Here’s A Misguided Idea: That People Don’t Work For Money

On a trip out to the West Coast, I picked up Dan Pink’s recent book about how to motivate workers, Drive.  In it, in short, he says that businesses are ignoring one of the central discoveries of behavioral science: that people, especially those engaged in conceptual tasks, are much less motivated by money than we thought. He cites research that indicates that people involved in conceptual tasks actually perform worse when they are rewarded by money than if their incentives are tied to the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, master and purpose.

“If you want people to perform better … and excel creatively … build rewards around intrinsic motivators,” he says.

I understand the appeal of the research from the point of view of a business with employees, but how does this square with the evolving freelance economy? It’s true that I have sometimes taken underpaying work because it was interesting. And sometimes, if you’re going to be a professional freelancer, you will put in more work than you’re paid for in order to do a job well. (See this post for more of a discussion of when it’s wise to donate some of your time that way).

But the idea that people are motivated only or substantially by intrinsic factors is baloney in an economy, like the freelance economy, where people are still struggling to get paid even fairly for work of value. The Internet has only exacerbated a tendency to devalue the work of writers and “content producers.”

I don’t mind getting a phone call that offers me a gig that includes fair pay and a chance to do something worthwhile. But I’d hate to see assigning editors and or marketing execs fall for this bad meme that says intrinsic value of a project can take the place of money.

Here’s Pink talking up his ideas and the research behind them:


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  1. admin

    You’re making a fair point: but the question is, how do you define the basics? People who hire writers have been defining the “basics” down for years. Freelance pay hasn’t budged for 10 years while the work required for assignments keeps climbing. I think Dan’s right on some points, but this is a dangerous meme if it’s seized on by companies as a rationale for not paying fairly, which it might be …

  2. Jean-Philippe Veilleux


    Very interesting post. However, Dan Pink clearly states that in order for people to become more productive through the intrinsic motivation drive, they first need to have the basics covered. If they worry about money, it won’t work because of the stress and frustration.

    have a great day!