Motivation, Purpose and Samuel Pierpont Langly

Posted by

1903 Wright Flyer

“It’s making a difference in the world that prevents me from ever giving up.”—Deborah Meier.

At the turn of the twentieth century, at the height of the race to invent the first piloted aircraft, Samuel Pierpont Langley had everything going for him. The war department had just awarded him $50,000 and his employer, the Smithsonian, another $20,000.  He held a seat at Harvard and had connections around the world.  He hired the best minds money could find.

Orville and Wilber Wright, on the other hand, had the proceeds from their bicycle shop and none of brightest minds.  In fact, nobody on their team had a college education–not even Orville or Wilber.

And yet, on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers beat Langley and became the first to achieve powered, sustained, controlled human flight.

How was that even possible?

Orville and Wilber were driven by a purpose.  They believed that if they could solve the problem of piloted flight, they could change the world.  When they shared that belief, people who believed what they believed joined them.  And with that—the intrinsic motivator of purpose—these people worked for them with their blood, sweat and tears.  They tell stories of how every time the Wright brothers went out, they would have to bring 5 sets of parts because that’s how many times they would crash before supper.

Langley’s team?  They worked for the paycheck, and Langley himself wanted to be rich and famous.  Langley and his team were extrinsically motivated by the imagined rewards of their success.  How do we know that Langley had no interest in changing the world?  The day the Wright brothers took flight, Langley quit.  He could have taken their discovery and used the resources he had to improve it.  But he wasn’t first–so he quit.

My point?  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again.  Motivation matters.  Incentives matter.  But we are not going to change the world with carrots and sticks.  Extrinsic rewards and punishments only work for simple tasks, like putting widgets together on an assembly line.  Bonuses only increase performance for tasks for which brainless compliance is important.  Not for inventing, or creating, or problem solving.

We don’t pay a brain surgeon more when her patient recovers fully after successful removal of a tumor.  We want her best effort every time.  We don’t want her motivated by a bonus.  And we certainly don’t want her thinking she might be punished if she messes up.  She’s got enough to think about focusing on the task at hand.

But brain surgery isn’t the only complex problem out there today, is it?  When looking for talented people to work in our most important organizations, if we focus on the money—the rewards, the bonuses, and the carrots—we will certainly find people who will work for the paycheck, the bonus, and the commissions. If instead, we can describe our purpose, our reason for doing what we do, and why people should care–we will attract and motivate people who also believe what we believe.  And these people will work with a fire sustained by a higher purpose—to make a difference.

Let me be clear—I’m not saying that people will work for free.  No.  We must pay people enough to take money off the table so that they can support themselves without considering getting another job to make rent.  After all, how can you expect to get the most dynamic and innovative side of someone when they have to worry about their basic needs?

We absolutely want to take care of our brain surgeons, because we want them focused on brain surgery!  We don’t want them pounding nails or selling Amway on the weekends so their kids can go on the band trip.  At the same time, neither do I want MY brain surgeon working FOR the money.  I don’t want her ever thinking about money.  I want her working to change the world.  My world.  I want her to believe she is making a difference.

We follow those who lead and inspire and eventually succeed, not for the money, but for the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We do our best work and provide our best service and have our best shots at success, not when we are chasing incentives, but when we believe that what we do matters.

Image Credit Smithsonian

One Comment

  1. You write “When they shared that belief, people who believed what they believed joined them. And with that—the intrinsic motivator of purpose—these people worked for them with their blood, sweat and tears.”

    Please can you list names of the people who joined them and worked for them, and specify exactly what work each of the “team” performed? And could you please cite your sources? Did the Wrights provide them any kind of compensation or recognition?

    I know from reading the biography _The Wright Sister_*, authored by Richard Maurer, that their sister Katherine quit her job as a schoolteacher to help them as their social secretary, but she never claimed to help them with the design or engineering of any craft. From the way Mr. Maurer writes, the family worked pretty much independently to perfect their invention, but then again, his purpose was to chronicle the life of Katherine, so perhaps he left out details about others who may have been instrumental.

    *I apologize that I am unable to italicize or to underscore the title of the book.