On technology as a motivational tool & survival of the diverse
In this episode, we welcome Sharath Jeevan OBE, one of the world’s leading experts on intrinsic motivation, direction, and potential. He is the Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs and author of the groundbreaking smart thinking book Intrinsic.
In this episode we discuss:
- Why we are experiencing a crisis of motivation
- Where external motivators like money and status fall down
- The value of intrinsic motivators
- Autonomy, mastery, and purpose
- How we all have the opportunity to reset the direction of our lives for the better
This episode is part of our series on “Self”, where we explore how our technology impacts some of the most important aspects of being human.
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
Sharath: So, I looked at Charles Darwin for example, when I’m writing the book and I was really interested in this phrase “survival of the fittest”, which has become such a sort of model of how we think about life, especially in business and organization. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, I’ve got to be that little bit better, have that little bit more of an edge. That wasn’t what Darwin was talking about at all.
He was talking about diversity, I think, hundreds of years before it came in vogue, in a sense that if the more diverse we are as a species or a workforce, the more successful we’ll be. So, I would encourage everyone to think about what’s really authentic to them, start from within. How can they carve a niche for themselves that really is distinctive that stands out?
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.
This week, we welcome Sharath Jeevan OBE, one of the world’s leading experts on intrinsic motivation. He is the Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs and author of the groundbreaking smart thinking book ‘Intrinsic’.
In this episode, we discuss why we are experiencing a crisis of motivation, where external motivators like money, and status fall down, the value of intrinsic motivators such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and how we all have the opportunity to reset the direction of our lives for the better.
Sharath, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Sharath: Thanks so much Georgie as well. It’s a real pleasure to be on with you today.
Georgie: Fantastic. Well, you’re obviously an expert in motivation. And so we wanted to ask you, why do you think understanding motivation is so crucial to how we all live our lives?
Sharath: It’s really because we’ve been through such a difficult period. And I think if you think of any sort of existential crisis, where we’ve been really facing issues of life and death, you know, for ourselves, our loved ones, it’s made so many of us, I think, get off the treadmill, have more time, honestly, with people we care about more, and have a chance to reflect and think about what really matters in our lives.
And I’m in my mid-40s. Now, again, hopefully, there’s a decent innings left, and I feel like I’ve been successful in many senses. But there’s a deeper legacy I want to build. And what it’s made me think about is that I want the next 20 years of my life, both in my work and my wider life to feel different. And to do more, I think in that regard, and live differently.
So, I think that what the pandemic has done has really made us feel that sense of need to be more authentic and live better. And that really comes back to this question, motivation at the core.
Georgie: I’m really interested in that. So, on a personal level, what have you recognized was lacking in your own life that you want to reset now?
Sharath: So, I think the first thing I’d say is I was very, very busy. I was leading an organization in education, that had reached about 35,000 schools at that point when the pandemic struck. And I remember days when I could barely go to the bathroom because I was just back to back with meetings and management calls.
But you know, the question of was I really doing what I believe every leader should do, which is take an organization to a place it wouldn’t have got to otherwise. Was that really nurturing people and…
Georgie: I was interested, having realized that he wasn’t living the life he wanted, how did Sharath then reset?
Sharath: Yeah. So, I think I’m a big believer in everyone having what I called a personal mission statement that’s about 15 words. But I think the point of that is to really think about what really matters to you in this stage of life. With a personal mission statement who, you know, who do I really want to be in this chapter of life? And it doesn’t have to be the same one that you were in a previous chapter.
Do I want to be yet another — a doer again, and building something again directly? Or do I want to be helping and serving other leaders and helping them be authentic and successful as well?
So, I think just taking that time and the reason we have a lot of choice and where we want to go, it’s not just a fait accompli. But it just takes us some reflective time to think about that and set out in a different direction.
Georgie: And how did you make the time to really think it through practically?
Sharath: Yeah. So, I think, well, to be honest, I think the best thing is writing a book is that it’s the most powerful self-development journey you go on. So, because I was writing about these topics, and I don’t think I’ve talked about 100 people in the course of writing the book, it makes you, of course, think quite deeply and reflect quite deeply about yourself.
So, I’m not suggesting everyone needs to write a book. It was quite a painful process at times, I’ve got to say. But I think more than that process of interrogation, and my big belief in this is that if you can do it with the service of others, so for me, I was writing it for other people, obviously, I had to distill my thoughts.
So, maybe if you’re running a company, an organization, a team, whatever it might be, just think about what things would you want to pass on to the next generation? What have I learned — What really is my perspective now? That process of trying to share it with others will make you reflect very deeply on yourself.
Georgie: Yeah, a lot of people use freedom for writing. And we’ve talked to many other guests about how writing has been in some form or another how they’ve come to understand themselves. But I’m also thinking of people who aren’t necessarily seen as the leadership in an organization. But everyone could still be a leader and they can still reflect in this way.
Sharath: Yeah. And I think what I thought about quite deeply when I wrote the book was different styles of nurturing people, of developing talent, really, at the core. And I found that all three dominant styles had some gaps in them. So, let me build on that.
So, if you look at the old school way of managing, which is basically telling people what to do, that’s existed for thousands of years, that has been our predominant management style, to be honest, right up to perhaps even just before the pandemic we had all this kind of paraphernalia of incentives and bonuses and schemes to align with that kind of way of doing things. We know that way doesn’t work anymore.
And I think what I’m seeing is that, I work with large companies like L’Oreal and Shopify, and so on, and governments all over the world, but employees now they really want a sense of being treated as a real person. They’ve got their own motivators, they’ve got their own sense of direction, their own sense of a mission statement.
How can the leader bring out the best in them, in order to fulfill the organization’s purpose, of course? But that idea of work being like a marriage now, where both sides have got to feel fulfilled, that means that old school management style that’s gone, right, so let’s take that off the table.
The second area that you mentioned was mentoring. And the official definition of mentoring is where someone who’s been there done that comes in imparts that wisdom, and there’s, it doesn’t have to be this way. But there has been a temptation to copy-paste. I was in that position, I did this.
The challenge is that we’re in a world where work is very wicked now, where it’s impossible to extrapolate your experience to someone else’s. Every dynamic is a little bit different. And even if it is very similar, there’s a lot of resistance if you try and just impose what you did on someone else. That mentoring model in the traditional sense, I don’t think works very well, either.
The last thing I think is the coaching mindset, and I’m a trained coach, I share this as well. But the idea that the person you’re helping has got all the answers, and your job is to tease them out of them, that’s also got some challenges.
Because often, if you’re a younger leader, you may not have seen that much in the world; the mental models, the ability to see patterns outside of your immediate situation, those things sometimes need that little bit of extra enhancing.
So, I talked in the book about this idea of nurturing, which I think is sort of in-between ground between managing, mentoring, and coaching. It’s really seeing your role as helping the other person get to a place they wouldn’t have got to otherwise. It’s about seeing your role as helping them become the best versions of themselves they can be, not the version you think they should be.
And it’s about really asking the right questions at the right time, knowing when to ask what; providing a space for them to think about their journey and their development. And fundamentally helping them stay connected with the activity at hand and deeply enjoying it and stay motivated by it also.
Georgie: Yeah, talking about motivation, let’s come more back to that. And you basically talk about how you believe we are in a crisis of motivation. Can you explain a bit more the context for why you think motivation is currently in crisis?
Sharath: 85% of us are either demotivated or activity demotivated at work. And that status stayed remarkably stable. There was a little bit of, bizarrely a little bit of a flip positively in the pandemic, in the early point when working from home felt a bit novel, and so on as well, but it’s dived right back to where we were before.
And I think what that is done is that crisis in motivation, and work has a massive spillover effect on our wider lives as I talked about in the book. I spend a lot of time on cricket pitches waiting for my son to finish practices. I see dads screaming at their kids half the time because they haven’t hit the perfect six, or bowled the perfect wicket at the right time.
I think because they themselves are not deeply motivated at work, and they’re living their dreams for their kids. That has also a knock-on effect on our relationships if we have a significant other in our lives. And also as citizens, it also means we’re not the active, engaged citizens co-shaping the world, we live in the way we want to be as well.
So, I think across all those dimensions, we’re drifting really, a bit like we’re treading water, and I think we need to start swimming again.
Georgie: And why do you think this crisis has occurred? Why have we got to this point?
Sharath: I think because we’ve not really seen motivation as an important goal in itself. We’ve tended to very much chase the outcome. So, if you work in a business, for example, how to make your business successful, i.e. profitable? If you work in a nonprofit organization, how do we reach as many people as we can?
All these things are very important, of course. But what we are not realizing is that to achieve those goals, we have got to be deeply engaged. The work is becoming more and more human, because of that concern about automation.
So, those human elements that work in terms of those who build relationships, convince people, bring people along the journey, they become more and more important. And so we’ve got to anchor that in how we think about motivating them to go on the journey with us.
Georgie: Yeah. And you’ve reframed your understanding of motivation to look at purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Let’s start with purpose. We’ve already talked quite a lot, so far about purpose, I think it feels like the one that is sort of easiest to understand.
Can you talk to me a bit more about purpose across our lives, and not just in our work, within our relationships, and also in how we parent and how we should be reframing purpose?
Sharath: Yeah. And I think, essentially, you know, everything we do in life has purpose, of course. And I defined purpose very simply as how what we do helps and serves others. So, I would argue that every job has a purpose. I was writing the book, and I talked about this in the book, a story where I was at a bar, watching a bartender spend 45 minutes with a couple at the bar.
And I asked them why were they spending so long. They said, look, I can see a divorced dad and his teenage daughter in front of me. My job at that point, the bartender told me, was not just to serve the drinks, but to forge a human connection. I had to make the dad look cool in front of his daughter so she would want to spend more time with him.
So, I think every job has purpose in that sense. But we’ve sliced and diced organizations in such a way that it’s hard to bring that out sometimes. But let’s talk about relationships. As another example, where our sense of purpose in relationships has really moved over the years.
It started off really with survival mode. And we were there to make sure we have common shelter and food and those basic needs at the very core about hundreds of years ago. It’s gone into companionship. And now moving more and more into this area of self-actualization where we want our romantic partner to be — help us be the best versions of ourselves we can be. It’s almost become a self-development perspective in our relationships.
And what I was talking about in the book is, that’s great. But we also need to be a little bit realistic about that. No single person can play all those roles. How can really our significant other, the purpose of that relationship being about helping us feel emotionally safe, and able to explore and feel like we have a rock of stability in our lives that we can still feel ingrained by and stabilized by as well?
So, I think every part of our lives, whether our citizens, our parents, our work, or our relationships, has a core sense of helping them serve others. It’s being clear about that and focusing on what really matters in terms of that purpose.
Georgie: And not getting diverted by some of the motivators that we’ve got used to chasing.
Sharath: Exactly. So, if you look at, let’s take two examples. Let’s look at work. It’s so tempting to chase the career ladder, chase short-term promotions, right? And there’s always a carrot in front of us saying if you go for this role, you get a 10% pay increase. That promotion may have nothing to do with your own sense of a personal mission and may be a complete distraction. But it’s easy to get seduced by the organizational wiring in that regard.
Let’s look at our personal life and look at online dating in the book. And it’s so easy to keep on that treadmill of meeting more and more people with the view, there’s that perfect person out there, we’re going to find them.
And so really modern life has almost conspired against that motivation by creating so many distractions that the idea of focusing on our core purpose, reminding ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing, it’s really important so we can stay motivated from within.
Georgie: If we’re more intrinsically motivated at work, is there a risk to work-life balance, and will our home life suffer as a consequence?
Sharath: So, what I found when writing the book was actually there was this positive spillover rather than negative spillover. So, if we are happy and motivated at work, we’re much more likely to be happy with ourselves. We’re much less likely to ask our child to become the perfect person because we feel inadequate as well in that regard.
So, I think it goes the other way around, that actually, getting this right is really important for the other areas of our lives and vice versa. So, if we’re better parents, I think there’s a lot of evidence I’m finding that the better parent we are, the better leader we can be.
So, I definitely agree with this idea of being clear about our boundaries, and also really making sure we spend time intentionally. It’s not about just working harder and harder.
So, I think it’s not a zero-sum game where you’ve got 100 units of motivation, the more you spend on work, the less you have in your personal life. It’s a positive sum game where the results show in different aspects of our lives. Overall, we get happier, more fulfilled, and more successful.
Georgie: We can definitely see that when you feel demotivated, how if you’re demotivated in one area as you’re saying it is much harder to be motivated across other elements of your life. Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt demotivated?
Sharath: Yeah. So, I had a very difficult situation once with a boss and the boss was not a bad person at all. But we got into this dynamic, which I learned, later on, was called the set-up-to-fail syndrome, where what happens is that the boss loses trust in you. And as a result, their expectations of you start to fall. It’s a bit like a George Bush phrase about the soft bigotry of low expectations in a way. And you create a vicious cycle where he or she trusts you less, you actually start to lose confidence.
And therefore you start to perform less, you almost have a tunnel vision view where you don’t want to put yourself out there in terms of work. You want to sort of shelter and do the minimum you need to get by. And then, of course, their expectations get reinforced and you go into that vicious cycle. There’s lots of evidence about that. I wish I had known about that at the time of the situation.
But to your point, I remember feeling deeply demotivated. And really, my own sense of self-worth was getting hit. I remember what it was like, I just got married then and all these beautiful places we traveled to in our first couple of years of marriage. And my wife was getting really frustrated with me, to be honest, and said, look just sort this out and find a way.
And I think my jump into the nonprofit sector, partly I think, was because I felt like okay, I have nothing to lose now. Let me take the risk and do something I wanted to do for a long time. So, I’d really just be very careful about this kind of idea that by being — you can be too motivated at work. And I think it’s the opposite. It can lead to very difficult dynamics in our personal lives if you don’t get this right.
Georgie: Yeah, interesting. Let’s talk about the other two factors of intrinsic motivation, autonomy and mastery.
Sharath: So, autonomy really is about us feeling at the wheel of our lives and almost feeling that we can — we have an agency, that we can drive the car the way we want to. I come from India originally. And there’s always a backseat driver telling you how they think you should be driving.
So, it’s resisting the temptation and saying, no, this is the way I want to drive. Thanks for the feedback. I’ve listened to it, but this is the way I want to do it. And I think what’s happened in many aspects of our lives is our autonomy has been undermined. So, if you look at the US, for example, look at teachers, one of our most important jobs in the world, about 1.6 million teachers in America alone, have resigned over the last 18 to 20 months. And that’s because crushing schemes of accountability have been pushed on them.
Now, no one is arguing against having a basic level of accountability. But when it gets to a point where everything is being micromanaged in classrooms, many teachers go in because they want to teach them to be a creative process where they can unlock new minds and connect with kids very deeply. If we try and make teaching into a paint-by-numbers profession where it’s about doing exactly this, I think we’re going to deeply demotivate a very important workforce.
And I see this in corporate life where so many corporate warriors have been almost drilled by these incentives and short-term targets have lost their humanity and their core reason why they wanted to get into this organization and make a difference. And there’s a whole phenomenon now happening, and I’m trying to help a number of companies in this area, think about this.
But this area of job crafting, where in the old days, you’d go and apply for a job, there was a job description, and you did the job. Now there are some key things I know I have to do. But I’ve got my own set of interests and strengths. How can the job bring that out? How can we personalize the job to bring those out? That could be profoundly motivating for both sides.
Georgie: Yeah, and so much more efficient for the organization as well, when you people are doing what they’re really good at. And then mastery, let’s talk a little bit more about that. You touched earlier on how our work has been so segmented. And I know that relates to this challenge we now have with mastery.
Sharath: Yeah. And I think for mastery, it’s that sense of us becoming the best versions of ourselves we can be. It’s becoming better and better. I want to make it clear, that it’s not about competition. It’s not about comparison. Those actions can be deeply demotivating. And I think social media and technology have fueled all that. But I do think it’s about trying to feel you’re always constantly growing and developing.
And what has happened, I think with work is that we have become very obsessed with the technical craft to work, less focused on the human direction, what I would call the wicked dimension of work. Which is really about how do we work with other human beings and make change happen?
And I think if we take that lens on it and say, look, these are the broader mastery essentials out there, that there’s so much more to learn and to navigate and so much more to transfer across careers as well.
Georgie: You touched on a little bit then that this mastery idea is trying to encourage us to shift away from the winner takes all kind of concept of just chasing success and recognizing that there are opportunities for mastery in loads of different areas. There can be multiple masters if we don’t look at it in such a siloed way.
Sharath: Exactly. So, I looked at Charles Darwin for example, when I’m writing the book and I was really interested in this phrase “survival of the fittest”, which has become such a sort of model of how we think about life, especially in business and organization. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, I’ve got to be that little bit better, have that little bit more of an edge. That wasn’t what Darwin was talking about at all.
He was talking about diversity, I think, hundreds of years before it came in vogue, in a sense that if the more diverse we are as a species or a workforce, the more successful we’ll be. So, I would encourage everyone to think about what’s really authentic to them and start from within. How can they carve a niche for themselves that really is distinctive that stands out?
So, I think thinking differently about careers and differently about success and not seeing it as a zero, again, back to a zero-sum game. I don’t need to be more successful at your expense Georgie, and vice versa. We can be more successful together, and how do we create that deeply motivating and collaborative culture within organizations?
Georgie: And then just looking at technology’s role in all this, do you think technology is contributing to the crisis of motivation that you talked about at the beginning of our conversation?
Sharath: So, I think technology is a tool, ultimately, that can be used for good or as a distraction when it comes to motivation. So, let’s look at, say, the whole question of mastery. What has happened with the pandemic, especially is the number of opportunities to learn and develop have exploded.
I still do a lot of work with governments around the world. I would have to go to, for example, India, and sit for a day in an auditorium, spending days away from my kids to learn about what’s happening with the Indian government most recently.
Now I can just log on to a webinar, most of these events now are hybrids, so I can listen in, I can do the dishes, I put my kids to bed when I’m doing this, and still stay very much in touch. So, that’s been a huge enabler of motivation, because I think it’s enabled us to connect with new forms of people and develop a much wider sense of mastery in what we do as an example. I think where technology has been a little bit of a challenge in motivation is that comparison culture, it feeds.
So, let’s look at the world of parenting. When I was growing up, I’m the son of Indian immigrants. My mom would always tell me, you’ve got to be top in the class. And that might have been okay because I had about 30 kids in my class. And that was my frame of reference.
My son, now he’s 11, can now go on Twitter and see, or Facebook and see millions of children just like him. But how can he ever be the best in that group? It’s impossible to play that game. And it can be actually very demotivating and actually lead many young people to feel what’s the point? I’ll never be as good as a perfect airbrushed image of another young person.
So, I think that’s why I think it’s really helpful not to succumb to that peer pressure and comparison culture, to stay directed from within, and then use technology to enable you to be the best version of yourself you can be, rather than try to be someone else.
Georgie: One of the other challenges of comparison culture is how it encourages consumerism and the elevation of money and status. Objectively, how can we determine when we have enough?
Sharath: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I think I talked in the book, for example, about Harvard Business School graduates, and always some of the brightest people in the world to go off. And it’s really terrifying, many of them, surveys show, are not that happy and fulfilled many years afterward, despite having the chance to have this incredible education.
And the reason is that basically, many of them chase those extrinsic or external validators after they graduate. They join a firm because it is well paid, as you said, it’s got the fancy title, it’s conventionally seen as the most respected place to end up.
And what happens though, as their incomes grow very quickly, their lifestyles grow absolutely with that, and their families also get accustomed to that lifestyle. So, it’s almost like some golden handcuffs where you can’t get out of that treadmill anymore because of that dynamic.
And what I would say then, again, is to not think about money as a reward in itself. But think about what you really want to do. What mission do you have in life? What is your purpose? And think about money as it’s the thing that will enable that to happen. You want to have enough of it to be able to do that comfortably without any ideally too much stress financially, but not to think about money as the reward for what you do.
And so one exercise I always ask people I work with, leaders I work with, how much money do you need to live comfortably? There’s no judgment that we all have different numbers, whatever that is. But okay, be honest with yourself to say, is that really what I need? Am I underestimating, overestimating, or whatever? Is that what my husband, wife, kids think as well? Are you aligned on that? If that is then try to get to that level and live comfortably with that.
But then use that freedom, you have to redo what you want to do. So, it’s almost putting the sort of the horse in the cart, the other way around, that when we think about it and think about money really as a — it’s just an enabler. It’s something we need to satisfy and get the level we need.
But that allows us the freedom to do what we generally want to do. When we break that down and think about money as success, I think that’s when problems start to happen.
Georgie: And that’s a really important mindset shift. And I can see how valuable that is, instead of always striving for more, saying, well, this is how much we’re going to make. That’s just what — that’s what it is.
And because we want to do the work that we love, and we want to be motivated in other ways in our lives, and so, therefore, some things have just got to go. And they’re actually not that — we don’t need them. We may be able to come accustomed to them, but actually, we don’t need them. So, let’s just start cutting some things out.
Sharath: I think one of the biggest illusions we have or sorts of excuses, we have to perpetuate what we’ve been doing if we’re not motivated is to think that our kids need it. And actually, if you really look at what kids need, they really need love and attention the most. And if you’re in an incredibly high-paying job, where you come out stressed and pissed off, sorry for my language, but at the end of the day, and you take it out on them, that’s not doing them a great service either to be very honest.
It’s much better to perhaps cut one holiday a year or cut a car or whatever it might need to be. But have that time when you are with them that they really feel that you’re there, that you’re having a deeper connection, and a deeper relationship with them as well.
Georgie: Yeah. And then the final question is a question we often ask a lot of our guests and I think it’s relevant to you. What does productivity mean to you?
Sharath: So, I’m highly productive. And I saw when you had Oliver Burkeman on – I’m a huge fan of his work. And I think listening to him, I was just thinking about my own journey, that idea that we can’t just keep doing more and more with the same amount of time.
I use probably every productivity trick in terms of, I check my emails on the train or the tube going to work. I’m pretty productive in that sense. But I’ve got to a point where trying to do more than that is going to be counter-effective. And so what I’m thinking about quite actively is how I can be smarter about my time and spend more of it really on my key personal mission statement.
How do I avoid too many distractions? How do I — I definitely love helping people. I love trying to coach, mentor people as well, informally, also, but doing that in a way that’s efficient and smart, for example. So, I’m trying to actually be part of, I think, what Oliver calls that anti-productivity movement really, towards thinking about time much more deeply, and trying to harness time better, rather than be more productive.
Georgie: Sharath, thank you so much for your time today. You’ve been a fantastic guest on the Freedom Matters podcast. We’re so grateful to have spoken with you.
Sharath: Thanks, Georgie. Real pleasure.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.