good incentives / bad incentives

All work and no play makes X a dull man… really??? Why is work so different from “play” or “fun”? Is it because you are paid? Or is it because you “have to do it”? Or, is it because you just fixed yourself some wrong criteria and evaluations about your work… really wrong incentives about what makes sense or is meaningful in your life. In the end we all work for around 8 hours 5 days a week… a bit more than we sleep during the year… so, why should our work make us dull? or stupid? or whatever you can imagine and is bad? Well, because we do not fix our goals in the results of our work but in something somehow different… We do not see the accomplishments as the results of our work but as the amount of payment we receive from an employer. Now, don’t get me wrong: I do want to earn more (no matter how much I earn now) and getting more money is certainly good but the incentives are fixed in a wrong way… While you earn more money this should be seen as a reward for the importance of your work and you should feel some pride and happiness for the value your work represents. Instead the situation is far from this: you see the value of your work as secondary and you see the money you gain as a value in itself. While you are obviously free to do so, this way of thinking will make you unhappy. Why? because you will work for something without getting any moral reward in the work you are doing. You may even end up considering that there is no value in your work or that your work doesn’t deserve your involvement. You will do something only for the things that assure you whatever you consider as being a reward and that is, if you keep this way of thinking, the money you get. But, don’t be fooled: you will still do some work 8 hours a day… you will just not find any happiness in that. Nor will you find any value… you will also not care about adding more value to your work, other than what has consequences on your payment. 

I keep hearing a strange phrase: “beat the system”… it is a motivational phrase used by some people and I find it rather silly… what does it mean? It simply means that the “system” is a set of working habits that generate an amount of money proportional to the value you add to your work. That means that if you, say, gamble all your money in Las Vegas you’ll add very little value to your work and you will most likely lose a lot… “beating the system” means in this context tricking the house so that you win more than “naturally” generally by using some not so honest tricks… Now, this may be moral in some sense when speaking about gambling but it becomes a pretty poor strategy when you speak about, say, doing research… beating the system here means essentially adding no real value to your work (i.e. bringing no new ideas or new knowledge) but adding money to this or that university and to yourself. Why is that silly? Because, first, you’ll find no fun in the research work and second you will focus on something different, not on adding value to what you are doing… Now, you know me, I am pretty much “capitalist” to the bones but any system can be turned into something wrong when incentives are misplaced… and this tends to happen when the “evaluation” is made in an inflexible way… If I’ll evaluate a doctor after the number of patients he accepts in the hospital you will have at least half the population sick of some disease… 

I am no socialist: I don’t believe in equality of everyone everywhere and I certainly think some people are smarter than others but then, if you evaluate a fish by its ability of climbing trees you will have a bunch of unadapted fish… 

There certainly are some people around the world that would do nothing and would not care about the evolution of knowledge… maybe most of the people are like that but then these can be happy in a career that can create nothing new… it’s ok… The problem appears when you want to use the incentives for these people to motivate people that are not interested in the same things, people that care about understanding things, about knowledge etc. They will find little pleasure in all the subjects that excite the others. I had an experience a couple of years ago with someone who tried to “pick” me and make me work in a company as a “science advisor”… it was about oil transport systems and some numerical optimization techniques… he started with a standard “buy that car, get that apartment” story… now, a good apartment I may enjoy but I don’t drive… and not only that I don’t drive, I hate cars and prefer to walk… imagine a guy telling me how great it is to work in his company where I “just have to apply some basic stuff” that “I obviously understand perfectly” and earn enough to buy my “Jaguar” in less than X months… the incentives were perfectly wrong: I love doing research, explore new things, solve unsolved problems and I don’t find anything interesting in cars: I enjoy exotic trips and walks on the streets of unknown towns and cities… so… yeah… I mean, 99% of the people I know would have been attracted to a simple job with high “rewards”… I was very cautious about that… because… if I get bored with what I do I could not bare to work there for too much time… Now, this is a good example of bad incentives… or good incentives applied to the wrong person… 


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