Friday, July 11, 2014

High risk, high reward?

I haven't had much to blog about while consumed with article revisions (it took weeks, but I'm finally at the point where the work is interesting again), but two items from last Sunday's Times have been rattling about in my head for days.

The first is a piece from the Sunday Review that gained some traction on social media: "The Secret of Effective Motivation." It summarizes a study of more than 11,000 cadets at West Point that sought to determine what kind of motivation is most likely to lead to success--in this case, both in school and then over the course of a career as an Army officer. Unsurprisingly, the study found that internal motivation (doing something because you care about the thing itself) is much more likely to lead to external markers of success (better grades, a better job, a promotion, a raise) than "instrumental" motivation (doing something because you desire those external signifiers).

What is surprising is that the study found that strong instrumental motives are damaging to the likelihood of success even when they're accompanied by strong internal motives. Whereas you'd think that the two in combination would be the most effective spur to achievement, apparently that isn't true. Or (to put it in my own pejorative terms), if you sully the purity of your love for something by also desiring success, you've ruined your chance at it.

Now, I understand that this is a short, general-audience summary of the research in question, and I'm sure plenty got left out or had to be generalized. I'm also sure that there are differences across fields. But I'm left with a lot of questions: is the desire to earn a living or have a secure job "instrumental"? Is hoping to get tenure or move to a job with better pay or a better quality of life? Or is it only instrumental if you're focused on issues of status or prestige--on how something will make you look?

Just about anyone who's gotten a Ph.D. has to have been strongly internally motivated; you don't spend five to ten years writing a dissertation and foregoing other opportunities if you don't care intensely about your work. But most of us, absent a stable employment situation or a supportive academic community, would not keep doing our research. I wouldn't. Is the measure of whether your motivation is "internal" whether you'd keep doing something without external rewards?

When I look at my own motives, I find it surprisingly hard to tell which are internal and which are instrumental. Take this article that I'm revising for the third or fourth time now: on the one hand, I wouldn't be trying to incorporate my latest reviewer's suggestions if I didn't genuinely think they were smart, compatible with my own goals, and likely to make an already strong article even stronger. I could just take the thing elsewhere. Indeed, I could have the thing on my C.V. this second if I were to sign the contract sitting not three feet from me to have the essay included in an edited collection. (Long story, but the editors of the collection know the score.)

On the other hand, I'd be lying if I said I was continuing to work on this fucker purely because I wanted what's best for my argument. I also want this journal, or one of its caliber, on my C.V.


The second item I've been turning over in my head also deals with ambition and motivation. It's just a few brief lines from an article on Richard Linklater's new movie, Boyhood, which he shot over the course of twelve years, following its young star as he grew up in real time. The article talks about the unusual career choices that both Linklater and Ethan Hawke (another of the movie's leads) have made, and the odd coincidence that both men had fathers who worked as risk assessors for insurance companies.

According to Hawke, his dad tried to talk him out of an acting career based on the low statistical probability of success:

"It wasn't as if he didn't think I was talented or something," Mr. Hawke said. "He's just an actuary, and the actuarial tables were not good. I remember him saying the statistical chances of being an Eastwood were just so small."

But Mr. Hawke studied the careers of actors he admired and deduced that they had taken big risks, not avoided them. "My dad and I talked about how if the goal is a lifelong profession in the performing arts, then the actuarial tables of not taking chances are actually much worse."

This, I love. It's not really any more comforting than the other article, but it's framed in a more helpful way. When you're in a risky profession--as academics are, at least in grad school and early in their careers--you have a better likelihood of success if you're doing work you really care about, and if you're doing it boldly and the way you believe it needs to be done.

I hope that's what I'm doing with this article. I hope the reason it's getting more pushback than anything I've written is that it's interesting and important work--and I hope it's worth the cost of waiting to see it in a better venue (if and when it appears in one).

But of course I don't know that to be true. I might actually be wasting my time doing something "safe" (endlessly revising this one piece rather than going on to new things) while imagining myself as boldly taking risks.

Unfortunately, the actuarial tables have nothing to say about that.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

There is no non-arbitrary distinction between intrinsic and instrumental motivation. The whole thing is total fucken bullshittio.

Flavia said...

I love it when you speak Italian, CPP.

Yeah, I found the article really interesting at the time, but the more I've turned it over in my head the more dissatisfied I've become with it. In its current form, it sounds a bit too much like the insufferable "do what you love and the money will follow." (As this article smartly notes, the mantra isn't just clueless, but devalues all other work and all the other kinds of satisfaction one might get from work.)

Historiann said...

Agree x1000: "This, I love. It's not really any more comforting than the other article, but it's framed in a more helpful way. When you're in a risky profession--as academics are, at least in grad school and early in their careers--you have a better likelihood of success if you're doing work you really care about, and if you're doing it boldly and the way you believe it needs to be done."

Perhaps paradoxically, I've always been highly motivated to avoid the prospect of professional shame/humiliation.

I wish more tenured people took intellectual risks. One of my beefs with the tenure system is that it frequently takes the piss and vinegar out of people (or makes them so enraged that they lose their intellectual bearings & don't have the energy for that kind of creativity any longer.)

Flavia said...


I was talking about this last night with some people on Twitter--how the structure of the profession means risks are borne (or not) in unequal ways. Early-career folk bear much more risk when they're doing unusual or provocative work, and have many more incentives to play it safe--even though their work often has the potential to be really novel and boundary-pushing. Tenured folk have a lot of insulation from risk, but often don't use it.

I agree that we need to continue to try to take intellectual risks, post-tenure--but, further, I think it's important to support other people who are doing so as well (for example, when we're serving as peer reviewers). I aspire to be the kind of reviewer who says, "you know, I disagree with this line of argument and it threatens the kind of work I've done myself. . . but damn, it's a plausible, well-made, and provocative case, so let's put it out there."

Historiann said...

Right on. So long as the scholarship is solid, what do we have to fear from ideas?

As an Assistant Proffie desperately trying to get a new job, I received a second-round peer review that said effectively, "this author has done everything we've asked hir to do in the first round, and yet because I still just don't buy the argument, I can't say yes to publishing it." That vote was permitted to outweigh the two reviewers who said, "right on, amazing revision, you MUST publish."