is hard to muster. This is hard. This is Mastery.

Purpose was conveyed as, “yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves”. Which is exactly what the purpose of worship is supposed to be. A conscious effort towards God at all times. God is what shall be served, the cause larger than ourselves. This can also be called the philosophy behind Karbala where Hussain ibne Ali(Son of Ali) sacrificed his whole family for the will of God in 680 C.E. It is not within the scope of this piece to even remotely present Karbala, but what I can say is that when faced with a choice to either keep EVERYTHING what is dear to one or to sacrifice it for the will of Allah, the people that can see the bigger picture opt for the latter. That is purpose.

To form a conclusion, allow me to consult with the inception of this piece: The candle problem. What if I named the candle to be ‘your philosophy of life’? And the matches become ‘curiosity’. ‘Money’ is an entity, it shall be the tacks. Wall can be the ‘right path’. And table the ‘oblivious members of the world’. Something should connect the philosophy of your life to the wall without dripping the wax of your candle to the table. The key element of the puzzle remains, the box; the solution. It has to be something so important that can use your money to connect the goal of your life which is powered by your curiosity to search for, attain, and maintain the right path. The path mentioned in ‘Surah e fatiha’, the righteous path.

I have something in mind, precisely for that. The box for the tacks is ‘ your routine’. Your day to day life. Right now it is most probably filled with the incentive to earn money. Tacks are money. And if your candle is burning without connecting to the wall, it is not serving its purpose. It is an exercise in futility. The key lies in throwing the tacks out and using the box to hold the candle, and the tacks to connect to the wall. I never mean to not involve any tacks. You need the tacks to attach the box to the wall. But one has to know the right balance, and the right purpose.

Terminally injured, this man that has this right purpose, prostrates before Allah and says “ O my lord, on the day of judgment, in the presence of ‘Anbiya’(prophets) ‘Mursaleen’(messengers) ‘maliaka’(angels) , you be witness that Ali never spared any effort in your worship”. He is the one that associated his ‘shahadat’ (martyrdom) with ‘falah’ (success). He is the one that ordered his son to continue the fajr prayers(morning prayers) being wounded right next to him; and the prayers were carried out. This is success, the ultimate success of the life in this world and it is not possible without the motivation in precisely the right direction. One has to solve his personal candle problem, yet we don’t realize that it exists with the key element being our day to day life.

There are numerous possibilities that can be inferred from my representation of the candle problem scenario, but instead of exhausting the list I have a simple message : curiosity is a sweet fire, don’t try to extinguish it, let it thrive. Your candle won’t deform with time, it shall be ‘majestic’.

I hope I have motivated you to think.

Wasi A. Rizvi