Monday, June 16, 2014

What's your motivation?

Almost every year, my mother makes a batch or two of this amazing jam called "apricot ambrosia." It's full of the flavors of apricots and pineapple and citrus and cherries, and it tastes just as heavenly as the name suggests. Mom often gives away home-canned jars of apricot ambrosia to family members and friends around Christmastime, and some folks are so addicted to it that they'll eat it by spoonfuls right from the jar. (This is not recommended, by the way.) Sometimes, after having tried apricot ambrosia for the first time, people tell Mom she could make bank by selling jars of the stuff, but Mom's never followed up on this idea. For one thing, the cost of making the jam is fairly high, and she'd have to further mark it up to pay for jars and lids and energy and so forth, and by then the cost per jar would border on prohibitive. But that's almost beside the point, because Mom doesn't make apricot ambrosia to get paid. It's a labor of love. Like so many homemade treasures, you can't properly determine the true cost of apricot ambrosia because it's priceless.

Recently, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, made the news when he chose to release patented Tesla electric vehicle technology to anyone who wanted to create electric cars. Commentators have been openly skeptical of this announcement, wondering aloud how Tesla will continue to make money and asking, "What's the catch?" Musk's response is simple: there is no catch. He wants to see more sustainable transportation, he notices that most companies aren't making electric cars and that Tesla will only ever manufacture a tiny fraction of cars on the road, and he's hoping that the release of this technology will spur entrepreneurs to create more electric vehicles.  Musk is something of an anomaly in the business world, in that accumulating capital doesn't seem to be his primary concern. True, he has made a lot of money and will probably continue to do so, but there are strong indications that Musk sees money as a kind of fuel to accomplish his prime motivator: changing the world for good, and encouraging others to do the same.

These two examples illustrate the idea that human beings choose to act based on a number of motivators, including love, passion, curiosity, money, fear, a sense of duty, or the promise of an intangible reward. So why is our culture so myopically fixated on money, as though it were the only motivator worth mentioning? After all, money is just a tool constructed by human beings, a kind of placeholder to represent work done. Not to demean the concept; in some ways, it's a genius idea -- it's a highly fluid method of exchange, a lot faster and easier than barter, and it allows you to do business with strangers across the planet if you feel inclined. The evolution of money has brought the world closer together through trade, and has probably done more to bring closed cultures out of isolation and xenophobia than any other factor.

But our society in particular has developed an unhealthy obsession with this human-forged tool. We fixate on people with lots of money, report on what they do or don't do with it, and constantly discuss how to secure more money for ourselves. We hold up images of insane excess as though this were a lifestyle to which all should aspire. We encourage college students not to consider what profession might fit them best, nor to pursue what they love most, but to do what will make them the most money. Bombarded by these ideas and images, people can easily lose sight of the concept that money is a means to an end, and begin to focus on accumulating wealth as an end in itself, as though someone were keeping score (or as the old T-shirt slogan put it, "He who dies with the most toys wins"). Mass media encourages people to focus on their own desires and to disregard the needs of others around them. Taken to extremes, this behavior fosters class hatred -- envy of the rich by the poor, jealousy of the poor by the rich -- and, if unchecked, can lead to the annihilation of a society as it devours itself from within.

Nearly every religion and philosophy has addressed this unhealthy preoccupation with money, discouraging believers from making money dishonestly, using it unwisely, withholding it from the poor, or hoarding it to no purpose. Jesus famously warned his disciples about how love of money can distort the moral compass: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." He counseled the people to keep focused on God and to trust that their needs would be met; when he taught the people to pray, he used the phrase, "Give us this day our daily bread" -- in other words, ask only for what is sufficient for your needs today. (One need not ponder too hard what Jesus might think about The Prayer of Jabez.)

Of course, to ask for what you need you must first know what you need -- and to do that, you must be able to discern between your needs and your wants. True human needs are simple -- proper nitrogen/oxygen mix in the air, regular nutritious food and clean water for drinking and bathing, clothing suitable to local conditions, a clean and safe dwelling, a sense of dignity, a purpose in life, and to love and be loved. Wants are the desires that go beyond these needs (we need water; we want fancy-pants bottled water from a spring on a volcanic island). Unlike true needs, wants cannot be easily enumerated because human beings, if not taught to act otherwise, become little wanting machines whose desires are effectively endless.

We tend to be happiest and most content when our basic needs are filled, even if our circumstances are relatively humble. But if we lack certain basic needs, we often do dysfunctional things to try to fill the void. In other societies, where basic material needs like food, clothing and shelter are hard to obtain, people sometimes go to war for control of physical resources. In American society, where material needs are relatively easy to obtain but intangible needs are more elusive, people often try to fill their immaterial needs with material wants. (No idea what to do with your life? Well, go out and try a new restaurant. Does no one give you respect? They'll change their tune when they see your huge house. Lacking a sweetheart? You must need a brand-new wardrobe.) This strategy works about as well as getting your appendix removed when you're actually suffering from a broken leg. You can't plug the hole in your soul with money or things; happiness comes from a combination of fulfillment of basic material needs, and a heart filled with the immaterial needs no amount of money can buy.

So if our society is so unhealthily fixated on money and the accumulation of stuff as a motivator, why don't we try creating a different society based on some other motivator? Well, there have been numerous attempts to do just that. Early Christian communities experimented with holding all things in common, and later New World Christian pilgrims attempted to create model societies based on the same standard. During the 19th century, scores of small Christian utopian communities sprang up, some holding on for a generation or two before dying out; these included a Mormon attempt to live the higher law of consecration through an organization called the United Order. And in the 20th century a number of countries experimented with Communism, the atheist cousin of consecration where most people's primary motivation became fear and survival. All these attempts ended in failure, in part because human beings are imperfect and subject to pangs of covetousness; after a while, they stop addressing each other's needs and start focusing again on their own wants.

I've studied a number of these community experiments, considering their advantages and their flaws. Clearly we know what failures look like, but what would we expect to see in a successful society motivated by something other than money? I've been trying to sketch that out in Unseen, the story I've been writing; the people of Corey have little need for money because the town works like an extended family, with everyone expected to pitch in and contribute to the needs of others. Profession is thus determined by individual desire -- a sense of calling to a particular work -- not due to financial pressures. Since the town is all but cut off from the outside world, there's no mass media bombardment, no advertising, no suggestions that money or stuff can stand in for love or dignity.

Now, I'm not naïve enough to think that everything fictitious can be made real. I know that human beings have an alarming tendency to betray each other's trust. But I wonder what would happen if we were to voluntarily step back from the relentless media narrative -- the endlessly-parroted lie that money and things create fulfillment. What if we tried focusing more on healing others' spiritual wounds than on buying and selling physical things? Wouldn't it be beautiful if people, free of the pressures of subsistence moneymaking, could focus on the professions that sang to their souls? How would our lives be different if we could go to our communities and simply ask for -- and receive -- the things we truly needed, with the understanding that when others asked for help, we would likewise rush to sustain their needs? (And I'm not just thinking about material needs -- how many wealthy businessmen have tried to fill the emptiness with yet another expensive meal, fine accessory, or distracting toy instead of getting what they truly need: a strong hug, a gentle kiss, and a reminder that they are loved and cherished?)

As I've said before, I can't decide how other people choose to spend their money. Frankly, I don't want that kind of responsibility. But I'm fascinated by the idea of living in a culture where the primary motivator is very different -- say, devotion to God and man, or a passion for improving the world, or a sense of curiosity -- and seeing how such a culture goes about getting things done from day to day. Would such a society be more free than ours, or more strongly devoted to duty? Which things would be easier to do, and which harder? How well could the culture sustain itself over generations? How sturdy could such a culture be against dissidents and anomalous individual behavior? And how easy would it be for an erstwhile utopia to descend into dystopia -- and could such a culture be redeemed?

Part of the reason why we live in a money-motivated culture is that it doesn't require perfect people to function. As Madison famously wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But even the sturdiness of money-motivated culture has its limits, as we're starting to see our own society fray around the edges. America has always fostered a cultural attitude of tinkering with tradition, of asking "What if we tried doing it differently?" And while any social experiment that doesn't take the vagaries of human nature into account is doomed to fail, any culture that long fosters greed over generosity and convenience over compassion is likewise doomed to fail. So is it possible to discover a better way?

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