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The Art And Science Of Motivation


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away. It's graduation season, and that means 20-somethings and parents sitting through long commencement ceremonies while the older and wiser give advice. Here's comedian Stephen Colbert speaking at the University of Virginia.

STEPHEN COLBERT: If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want, and don't worry if we don't approve of your choices. In our benign self-absorption, I believe we have given you a gift, a particular form of independence because you do not owe the previous generation anything. Thanks to us, you owe it to the Chinese.


LUDDEN: Not a traditional motivational message, but many of us walk away from these sweeping speeches and don't remember a thing. There is an art and a science to motivating others. So what does it take for a speech to stick? We'd like to hear from you. What has someone said that motivated you? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255, our email address talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Apple's sweeping tax evasion explained. First, Jesse Mejia is a motivational speaker here in Washington, D.C. He's also managing partner at MBA Catalyst, an MBA admissions consulting firm. He's here in Studio 42. Welcome.

JESSE MEJIA: Hi Jen, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. So you actually had a keynote speech at the University of Maryland this past weekend.

MEJIA: I sure did; it was phenomenal.

LUDDEN: And what was your message to the graduates?

MEJIA: You know, when I was invited to speak at the University of Maryland, they told me there would be about almost 1,000 people in attendance, and they wanted me to give something energetic, inspiring but above all for them to remember their roots and to also remember not to be afraid to try different things.

LUDDEN: And so did you have a motivational message in there?

MEJIA: Of course, you always have to. As a speaker, your entire purpose is to be humorous, memorable and above all give those nuggets of wisdom where they can walk away and say you know what? Thank you, I really learned from you today.

LUDDEN: So what's the line you hope that they remember and take with them?

MEJIA: Well, I had three. So you're...

LUDDEN: Is that the secret, three?

MEJIA: You always try to keep something where they remember, and three tends to be an easy number. So the first one was I always said you worked hard to get where you are today, don't be afraid to let everyone know that hard work will never scare you.

My second point was success is a family effort. Be grateful to those who have helped you and be generous to those who ask you for help.

And my third message was embrace setbacks as opportunities to re-evaluate what you're actually good at because one day you may find yourself giving the keynote speech about the successes of education.

LUDDEN: So how did you - how did you get to be - I mean, how do you learn how to be a - I mean, were you motivating your parents when you were a child, or...?

MEJIA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It - you never wake up saying I'm going to become a motivational speaker. You start slow. And in my case, it started by taking your lumps when you're young, specifically applying to business school. When I was applying to business school, it was a challenge for myself. And then when you learn how to overcome those challenges, and you share that with your friends, and then they gain success from that, then their friends ask you for help, and their girlfriends, their families, and the next thing you know you're being invited to do a small workshop.

And then it grows from doing a workshop to being an emcee to being a speaker. And then you have to ask yourself: Am I ready to be a public speaker? So in my case I joined Toastmasters, and Toastmasters does not churn out motivational speakers. It's just a public speaking club for people that want to improve their public speaking skills.

And after doing that for several years, I said you know what? I'm going to make a - I'm going to try this because I was getting enough positive reaction in the clubs to say let's give this a shot.

LUDDEN: All right, we've got callers already on the line. Let's listen to Chris(ph) in Binghamton, New York. Hi Chris.

CHRIS: Hi, how are we doing?


CHRIS: It was - you know, 1997 commencement speech given at Cornell University by the university president, and it was a lengthy speech, and I don't remember everything that was said, but the one thing that really stuck with me and that I've shared with friends over the years is that the one thing, according to the president, the one thing you need to really be successful and be happy is just to make sure that you have something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.

And if you can achieve all three things at the same time, then you've got everything you need.

LUDDEN: That's nice, and it stuck. So is that you kind of gauge yourself every few years? Is that - are you doing good on all three?

CHRIS: Exactly, and if I feel like something's amiss, then I kind of reflect on that. And I think, you know, right now I'm maybe I'm just lacking something to hope for, and I kind of dig down and try to find something to keep me going, and when I do, and everything's synched up, it really does make a difference.

LUDDEN: All right, Chris, thanks so much.

CHRIS: You're welcome. Jesse Mejia, how do you tailor your speech to the audience?

MEJIA: One, you have to know your audience. You need to ask questions. There is pre-work involved. You don't just get up and start ad-libbing for 45 minutes. When you're invited to give a speech, you need to go to a set of interviews and ask your inviter what is it you're trying to get out of it? Tell me about the people who are going to be there, and help me understand what it is that you want me to overcome for you.

And once you get that information, then you can tailor your speech so that it can be impactful for that audience. You always have canned paragraphs and canned stories that you can share and recycle. But to be impactful, it must be tailored.

LUDDEN: You speak sometimes to Latino students.

MEJIA: I do.

LUDDEN: Is there - what message do you often maybe carry for them?

MEJIA: Sure. It varies because it can go from immigration, it can go from being first generation, it can go from the fact that you had to take out a tremendous amount of student loans to get where you are. And what I tell them is, so what? You're going to be something, and just keep on moving forward.

And then I share my personal story. I share the struggles that my parents had and kind of how we overcame those and how a first-generation Latino from the United States, born in Los Angeles, whose parents never learned English, was able to get an MBA from Georgetown University and work for a couple Fortune 500 corporations.

LUDDEN: All right, let's bring someone else in. Steven Reiss is emeritus professor of psychology at Ohio State University, the author of "Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Determine Our Personalities." He joins us from WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Do we have Steven Reiss there?

STEVEN REISS: Yes, can you hear me?

LUDDEN: We can. So how do you define motivation?

REISS: I define motivation as the assertion of your values. Most people think of motivation as sort of energy, and if you want to motivate people, you've got to kind of be energetic. I think people are naturally motivated by their values. And so what we do is we help people get clear on what their values are, how their values compare to other people and to try to make decisions that are consistent with their values.

If you have a career and job that expresses your values, you will be naturally motivated by that career and job. You need a partner who is supportive of your values. Everywhere you go you will be motivated by your values, and if people are - and it's your values, not someone else's values. And if people or situations - if you're in a job, a career that contradicts your values, you'll have stress, and you will become demotivated.

LUDDEN: And you've actually done research with tens of thousands of people, is that right, to figure out the main, basic values people hold?

REISS: Right, we seem to be the only people who actually conducted large-scale surveys finding out what people - what motivates them. We conducted anonymous surveys, so - and we at this point have asked 80,000 people on four continents what motivates them. And we have found that more or less all motives reduce down to what we call 16 basic desires or 16 universal goals.

We all want the same things, respect and understanding and belonging and self-confidence and safety, but we don't prioritize them the same way. We really prioritize them very differently. Not everybody wants to be successful to the same extent. Not everybody wants to be competent to the same extent. Not everybody wants to understand things to the same extent.

It's how you prioritize. It's how you value these universal 16 basic desires that is the best predictor of how you're going to behave, what you need to do to be happy and so on.

LUDDEN: So if I'm trying to motivate, say, I don't know, a child, my husband, and I'm giving the argument that would persuade me, it's not necessarily going to work, is what you're saying.

REISS: It's not going to work at all. You know, we use the example of the football coach who, you know, the team has lost four games in a row, and he gets up, and he says hey guys, the next game is a test of your character. Well, you know, on our questionnaire, the athletes are saying they don't give a hoot about character. They're not worried about character. Well, how's he going to motivate them by saying the next game is a test of your character when they come right out and say on a questionnaire they don't care about their character.

What do athletes care about? They care about family. They are one of the most family-oriented groups there are. They care about the children. So what the coach should be saying to motivate his team is hey guys, you know, the children in this city look up to you. You've got to go, and you've got to kind of honor, you know, that admiration. You've got to, you know, think of those children. That will motivate them because that's their value.

Character, that was the coach's value. You can't motivate someone else, your spouse, by appealing, by indoctrinating them in your values. They will resist indoctrination, right?


REISS: You can only motivate them by appealing to their values.

LUDDEN: Jesse Mejia, is it, you know, a speech may work with some audience but not others? Can you tell if you're reaching through people, and...?

MEJIA: Oh my gosh, yes, you can see the reaction on people's face when you're on stage. I always tell people that ask me, well, what do you think about - when you're onstage speaking, you're thinking about am I getting through. And I've noticed that sometimes I have lines where I get humor in some audiences and fall flat on others. And when that happens, in your mind you're thinking, well, that didn't work. And you just make a mental note that that line may be a hit or miss the next time you try to use it.

LUDDEN: And can you switch gears in action there?

MEJIA: And that takes practice. Yes, you can. Sometimes it does require to adlib and go off-script because if you catch a wave, and you see people are reacting positively, then ride it. And if you have a paragraph, and you see people are falling flat, skip it. And that's - it comes down to practice, knowing your material and being prepared to kind of switch gears.

LUDDEN: All right, Jesse Mejia, motivational speaker and managing partner at MBA Catalyst, an MBA admissions consulting firm, thank you so much for coming into the studio.

MEJIA: Thank you very much, Jen.

LUDDEN: Steven Reiss is going to stay with us, and we'll also be joined by Daniel Pink, the author of "Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us." What did someone say that motivated you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email, that address is talk@npr.org. What can I say to motivate people to call?


LUDDEN: Jesse is going to help me with that. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Stay with us.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Commencement speakers try to craft speeches that will spur new graduates to go out and conquer the world, but different people need different motivations. Daniel Pink is the author of "Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us." And he's with us today to talk about what gets people fired up.

We're also joined by Steven Reiss, emeritus professor of psychology at Ohio State University. First, has someone said something that motivated you? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org, or join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Daniel Pink, welcome.

DANIEL PINK: Hi, Jennifer, thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: You used to be a chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. What did you learn about motivation by writing political speeches?

PINK: I learned that most people aren't motivated by speeches.


PINK: You know, I think that, you know, we all - these commencement speeches are a certain kind of ritual that we have, especially in American life. It's a rite of passage. It's a ritual we go through. It's a marker of time. I think the enduring motivational effects of that are somewhere between miniscule and nonexistent.

I would challenge - you played Stephen Colbert's speech, a clip of Stephen Colbert's speech from the University of Virginia this year. As it happens, 27 years ago Stephen Colbert and I were in the same graduating class.


PINK: And I don't think either one of us can remember who said what that day. So the other bigger point her, which Professor Reiss talked a little bit about, is that we have to get past - Edward Deci, great scholar of motivation of Rochester, Richard Ryan and others have said something that I think is really important to understand here, which is this: We have to get past this idea that motivation is something that one person does to another and understand that motivation is really something that people do for themselves.

And so the most motivating things that another person can - one person can do for another is help them find context, help them surface their own autonomous reasons for doing things.

LUDDEN: Steven Reiss, that's what your message is, as well.

REISS: Well yes. When I was younger, and I went to Dartmouth, too, which I think is what Dan is talking about...

PINK: It's actually Northwestern.

REISS: Oh, was it Northwestern?

PINK: The character Stephen Colbert went to Dartmouth. The real Stephen Colbert went to Northwestern.


REISS: Oh, OK, well you fooled me. I didn't know that. OK, thanks for correcting me. When I was younger I took a philosophy course, and I learned oh, Socrates said know thyself. So I took my philosophy books one Sunday afternoon, and I literally sat under a tree on a nice, sunny afternoon, and I tried to know myself. I tried to discover my autonomous self, so to speak, and nothing happened. Nothing bubbled up from inner me. I - it was a nice afternoon, but I did not get to know thyself.

You need a method to know yourself. The message is good, but it only works if you have a method. And that's what we have been trying to do. There are these 16 basic desires or universal motivators. They motivate everybody. But the keys to understand is that intrinsic motivation is not just what we want, it's how much we want. And you need a method for determining each of these 16 things.

Do you want more than most people, or do you want less? And when you come to gain that kind of knowledge, you can understand a lot about yourself and your relationships; and your performance at work, at school. You know, this kind of stuff is applied to helping underachieving kids. Companies use it; athletic teams use it.

The key is what you want, and that's the same for everybody. Everybody wants the same things, but we are individuals in how much we want. And that's kind of what we do is try to help people quantify that. And that's what know thyself - that gives you a method so you don't just do what I did. It was a pleasant afternoon, but I didn't benefit from it.

LUDDEN: All right, let's bring a caller into the conversation. Deb(ph) is on the line in Indianapolis. Hi, Deb, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DEB: Hi, thank you so much. I used to work for Cesar Chavez, the great civil rights leader, environmental leader, excuse me, and social leader. But I didn't get there because I just knew who he was, in fact I didn't know who he was until I heard him give a speech in Illinois after a bunch of students and I had driven 14 hours to get there to a conference.

And he said that every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want, and that every dollar you don't spend is a vote that creates - literally creates and builds - the world you want. And that just blew me away. I was so empowered I couldn't believe it. It just, it made so much sense, like this huge light bulb went on in my head.

LUDDEN: It sounds like it affected the direction of your life.

DEB: I drove out to California and worked for them for a year and a half. And during that time he also impressed upon us that the - if you take on something that you can accomplish during your lifetime, you've taken on something too small. And, you know, that again will blow you away. But, you know, it just puts everything in perspective.

LUDDEN: All right, Deb, thank you so much for sharing.

DEB: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Daniel Pink, you said speeches don't motivate us, but obviously something really resonated there with Deb when she heard Cesar Chavez.

PINK: Sure, I don't think it's necessarily the particular speech. I think it's basically someone who, in a role as a leader, is articulating a reason why people should do something, helping them see the world in a new way. You know, one of our misconceptions about motivation is that we think that people are essentially - that if we simply calibrate the rewards and calibrate the punishments in a precise way, people will do what you want them to do, what you expect them to do. And that's just fundamentally not true.

Human beings are much more complex than that. And one of the interesting lines of research that's come out that's actually consistent with Deb's call is how much people are persuaded and motivated by a sense of purpose. That if people know, if people have some kind of transcendent mission, many people, not all, are motivated by that sense of mission.

The other thing is that when we get to the level of motivation inside of classrooms, inside of companies, we tend to misplace our emphasis. We tend to talk about - get people to perform better by telling them how to do something: here's how you do it; here's how you do it. And we don't talk enough about why, why are we doing it in the first place.

And there is some very interesting research from books like Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania and others that have shown that appeals to why, showing people the purpose of what they're doing things, showing people that they have - that what they do actually has an effect in the wider world, can be enormously motivating and can lead to higher performance.

So I think what Deb is seeing there is someone talking about purpose. It could have - the fact that it was in a speech to me is less interesting. It could have been in a conversation. But what's going on there is you have someone who's talking about a mission, someone who's talking about something transcendent, someone who's giving you a new way to see the world.

LUDDEN: Steven Reiss, you used the example of a coach and his athletes. How else does your research play out, say in the business world?

REISS: OK, well, I would just guess that what motivated Deb about that speech is what we call idealism or the...

LUDDEN: Her value.

REISS: Her value of making this society better but a particular value. I don't think it's about purpose. I think it's about making the society better. And I think that was the call that got her excited. And when someone talks about your values, when you see someone putting your values to work, that is inspiring, and that is really motivating. And the value there was a kind of social justice. That's what Cesar Chavez was really about, making society better, bringing up the kind of downtrodden. So that's what I think.

But motives also play out in relationships. And you can see - you know, if you're talking about an instant bonding to someone who is expressing - who is expressing her values, and so it kind of motivates her. And I'm sure she went to work, and in that group she was really motivated to do the work because the work was - she saw it as a value that she really liked, and I'm sure she bonded with some of the people because they had - because they kind of had the same values.

You know, when we did the 16 basic desires, Dr. Steven Judah, who is - was - he passed away, but he was one of the popular marriage counselors, a real nice guy here in Columbus, Ohio. He came to me, and he said let's do - let's apply this to relationships. And I said, you know, he's a marriage counselor, and I said you don't really think anyone's going to take a psychological questionnaire and then not get married, these people are going to get married.

But you know what happened was the businesses, you ask about the businesses picked up on it. In fact, you know, we get emails, you know, this is going to - this reduces the conflict at our business, between the leaders and between other people, because it's the same message as Myers Briggs: understand each other.

You know, you have different values. Your workers are not personal in what they're doing that you don't like. You're misunderstanding each other. And in any kind of relationship, a teacher is going to mark down the student if the student doesn't express the teacher's values. And you can now sort of say hey, come on, let's understand each other.

You know, we're all different. Let's understand and cherish our differences. We have different values. And a parent and a child. You know, think of the parents who's always trying to change their child. They fight and they fight and they fight. And then the parent has a will, and then the will is trying to still change the child. You have to...

LUDDEN: All right.

REISS: ...embrace my lifestyle, right? Think of all of that. What - where does that get anybody? If you can't change the kid when he was an infant, if you can't change him when they were a child, you're going to now do it through the will? Come on. Stop fighting. Tolerate each other. Maybe your child has their own values, and appreciate and cherish that because the alternative is endless quarrels over and over again.

LUDDEN: All right.

REISS: And it's that way in marriage. It's that way at work.

LUDDEN: All right.

REISS: It's that way on an athletic team. It's everywhere like that.

LUDDEN: All right.

REISS: (Unintelligible) help anyone in marriage, OK?

LUDDEN: All right. I will try that tonight when my young one starts fighting. I believe you're - we - I understand that we've got to let you go because your studio time is up there. Steven Reiss, retired professor of psychiatry at Ohio State University, author of "Who Am I?: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Determine Our Personalities." Thank you so very much.

REISS: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Let's get another caller on the line here. Mike is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Mike.

MIKE: Hi. How are you?


MIKE: Hey. You know what, first of all, I'm a professional speaker. I don't like to say motivational speaker because there's a whole level of connotation that comes with that. However, my premise is that, you know, I can't motivate anybody to do any thing because if you don't come to the table with some level of motivation, I don't know if I can help you.

What I can do, however, is inspire you. And that's what led me to where I am today because I spent 20-plus years working in corporate America, had a corporate job making six figures. And I did - I read some research by two Harvard school business psychologists, business school psychologists, who talks about how you go through life from a job to a career to a vocation or a calling.

And most people never get past the career for many reasons, but it's the calling or the vocation that really got - sparked my interest. So at 40 years old, I put away that corporate America thing and went out and did what my calling was, and that was to become a speaker. My goal was become a game show host, but I haven't done that yet.

(Unintelligible) we have some nice parting gifts for you. Tell her what she's won. So I've been practicing that line for years. However - but the calling or the vocation is what you do, how you look back on your life and what you did. I love to perform. I love being in front of a group of people. You know, if I can do something or say something that will inspire you to help you achieve a higher level of success, I've done my job.

But again, if you're not motivated, I can't motivate. Motivation, persuasion, inspiration - they all mean the same thing. But...

LUDDEN: Right.

MIKE: ...again, if you're not motivated at the onset, I'm not sure I can help you. But I will help you find ways to inspire you, to lift you up and get you over the top.

LUDDEN: All right. Mike, thank you so much for the call.

MIKE: Thanks for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Daniel Pink, how has your research been applied in the workplace?

PINK: Lots of different - you know, I look at a lot of the science of motivation, people like Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School, Deci and Ryan at Rochester, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont. And what it shows is that basically this: that we have over-relied in our businesses on what I like to call if-then motivators. If you do this, then you get that, controlling contingent motivators.

Those end up being very effective for simple kinds of tasks with short time horizons, but far less effective for more complex tasks that require longer time horizons. And there is a mix of other kinds of motivators that end up leading to and during performance, which is, one, giving people a sense of autonomy and control over their work; two, helping them get better at something that matters; and three, helping them see why they're doing things in the first place.

And when people have those kinds of mix of attributes in their work, they end up doing better. And you know, I think one of the great mistakes we've made about motivation, generally, is to think that human beings are basically slightly more enlightened donkeys or slightly malfunctioning robots, that if we just simply calibrate the rewards and punishments in a certain way, people will do what you expect them to do, and this is fundamentally not true.

LUDDEN: The Pavlovian response. The old Pavlovian, if you give them this, they'll do that.

PINK: Well, you know, what's interesting, Jennifer, is that there's some truth to that. See, human beings are complex. You know, we have a biological drive. We do things out of biological urges. We eat when we're hungry. We drink when we're thirsty. That's a motivation that all human beings have. We do do things for rewards and punishments. That's another part of motivation that human beings have.

But we also have another drive, a third drive, where we do things because they're interesting. We do things because we like doing them. We do things because we get better at them. We do things because it's the right thing to do. And we have to have - you know, in our workplaces especially, a much more nuanced view of how human beings are motivated and also what the evidence shows us leads to high performance.

And so what we've done is we've taken that very mechanistic approach, which was fine when people were doing very simple work, and tried to import it into today's workplace, and it just doesn't fit very well.

LUDDEN: Let me just remind people, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get another caller. Leslie is in Orem, Utah. Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE: Hi. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good. What has motivated you?

LESLIE: Well, my inspiration has been paradoxical because I'm a perfectionist. I'm an artist. And the way I get through my perfectionism is with two statements that a teacher told me. One was just make stuff, and the other one is sometimes done is good enough. And those statements paradoxically help me move forward and do my best work.

LUDDEN: All right. Keep it simple. Thank you so much, Leslie. And let's get another one there. Becky is in St. Charles, Missouri. Hi, Becky.

BECKY: Hello. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good. What's been your motivation?

BECKY: Yes. Well, I teach college-level math, so you have to be a pretty good motivational speaker to teach math, I think. And one thing that helped me about, gosh, it had to be late '80s, early '90s, when I was in college trying to, I guess, find myself, there was - I saw a picture of Colin Powell. And I really didn't know who it was at first, but that's when I really got to know who Colin Powell was.

It was on a cover of a Parade Magazine, in the Sunday magazine. And the cover - and at the top it said have a vision, in big, big font, and I cut that out. And that, from - I still have that. Twenty, twenty-five years later, I have a Bachelor's degree in math, Master's degree in math, have other goals I want to do. And that is what I also tell my students as well...

LUDDEN: All right.

BECKY: ...when they're not doing well in algebra. What you want to do? What's your vision? Where do you see yourself? Because that's what helped me, but then if I can try to get them to do that as well. And I'm kind of if-then person, that if I do this, if I get a Masters in math, then I can teach college. That's what I want to do. So...

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Becky.

BECKY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Daniel Pink, last words for maybe those graduates heading out into the big world. What would you say? You've derided speeches, but I'm sure you (unintelligible) great one.


PINK: Not only have I derided speeches, I written them and I've given them. No, I think that there - it's a lovely ritual. You know, I think that - my best advice is this, do what you do and work really hard.


PINK: I don't think it's any more complex - I don't think it's any more complex than that. Every graduation speaker will tell you to follow your passion. And you know what, if someone asked me - if someone asked you what's your passion, that's a really hard question. What I would advise people to do is look at what you do. What do you do when nobody's watching? What do you do when you have discretionary time? What do you do...


PINK: ...when no one's watching? Do that and do it well and work hard and you'll be fine.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much. Daniel Pink, a business and technology writer. The author of five books, including "Drive." Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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