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“Fanatic.” Just having read that word, I can probably guess the unflattering image going through your minds. Winston Churchill offered a slightly more benign portrait, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” If that’s our working definition then anyone who’s ever been trapped in a conversation with me has learned the hard way that I’m a fanatic. And I am. Proudly. For 15 years as a neuroscientist, inventor, entrepreneur and mom, I have been driven to understand how to maximize human potential, and my research has returned again and again to the power of the fanatic.

When I talk about fanatics, I’m not talking about religious mania. Rather, I’m talking about endogenous motivation, the drive that comes from within. Where exogenous motivation—sensitivity to praise and bonuses and punishment—fails, endogenous motivation brings about the intrinsic curiosity and personal drive that powers the fanatic.

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“Fanatic.” Just having read that word, I can probably guess the unflattering image going through your minds. Winston Churchill offered a slightly more benign portrait, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” If that’s our working definition then anyone who’s ever been trapped in a conversation with me has learned the hard way that I’m a fanatic. And I am. Proudly. For 15 years as a neuroscientist, inventor, entrepreneur and mom, I have been driven to understand how to maximize human potential, and my research has returned again and again to the power of the fanatic.

I was once invited to visit RedBull’s US headquarters in Santa Monica to meet their athletes, and had lunch with a fellow named Rodney Mullen. Charismatic and kinetic, Rodney is arguably the best skateboarder of all time. He and Tony Hawk dominated the sport for years, winning dozens of world championships. Over lunch, rather than asking directly about the skating, I asked Rodney what he did after defending his titles. “Well,” he said, “Tony and I would go to the after-party and drink some champagne . . . then 20 or 30 minutes later we’d be out back practicing new moves.” He had already won. He was at his own party. And he didn’t care. He is a fanatic.

When I talk about fanatics, I’m not talking about religious mania. Rather, I’m talking about endogenous motivation, the drive that comes from within. Where exogenous motivation—sensitivity to praise and bonuses and punishment—fails, endogenous motivation brings about the intrinsic curiosity and personal drive that powers the fanatic.

In 2014, I was developing machine learning algorithms to remove bias from hiring. Could we process massive amounts of data to identify the predictors of career success? For this, I analyzed a database of 122 million working professionals looking for the commonalities that predicted a great hire across different job verticals, like software developer,   salesperson, or designer. Grades, test scores, skill sets —none of these classic hiring factors were robustly predictive. (For that matter, neither were race, gender, or age, but that’s another story.) The best predictor across professions was “what did they do when they didn’t have to do anything.” Which salespeople regularly booked sales the day after the end of the sales cycle? Which developers are most likely to push code to repository immediately after a product release? All of the incentives of the business say, “Take a break. No one cares.” But they do. They are incentive insensitive. They are fanatics.

What’s fascinating, though, is that incentive insensitivity doesn’t simply describe “the best.” Applying a simple computational algorithm, a Fourier analysis, to the work behavior of hundreds of thousands of people over time revealed that as incentive insensitivity increased, so did performance and productivity across the workforce. Further, workers’ sensitivity to exogenous motivators correlated with worse long-term career outcomes in terms of performance and progression.

Endogenous motivation appears to provide the drive necessary to engage and persevere by finding meaning in every task, every job and every obstacle. Fanatics not only “won’t change the subject,” as Winston said, they see that subject in all they do. Endogenous motivation is not about “what” you are doing, but “why” you’re doing it.

Although our findings about the crucial importance of incentive insensitivity appear to fly in the face of so much of how we structure our businesses and classrooms, research has supported again and again the importance of endogenous motivation in student outcomes, job performance, career progression and even predicting the life outcomes of young children. For example, across 10,000 West Point cadets who were tracked for over a decade, endogenous motivation predicted rank attainment and awards during their Army careers.[1] Exogenous motivation actually appeared to undermine these outcomes. All of the incentives we hold so dear—punishment, rewards . . . emotional blackmail—are all negative predictors of success. (Sorry, Tiger Moms.)

But that doesn’t mean these are innately fixed qualities. Research shows that family-level programs designed to increase socio-emotional parenting behavior appear to drive the development of endogenous motivation, creating a belief in those children that their hard work will pay off. One such study showed these children earning 25% percent more as adults, decades after the interventions.[2] Another found substantially lower cortisol levels years later in at-risk children receiving the interventions.[3] In a review of this research, we found that implementing these known interventions at scale across US children would add $1.3-1.8 trillion per year to the US GDP.[4]

My own research with young learners shows that targeted interventions delivered by nothing more than text messages can foster endogenous motivation in the classroom and at home. We built an SMS-based system where parents can snap pictures of children’s artwork and record conversations, such as reading a book together, which are then analyzed by deep neural networks. Results of these models are combined with the results of an active learning system that asks a single, high-value question each day by constantly predicting the answers to a database of literally thousands of questions. Using this deep cognitive model we can actually predict the children’s life outcomes: income, health, education, happiness. And we share these predictions with . . . no one. Ever. Instead, we use the predictions to select a single text message to send to parents each day, “Here is the one thing you can do today to have the biggest impact on your child’s life.” It is all automatically generated on the fly via machine learning. Our purpose is to deliver these messages for free, for millions of families around the world, requiring nothing more than a flip phone.

Simple, targeted intervention can move the needle in endogenous motivation for school-aged children and have long-lasting impacts on improving their lives and how they interact with the world around them. Having spent the last two decades dissecting and analyzing all of the systems that engage and unlock human potential, I have discovered that with a little coaching and the correct interventions, fanatics are not just born: They can be created.

 

[1] Wrzesniewski, A., Schwartz, B., Cong, X. , Kane, M. , Omar, A. , & Kolditz, T. (2014). “Multiple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point cadets,” Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 111(30), 10990-10995.

[2] Gertler, P., Heckman, J., Pinto, R., Zanolini, A., Vermersch, C., Walker, S., Chang, S.M., & Grantham-McGregor, S. (2014). “Labor market returns to an early childhood stimulation intervention in Jamaica,” Science, 344 (6187), 998-1001.

[3] Miller, G.E., Brody, G.H., Yu, T., & Chen, E, (2014). “A family-oriented psychosocial intervention reduces inflammation in low-SES African American youth.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(31), 11287-11292.

[4] Ming, N., Bumbacher, E., & Ming, V., (2015). “Aligning Learning with Life Outcomes through Naturalistic Assessment.” http://about.socoslearning.com/socoswhitepaper.pdf

 

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Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded Socos, where machine learning and cognitive neuroscience combine to maximize students’ life outcomes. Vivienne is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, where she pursues her research in neuroprosthetics.