No, I didn't mean that headline to be clickbait for publishers looking for reasons not to pay authors. Although there's a motivation theory which suggests that might be no bad thing.
I sense shudders of fear going through the ranks of writers reading this. You're thinking, "She's lost it! The woman who is known for fighting for the right to be paid decently is now suggesting we'd all be better writing for nothing. Call the white coats! Someone shut her up, NOW!"
Drive is the title of Daniel H Pink's excellent book, which draws on shedloads of research into the psychology of motivation. It's essential reading for every employer, teacher, manager, team leader, parent. It's a brilliantly structured book, too, and NOT one those those books which is really a magazine article tediously stretched into book form by the injudicious inclusion of eleventy million examples to prove one point. Drive takes you through the various motivational operating systems, from Motivation 1.0 - the need to survive; Motivation 2.0 - reward and punishment, a system espoused by the behaviourists and ruling our world until recently; and Motivation 3.0 - which differentiates extrinsic (eg money) and intrinsic (eg satisfaction and pride) rewards and recognises the risks and weaknesses of Motivation 2.0.
For routine, linear tasks, extrinsic motivation (money, prizes or other specific rewards) works. For creative, lateral tasks where you are looking for solutions to problems, generating ideas or creating something new, those rewards don't work so well, or sometimes at all. What we need then is "intrinsic motivation", the sense of achievement, improvement, mastery, that feeling you get when you succeed at something difficult and the reward is the sense of success more than the physical trappings of it.
Let me give you one fascinating and provocative example, which is supremely relevant to writers and goes straight to the title of this post.
Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School professor, is a well known researcher into creativity and has done many studies into creative motivation. In one study, she and colleagues got 23 professional artists and asked them to select ten of their commissioned pieces and ten of their non-commissioned pieces. The pieces were given to a panel of art experts, who did not know what the study was about (nor did the artists), and asked them to "rate the pieces on creativity and technical skill." The researchers reported, "Our results were startling. [...] The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works than when doing non-commissioned works."
Now, although this is interesting, there are obvious aspects which aren't surprising at all. Commissions may naturally tend to be more constrained and less motivational. After all, it's someone else's vision you're having to work to. The task has been set by someone else and the artist is being told to be creative, and being told to be creative could be a dampener even for a creative person who presumably loves being creative.
But it's worth thinking about. What happens inside us, to our motivation, when the task has been set for us by someone and we are working to their deadline and parameters? Surely we do lose some kind of ownership of it and thus at least some of the motivation to excel? You'd think that being chosen for a project and being paid for it would be highly motivating. And, sure, those moments when you get the invitation and the go-ahead (and later the payment) are positive and uplifting. But maybe not so motivating. Maybe not so conducive to doing our best, most original work.
You'd think, too, that the desire to please the person who gave you the commission would be motivating, because their praise will be your incentive. But the Motivation 3.0 theory of drive, and all the research behind it, gives plenty of examples of payment, pressure and goal-orientation being detrimental to creative achievement.
So, I'm asking you: a commission may be comforting (and, of course, everyone needs enough money to pay bills - Motivation 3.0 absolutely accepts that) but is it possible that you might do your most creative work uncommissioned?
Or, more precisely, and this is a slightly different question and a more challenging one: could the fact that you've been commissioned, and that you therefore know exactly what your goal is, be getting in the way of your creative potential?
Thoughts, please! But I'm not paying you: your reward is intrinsic...