Daniel Pink Ted Talk Motivation and Performance

21st Century Thinking in the Knowledge Economy

Jun 24, 2021Editorial Team

What if we told you that we know the secret to work-life balance, feeling engaged, fulfilled and satisfied, at work and in life? 

That’s right, you heard us. Here at Totem, we can teach you how to increase levels of well being and performance at work and in your personal life. Have we got your attention now?   

If and when you’re ready to make that change, the science is out there, the psychology is here. However you want it, reading material, scientific studies, documentaries, it’s right at your fingertips.

A great place to start is with Dan Pink’s acclaimed Ted Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation:



Pink is someone who’s not afraid to put his hands up and admit when he’s made a mistake, after all, messing up from time to time is simply part of human nature. Pink has a message for all of us, whatever our walk of life. Made a mistake? Talk about it, heck, shout about it, Pink himself flunked law school and broadcast it to more than 27 MILLION people in his Ted Talk. Accept it, learn from it and most importantly move on.  But what about one of our biggest mess ups of all? Sometimes it can be hard to change our ways!

The Candle Problem

Psychologist Karl Dunker should be a household name, and yet we’re willing to bet you haven’t heard of him or his cognitive performance test, The Candle Problem, developed in 1945. That’s right, 76 whole years ago. We’ve had no less than three quarters of a CENTURY to take action and make a change following this research. The Candle Problem is our first piece of scientific evidence that our world needs a change. 

Here’s how it works. Participants enter a room and are presented with one candle, a box of thumbtacks and some matches. They are tasked with attaching the candle to the wall in a way that the wax won’t drip on the table. They try. They try again. Some light the match and melt the side of the candle in an attempt to adhere it to the wall. It doesn’t work. Not until you stop seeing the box as a mere receptacle for the thumb tacks and realise it can also be used as a platform for the candle. 

This single track way of thinking is known as functional fixedness, and it can be a major barrier to getting things done effectively at work. 

Dan Pink wants us to know that `There's a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” Just let that sink in for a second. Now, let’s apply the candle problem to real life. Think about your own place of work. The problems that you face. What’s your own version of the candle problem? Do the problems you face follow a clear set of rules? Is there a single, simple solution? No, of course not! Often the solution is not obvious or may surprise you. As the world gets more and more complex, more multifaceted, our lives and our jobs move faster and faster, “The solution isn’t right in front of us, it’s on the periphery,” Pink explains. 

Now, let’s take this knowledge, this realisation - and repair the mismatch. Let’s rebuild our businesses, our companies, our working environments to match the intricacies of the ever-changing, ever-advancing world around us. For our economy, but for ourselves too. Find ways of working that suit everyone, regardless of their circumstances. Changing the world by changing the ways we work. There is a wonderful feeling of lightness that comes from being engaged and fulfilled, in work and in life. Knowing you are on the right path, doing what you were put on this planet to do, a spring in your step - and we’re speaking from first hand experience here. At Totem, we’ve made it our mission to continue on our journey of bringing out the best in people, helping them shine. We’ve been on this road for several years now and we’ve already touched the hearts, minds and lives of over 100,000 people across more than 33 countries. 


Dunker wasn’t the only one to study how we perform when we approach different tasks. Sam Glucksberg at Princeton University researched the power of incentives, asking groups of research participants how quickly they could solve a problem. This is our second piece of scientific evidence that the world needs a change. He wanted to determine the norm, how long it usually takes on average, and how much faster they were when presented with an incentive. He offered the top 25% of participants who got the fastest times $5 each, and the person who was fastest overall $20.  So how much faster were they? Surely they were at least 10, 20, 25 percent faster? To everyone’s surprise, they were 3.5 minutes longer. But that just doesn’t make any sense? Businesses work around bonuses, commission, incentives designed to make us work smart and sharpen our minds. These are contingent motivators

Contingent Motivators

Contingent motivators, a.k.a. if you do this, you get that, do work in some tasks, but for the vast majority of tasks they don’t work and actually do more harm than good.

This study, this experiment, it wasn’t simply a one-off. There are numerous studies carried out over the past 40 YEARS, and they all show the same thing. A very robust piece of scientific evidence and yet, we ignore it, we continue building our businesses in the same outdated way. 

How we motivate people, how we apply our human resources, it’s a multi-faceted web of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Pink describes it as 20th century vs. 21st century tasks.

Glucksberg ran another experiment, to see if incentivising improved average time in a more straightforward task. The experiment was the same except that the thumb tacks were removed from their box, changing the initial perception of the box. A simple set of rules, a clear destination to go to. Here the reward did work, the incentive played its part concentrating our focus and narrowing our minds. Did you catch that? Narrowing our minds. Now most types of workplaces today require broad, open minded, so-called blue sky thinking. Getting to the finish line as fast as you can regardless of circumstances? That’s not the mindset that bodes well in most work environments today. Maybe for some very methodical, repetitive tasks in sectors like accounting, financial analysis, computer programing, but as our workplace, our world, as we develop, these tasks are often aided by software or outsourced to low cost, high volume providers specialised in that particular area. 

We repeat, the things we built our businesses around don’t work: promotions, pay rises, job titles, bonuses, commission.  

At Totem, we think it’s cool to be in touch with your spiritual side! Your intuition. But this is not a feeling, a philosophy or a hypothesis.  It’s science, it’s psychology, it’s fact. 

Dan Ariely, one of the great economists of our time, studied games played by MIT students with three varying levels of reward, small, medium and large. 

During the game, bonuses worked as expected for the tasks involving mechanical skill.

However, when the tasks required even the most basic cognitive skill bonuses actually harmed performance, indicating that high incentives can lead to worse performance. 

This isn’t unique to certain countries, cities or industries. It has been studied in the US, it’s been studied in India, at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago, the London School of Economics. The original study was sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of the US. To date, there are at least 51 studies showing that financial incentives result in a negative impact on overall performance. The resounding message of Pink’s Ted Talk? That what science knows and what business does simply doesn’t add up. It’s outdated. Our methods are unexamined. “The way things have always been” - it’s folklore, not science. As Pink says, it’s not as simple as giving people a sweeter carrot or a sharper stick. “Stop doing more of the wrong things” he implores us. 

Intrinsic motivation is what really makes us tick, so let’s take a closer look. 

The 3 Elements

There are 3 elements required for optimum well being and performance at work:

  • Autonomy, the innate urge to direct our own lives. 
  • Mastery, the desire to grow, develop, improve, to get better and better at something that matters to us. 
  • Purpose, our natural yearning to do something larger than ourselves.

Now, let’s think about management. 

Management. Management courses, management qualifications, management certifications, these terms were coined and the entire business of management was invented over the course of the 20th century, becoming an integral part of our working lives. This shouldn’t mean it’s here to stay. As businesses change, grow, develop. When you really think about it, should management remain part of our workplace? Can it survive all of the technological advances of the 21st century?

There are companies out there who are trying things differently already. As long as there is sufficient transparency about salary, pay grades, pay rises and people are paid adequately and fairly for their work, then self direction will be the most effective way of working. 


Some of you will have heard of Atlassian. Atlassian have a radical policy where they tell their engineers to go and work on anything they feel like for a 24 hour period and then present it back to their teammates. Known as Fedex days because they have to present their findings back the next day, this is an example of one day of intense autonomy

20% TIME

You might also have heard of something called 20% time at Google. This refers to Google employees being able to spend 20% of their time working on anything they want, a significant amount of autonomy. In a normal year, half of Google’s new products come from this breakout time


ROWE stands for a Results Only Work Environment, it was developed by 2 American consultants. People don’t have schedules in a ROWE. They are under no obligations to be at the office, in a meeting, at lunch at certain times or any time at all. When, where and how they work is entirely up to them. Meetings are optional. Productivity, satisfaction and engagement all increase. 

We know what you’re thinking, hey, that sounds great, but it’s a utopia, how would that play out in the real world? We’ve got the perfect example for you. 

Everybody Loves An Underdog

In the 1990’s Microsoft started an online encyclopedia, one of the first of its kind. They brought in experienced managers to make sure the project ran on time and on budget. Meanwhile, another online encyclopedia was founded with a collaborative approach for data collection. At this one, nobody gets paid. Do it for fun - because you want to do it, to contribute and be part of something cool.  Anybody would have predicted Microsoft to be the more successful of the two, but our underdog, Wikipedia, went on to become the household name. 

You see, it’s all about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators. The three magic words, autonomy, mastery and purpose.  The secret to high performance that’s sustainable? It’s simple. Having the drive to do things because they matter to you.  

Science confirms what we know in our hearts, it’s imperative we update our motivators for a 21st century world. This ideology of working harder, better, faster, stronger - glamorizing working round the clock, the side-hustle, communication that’s non-stop, instantaneous, 24/7, work hard, play hard, burn out… It just isn’t sustainable. We all know it’s damaging our well being and yet the vast majority of us bury our heads in the sand and turn a blind eye to our health and wellness for the sake of our careers. 

Empowering people has always been central to the work we do here at Totem. By shining a light on our innate skills and qualities people can feel engaged and fulfilled at work. Employees and employers need to work together in creating a 21st century workplace, where well being and performance are key. 

Talk to us about how the team here at Totem can help make this a reality. We have the relationship building tools to support you and your team members, from our “Feel Good” range of card games to our virtual team building, to hosting our team building activity on site for a live audience! Let the games begin!

More articles