I was recently reading a book on environmental justice, and I was struck by an observation about motivating people. The writer argued that we should not use guilt or fear to motivate people to be more environmentally responsible, but rather gratitude and love for the Earth our Mother. That feeling of doing a good deal by recycling, or gardening organically, or driving less and owning a more fuel-efficient and less polluting car is a great reward.
That idea of positive motivation has a lot of implications for how we encourage people to develop good habits, habits that are good for them and for others as well. Yet how rich in our world are the negative commands. Starting with the Ten Commandments, eight of which are Thou shalt not. The only two positive commands are to keep the sabbath and honor your father and mother.
A bias toward negative commands and negative motivations—fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of punishment—is pervasive in our highly competitive society, which creates a few winners and a lot of losers. In their book, The Winner Take All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that many of the rewards in our society go to Number 1, whether it is a football championship, the Best picture Oscar, the spelling bee championship, the job at a prestigious law firm, a presidential election, or the prom king and queen. Everyone else is an also-ran. Being good enough is not good enough. “Loser” is one of President Trump’s favorite tweet insults.
Some of the well-intentioned efforts to counter this set up for disappointment and build self-esteem, especially in young people, have gone awry. Participation trophies. Blue ribbons and smiley faces for every pupil. The gross overuse of the term “awesome.” how we can encourage people in a positive way that will make them feel successful and being who they are and doing what they do?
Collaboration and cooperation is one strategy. There are lots of co-operative games out there, and lots of ways in engaging in activities that are not competitive. Teamwork doesn’t have winners (unless, of course, it is team sports where there is a champion!). Both in paid work and in volunteer communities, there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating in collaborating with others, learning new ideas and building new friendships. We celebrate the solitary writer or artist, the lone genius in her lab, but in reality, some of the best work arises from the synergy of learning from one another. I remember one time when I led the process of writing a mission statement for my congregation. It was highly participatory. I could identify 55 people (in a 120 member congregation) who had a hand in its construction, and no, it didn’t look like the proverbial camel (a horse designed by a committee).
A second strategy is to let go of attachments to rewards and do what you do for its own sake, for the pleasure of doing, alone or with others. You can run a marathon to win, or just to improve your time or to enjoy the experience. You can be an excellent cook whose efforts are appreciated without winning the prize at the county fair or being the best contestant on a cooking show. You can be a good writer and be appreciated by your audience without making the New York Times Best Seller list or winning a Pulitzer prize. There is room for more than one. And competing with yourself to do better at whatever you are doing means you are always a winner.
Or, like the writer on environmental justice, you can do what you do as a worker, a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a volunteer, a citizen our of gratitude for the riches that life has bestowed on you. It’s your choice. For your sake, and everyone else’s, I hope you choose that path and practice it without attachment to rewards and when possible, in collaboration with others.