My father used to keep a note in the pocket of his blue work shirt, with two columns: one of plus signs, one of minuses. He used the columns to score my behavior and determine whether I had earned privileges and rewards. This did not have the intended effect. Reflecting on how I responded to and resisted this parenting technique has helped me understand myself and others in new ways.
I had misgivings about the system, but I put them aside and tried to make it work. Nonetheless, my fears were confirmed quickly. A negative mark was easy to gain and difficult to prevent, and on some days I received many of them. If my spoon made a noise against my teeth, I got a negative. If I looked unhappy about that, I got another; if I objected, yet another. I couldn’t avoid negatives, no matter how hard I tried. They accumulated quickly: the column reached the bottom of the page and overflowed onto another next to it, and then another.
I could offset the negatives by earning positives, so I went above and beyond, doing things such as volunteering for chores. But I never seemed to get credit; it felt like I was being scrutinized for imperfections anything positive was overlooked. After many weeks, I had only a few pluses in the good column. I don’t remember what I had to do to earn them, which feels significant to me now. I remember asking for a plus sign and getting a minus for asking, à la Oliver Twist. I remember doing the day’s dishes for my family of six, and my mother advocated for me, but that still wasn’t enough: I was told that plus signs were rewards for special efforts.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided that no matter how hard I tried, playing by the rules would get me nowhere. I had no hope of gaining the advantage my good behavior should have earned me, so I rebelled against the scoring system. This escalated until I faced punishment, but I protested stubbornly.
This wasn’t my father’s only attempt at a system of rules and consequences. There were many different approaches, all of which felt wrong to me. After a while, a pattern emerged. He’d explain the new rules of engagement to me. I’d suspend my doubts and try to comply, but after a while I’d come to the inevitable conclusion that the first rule was that I had to lose. Then I’d object, seemingly almost without regard for the consequences, and I would be miserable until my mother intervened.
Recently I’ve been thinking again about the notebook with pluses and minuses, and gained a new understanding of how and why I responded to this system as I did. A few of the interesting questions are: why did anyone think the systems would work in the first place? Why did I initially cooperate, despite the history that pointed to the same ending? Why did I fight so hard when I gave up on cooperation, despite the consequences—why didn’t I yield to make it easier on myself? Why did stricter rules and consequences make me fight even harder? What part did I play in sustaining the cycle of dysfunction?
What I’ve realized is that most of my motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic; that I resist power in the hands of those I disagree with; and that an inner reliance on truth is a psychological anchor that helps me weather the storms of life.
The system of pluses and minuses was focused on external motivations—rewards and punishments. It didn’t account for inner motivations, such as how I felt about my own conduct. And that’s the disconnect: this assumption is exactly backwards for me. I’m not motivated by rewards or punishments. You generally can’t make much progress with me by offering me external incentives, either positive or negative: promising me rewards, bribing me, shaming me, withholding, threats, and so on. Those things usually make me much less willing to comply, because most of my motivations are internal. That’s why it was so important for me to adopt a spirit of generosity and willingness, let it begin with me, and try to work within the rules. Only after a good-faith effort to make it work could I quit in good faith, and having a clear conscience is an example of an important internal motivator.
The other significant factor was the importance of right and wrong and a correct understanding of reality. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been convinced that justice and truth matter more than a meal or avoiding punishment. My brothers and mother urged me to put things into perspective and stop making my life needlessly hard. But to mouth words I don’t believe, and take actions with which I disagree, would divide me against myself. I would not consent to the injustice because it would mean agreeing that wrong was right, and I believe I even sensed that it could have consequences for my mental health.1 It was just wrong, and it was important for me to be clear on that point.
And did I play a part in the cycle? Yes: I’ve come to see that switching abruptly between the extremes of compliance and resistance may have amplified the patterns of behavior, like setting into motion a mass attached to a spring. But I learned that I can choose only my own actions, and I doubt that I could have changed the overall circumstances of my childhood.
My brothers handled the family dynamics differently and perhaps more shrewdly. We all struggled; we all have recovered in our own ways. Knowing that I held true to my personal principles has been important to me.
As difficult as these episodes were, I have turned some of those grains of sand into pearls. Today I work hard to develop the relationship and parenting skills I think could have helped. I have empathy for how it feels to be criticized continually. I learned to trust my judgment and rely on myself; I developed faith in my ability to be disciplined under duress. I have defined my own standards of right and wrong, fairness, and justice. This story is a great example of the importance of long-term consequences, which reminds me to value the means, not just the end; to value the high road over a shortcut that might compromise my integrity.
I learned to exercise and develop my ability to choose, to respond instead of react—the foundation of true personal freedom. I also learned to exercise power not for its own sake, but for the sake of what I call justice, truth, and fairness. That’s why I’m motivated to gain influence and maintain agency in my personal life and surroundings. I aspire to wield that power to change the world in accordance with my personal values, which by definition I believe are better than those with which I disagree. At the same time, having been subjected to value judgments to which I objected, I resist situations in which others hold power over me, especially if it might cause conflicting motivations for me.
Now that I know what to look for, it’s easy for me to see these influences and patterns everywhere in my life, and sometimes how I apply my personal values in situations. A trivial example: when the Fedora developers switched the default to a new version of the Gnome desktop environment, I made a sincere effort to learn how to use it before I decided to abandon it. A more important example: what makes work rewarding for me is internal factors like growth, impact, and great people. But not everyone values the same things, so I try hard not to assume. That’s why one of the four Core Values I chose for VividCortex is empathy, which I contrast with the Golden Rule.
So many social and legal arrangements offer little beyond extrinsic motivators. This hints at an unspoken assumption that people are uniformly motivated, and that rewards and punishments have universal and constant value for all people. For example, psychologists think people are more motivated to avoid losing something than they are to gain the same thing. Standard legal and HR practices encode these types of assumptions: stock options are a “retention” mechanism, a payout for a confidentiality and nondisparagement agreement is the “consideration” that makes it binding, and so forth.
Those broad structures and blanket assumptions can often have the opposite effect for me. Many social constructs are designed to reward people with money and security, but I have a strong sense that reducing things to transactions profanes them. There’s no fundamental conflict in this difference, but companies do best when they’re composed of people whose values are at least compatible, if not shared.
Reflecting again on the system of pluses and minuses, and how I tried to work with it and then fought it, has reinforced to me the importance of knowing what I need and what drives me. I long for the sacred. I associate that with simplicity, with stripping to the essence. Thus I want to do things for their own sake—I aspire to the simplicity of pure doing, of detachment, of wu wei. This is an integral part of my worldview. I value the same simplicity and directness in all areas of my life, and the less separation or partition amongst them, the better.
That’s why things that seem meant to motivate can demotivate me, tactics meant to make me stay might make me want to leave, and so on. When motivation wanders close to manipulation, it can be more than unproductive for me: it can be counterproductive.
- Today, I know this idea is supported by an important Buddhist teaching: seeing the true nature of things is essential to wellbeing. [return]