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basic income and creative work

Mincome and Why You Shouldn’t Get Paid for Creative Work

You shouldn’t get paid for creative work.

WAIT! Don’t bite my head off. It’s not what you think.

Let me explain…

Would you keep working if your basic expenses were covered?

There’s this idea that’s been floating around for decades called “basic income” and that is probably the number one question people ask about it. If you were given a lump sum of cash each month that covered your food and housing, would you keep working?

Maybe you’d just decide to Netflix marathon all day, e’ry day, right? Well, let’s back up for a sec.

There are 3 parts to this puzzle.

  1. Basic Income
  2. Motivation
  3. Creative Work

And they connect in a never-ending circular triangle sorta way. Like the circle of life, but with economics and play-doh.

Why am I even mentioning basic income?

Well, mostly because of a book. Ironically, not a book about basic income at all. It’s called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. And when I was reading it, I couldn’t help thinking about an article I’d a read awhile back about basic income experiments that were set to start in Europe.

Because people keep talking about us all becoming one with our couches if that happened.

As if we don’t already spend more time with our couches than our significant others. It’s just always there. So supportive. So Cushy.

Maybe I should explain a little about Drive. The book details experiments about motivation. What motivates people to do the things. What makes the book interesting is that human motivation is actually super counterintuitive.

  • You’d think that if you gave an artist a $3,000 commission they’d be super-motivated to get that painting started and make it awesome. Nope.
  • You’d think that tell your team that they’ll get a bonus if they come up with a great slogan in a certain amount of time they’ll be more motivated, finish the task, and it’ll be better than normal. Nope.

Turns out, according to SCIENCE, that sort of reward-motivation only works when you’re talking about very step-by-step, left brain tasks. Like filing papers in alphabetical order.

BUT when we’re talking about more right-brain tasks that require innovation, creativity, and intuition, outside rewards actually hurt performance.

  • The painter is actually less likely to enjoy painting that $3,000 commission, probably producing less interesting work.
  • The team will likely have a much harder time figuring out a good slogan, let alone a great one.

So WTF does this have to do with basic income?

Hold on, hero. I’m getting there.

The experiments outlined in Drive show that intrinsic motivation is more likely to produce superior results in activities that people start doing just because they enjoy it. The fact is, most work that people do just because they like it tends to be creative in some way. And introducing external rewards (like a raise or good grade) as a goal/motivator will actually reduce the person’s desire continue those activities, and even if they keep doing it, the work will be worse, slower, ect.

One example is Wikipedia.

The world’s largest encyclopedia, produced by people who get no external reward for their effort. They do it for the fun of it.

With the way our world is going, there’s less repetitive tasks just because, well, we have technology to do that stuff for us.

It’s easy to have a machine do repetitive tasks. We can program it once and it’s done.

So there’s less repetitive, step-by-step work for people. There are concerns about the availability of jobs in the future since tech will continue to advance, potentially replacing millions of repetitive jobs.

Which would leave the creative, right brain work – creating massive, online encyclopedias, for example – to us.

But we’re still working on this idea of motivating people with external rewards. Even though the work available continues to move towards more innovative, and more intrinsically-motivating tasks.

An example in schools

Our schools (in the U.S. at least) rely on grades and standardized test results to motivate kids. When there’s evidence that using this type of motivation could be having very real adverse effects on education. The U.S is a world leader but turning out poor academic performance, while other countries that operate completely differently within schools are turning out excellent academic results.

Going off the ideas of Drive, the external reward (the grade) undermines a child’s innate, intrinsic desire to learn to the point where children do what they have to in order to get a good grade (sometimes), but don’t enjoy the work, and don’t perform as well.

It’s actually possible that changing the way kids in school are motivated/evaluated could make kids more self-motivated to learn. Because when it’s something we actually want to learn about for the sake of learning, rather than passing a test, we’re more likely to absorb information.

The fact that the U.S. needs to change up how it’s evaluating and motivating students to learn is no big secret. Although we aren’t awful, we’re certainly not seeing the improvement we should be. We’re stuck on this redundant track, doing the same thing over and over, expecting to somehow get different results.

What do they call that behavior? Oh, right. Insanity.

The experiments in Drive prove that when you pair innovative, intrinsically motivating work with external rewards, you override the intrinsic motivation. It hurts your “drive” and the result.

This would explain why hobbies are often ruined once we start getting paid for them. We don’t enjoy them in the same way. The external reward squashes the intrinsic love we had for them.

Sad, right?

So your creative work might be better and more beneficial for society (writing better books, creating better lessons plans, coming up with better tech ect.) if you aren’t paid for it.

But we need money to survive.

We need to get paid! I cannot survive without pizza. Or just food, in general. But mostly pizza.

Mmmmm yaaaaassss

This brings us back to basic income.

So reading that, my brain went and zapped a possible connection between motivation and basic income. Since one of the biggest concerns is that people will no longer have any motivation once they’re given the basic amount they need.

We’ll all just turn into a bunch of giant, Netflix-binging slugs.

But maybe not.

If people were free to choose to do more of the things they liked because they had the basics covered, it’s possible, maybe even likely, they’d improve themselves, and the world, just because they could. Because they don’t require external motivation to do the things that they enjoy. And that they’d do those things even more efficiently than if they were being paid for it.

Drive also mentions study results that show there’s no negative impact on intrinsically motivating tasks if there’s a reward given after the job is done, as long as no reward is expected.

Basically, rewards are distracting. Having our main goal be money (or grades), when our jobs are right-brain oriented, makes us suck a lot little.

So maybe if we set a flock of people free, with basic needs covered, and if they create something of value, cool, maybe we’ll pay you more for it. Maybe not. Sorta like if you loved programming and computers and one day created Facebook.

If the research on motivation is correct, it might mean that our society could move forwards leaps and bounds simply by allowing people to do what they love.

But it’s probably all too good to be true, right? Chances are basic income would be a bomb, a plague on our society, yea? Actually. No. There’s already evidence that it could be a really good thing. Which is why it’s being tested again in our society.

I’m not really suggesting that people never get paid for creative work. More that there might be a better way for our society to interact with creatives, and the very important work they do. A way that could be mutually beneficial.

  1. You may be more creative and produce better ideas and works if you weren’t doing it with the goal of earning money.
  2.  Society could benefit from thousands of intrinsically-motivated people creating notably better work.

In the meantime, yes, of course creative work should be paid work.

My brain just did a thing while I was reading this book, and I ran with it. Or… wrote with it.


Why you shouldn't get paid for creative work... it's not what you think.

I've had gelato in Italy, pizza in Egypt, crepes in Paris, and gruyere in Gruyere. I've rafted rivers, climbed canyons, been lost in foreign cities - and foreign museums :P - and road trip whenever I get the chance. I bring my camera and dog wherever I can, always looking for the next adventure, then I write about it here. Follow along and say hi!