What It Takes

Education, Work, and Daniel Pink’s Drive

I have been approached by friends, peers, and parents on the question of what it takes. What would it take to get my high schooler into Stanford? What would it take to make that Stanford experience into a job offer at the end of four years? Like there’s a silver bullet answer to making these transitions successfully (and like I know what that silver bullet is).

I am a person who figures things out by talking. I had one of those talking moments in the first few months at my first job. We were asked to tell our team about something we had achieved in the past, and what we hoped to achieve work-wise in the future.

Freshly graduated, I had to admit to my team that it was easy to surface achievements from the past: graduation rankings, creative writing awards, other gold stars and numbers. But I was struggling to define what the next horizon of achievement would look like. From here on out, it’s simple, right? Get better at your job. Keep doing it, move up. Beyond what my team needs to achieve this quarter… are there other goalposts I should be worrying about?

This is why reading Daniel Pink’s Drive hit me (and I suspect, others of my recent-grad ilk) so hard.

Drive is about the battle between “Motivation 2.0” and “Motivation 3.0.” Motivation 2.0 is the idea that people are largely driven to success through the use of carrots and sticks (extrinsic motivation). Looking at many companies’ bonus and incentive structures, Motivation 2.0 still dominates in the workplace as a management theory. Motivation 3.0 is the idea that people have an innate drive to do certain activities (intrinsic motivation), facilitated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink believes that capitalizing on and enabling this intrinsic motivation is the next wave of workplace success.

Reading Drive, I wanted to call up the friends, peers, and parents for whom I previously had no answer. It became obvious to me that we could call Motivation 2.0 “school,” and Motivation 3.0 “work.”

Transitioning successfully from Stanford to the working world is about easing off the addictive qualities of extrinsic rewards (2.0) and shifting into a mindset that strives for mastery of a given skill (3.0).

It’s no secret that admission to Stanford and other elite colleges is built upon Motivation 2.0 — chase high GPAs, memorize and repeat your way to high test scores, check a series of extracurricular boxes, and with a little luck, you’re in. College is supposedly a grand shift, full of ambiguity and unclear measures of success relative to its high school predecessor, and at some level that’s true — but for a body of students so used to anchoring on external milestones, they don’t go away easily. Within a few months of our arrival at Stanford, many of the freshmen I knew were back at the old games — find a club to be President of, keep the GPA high, and pad the resume with prestigious names and titles.

These substitutes for meaningful pursuits keep people afloat for the undergrad years, and aren’t met with any real resistance until graduation. The things that make you “Stanford successful” — high GPA, extracurriculars, qualifying for a brand-name fellowship or program — don’t guarantee you job-hunt success unless you’ve been striving for mastery in the background. It’s easy to get attached to the next extrinsic milestone (“Just have to score XX on this midterm”) without considering whether this use of your time actually helps you build capability.

Near graduation, I saw many Stanford seniors (including myself) throwing around resumes that were only a 60% fit for a given position, because we wanted to be rewarded for the hard work of achieving those extrinsic goals, those hard-won resume line-items. But the working world doesn’t care about the mostly arbitrary metrics of school— it cares about your skills. Not your skills as measured by a standardized exam or a timed trial that you can write on your resume — your skills as measured by your ability to do the job, quickly learn more about the job, and work with other people on that job. The working world cares about your drive to achieve mastery, even when there’s no socially anointed extrinsic goal to work toward.

This fundamental shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation is what I suspect many recent grads are missing. Pink says that striving for mastery, a core part of Motivation 3.0, means putting learning goals over performance goals. This is contrary to what high school and university reinforce. Competitive school environments teach you to make a checklist of “dones”: homework assignments, exams, applications. Work teaches you to operate in a different way. It’s not enough to “finish reading Drive” like you would finish a novel for a 20 minute group discussion in an undergrad lit class. You have to “work on reading Drive,” and allow for the possibility that you might pause and take notes, write a blog post, or discover that the book just wasn’t worth reading at all. You have to prioritize the process of learning over a guaranteed “done” outcome.

For my fellow recent grads: I suspect that we don’t talk openly about the transition from Motivation 2.0 to 3.0 because we’d like to think we’ve been self-motivated all along (even when we were propped up by SAT benchmarks or grad school requirements). I believe that open acknowledgement of this transition is an important part of internalizing it and shifting away from the extrinsic motivators we’ve been trained to rely on.

Whether it’s a tweak to the way you write your to-do list or another more profound change to the way you view your work, I hope that transitioning away from school helps you prioritize your learning over someone else’s idea of performance. I hope it takes your eyes off the (extrinsic) prize, and puts them back on working on things that intrinsically motivate you. Because that’s what it takes.