“Love your Neighbor as yourself.”
The question of why you do what you do is one of the great questions of life. It ranks with philosophy’s chicken or egg question and psychology’s perennial favorite question of nature versus nurture.
We tend to despise those who are selfish and businessmen tend to get a bad reputation just because they are businessmen, whether they are selfish or not. Maybe you work hard because for you and you don’t care about others. That is one approach. Ayn Rand wrote The Virtue of Selfishness, but many people find that concept hard to swallow.
On the other hand, some people feel that everything we do should be for altruistic or prosocial reasons. Maybe you have thought that should quit your job and devote yourself to a nonprofit. But I’m not sure that you need to rush to that extreme either.
Does your work help other people? The answer can be “yes” whenever you sell a product or service that provides more value than it costs.
What Motivates you?
So which is it? Does self-interest or prosocial interest motivate you?
In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth discussed the intersection between self-interest and prosocial interests. As it turns out, the two don’t have to be in conflict. Her colleague at the Wharton School of Business, Adam Grant, explained, “Most people think self-oriented and other-oriented motivations are opposite ends of a continuum. Yet, I consistently found that they’re clearly independent. You can neither, and you can have both.”[i]
In his research, Grant studied firefighters, asking them why they’re motivated to do their work. He tracked overtime hours and found that firefighters that had both prosocial motivation (e.g., to help others) and self-interested motivation (e.g., because they enjoy the work) spent 50 percent more overtime hours at work. Those with only a prosocial motivation alone were no more likely to work overtime. In fact, they were more likely to work fewer hours.[ii]
Grant repeated this research with fundraisers at a public university. He asked them why they were motivated to do their work. The most successful fundraisers expressed strong prosocial motivations, but they also found the work intrinsically motivating. In short, the combination of self-interest and prosocial interest leads to greater success.[iii]
David Yeager and Matt Bundick asked kids what they wanted to be when I grew up. Then they followed up on the study two years later. Those who initially expressed both self-interested and prosocial interests, “rated their school work as more personally meaningful than classmates who’d named either motive alone.”[iv]
In another study, David Yeager and Dave Paunesku asked high school students “How could the world be a better place?” He then asked them to connect this to what they were learning in school. The results were astonishing. Duckworth explained:
Compared to a placebo controlled exercise, reflecting on purpose lead students to double the amount of time they spent studying or an upcoming exam, work harder on tedious math problems when given the option to watch entertaining videos instead, and, in math and science classes, bring home better report card grades.[v]
A common theme across each of the studies is that we are at our best at the intersection of self-interest and prosocial interest. That is, we are most likely to achieve success when we work to help others and we find our work interesting.
What about you? What you do the things that you do? Are you at that sweet-spot that offers the greatest chance of long-term success?
[i] Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. (p. 159).
[ii] Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. (p. 160).
[iii] Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. (p. 160).
[iv] Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. (p. 161)
[v] Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. (p. 166).