Playing with incentives

There's a cool pattern common in many people I respect most: doing a thing, but without the normal incentives of the thing.

Here are some examples I encountered recently:

  1. Writing a blog without wanting or needing to "build an audience", instead focusing on enjoyment and connection.
  2. Seriously exploring an art form without ever needing to produce for money.
  3. Deliberately learning a new academic domain, without any academic expectations.
  4. Starting a company after prior success, not explicitly trying to make it huge.
  5. Bringing business strategy skills into a place that typically lacks them, such as a local non-profit, without seeking compensation.
  6. Starting a podcast with the explicit goal of just having interesting conversations.
  7. Networking, without actually needing or wanting anything, thus leaving oneself open to serendipity and curiosity.

This isn't to say that normal incentives are bad, or people shouldn't make money doing things. Rather, it's an insight that massive leverage can be had when you're surrounded by people who are locked in to normal incentives, and you get to play by other rules.

The first person where I noticed this was my friend, Noah. One of his core skills is sales and strategy, particularly to scale complex projects. The other is connecting people. If that sounds like a perfect person for some sort of executive sales or business strategy role, you're right. But, professionally, he works with non-profits to help them scale and execute their mission. Why? There's a market inefficiency with non-profits: people drawn to them typically don't have high-end business and strategy skills; instead, they have a cause. He's able to bring in unusual domain expertise and have massive leverage. He gets to step out of normal incentives because he works for a private philanthropy.

Derek Sivers has written several small books. Usually, people write books to make money, or at least build an audience that can be monetized some other way. Derek, for his own reasons, decided he didn't need more money, so writes because he wants to. So, unlike anyone else I've seen, he sells the "content" for $15 (a license to get it), which includes the audiobook and ebook. He then sells the paperbacks for $4, at cost. Whatever profits he makes, he donates to charity.

Economically, this obviously doesn't make much sense. He could even make more money for charity by raising prices, charging separately for each format, getting a distributor, or whatever else authors do to sell more books. But it makes perfect sense once you realize that he doesn't want that. He's playing a game with rules that he picked, and "extract as much money or exposure as possible for my books" isn't a part of that.

When I started learning pottery, I was clear with my intentions: I wanted to use this as a creative exploration. I wanted to become technically competent with unusual forms. And I wanted to give most of my pieces away to people that I value. So, I was able to use the first couple hundred hours time on the wheel directly practicing form and technique, out of the joy of it. I didn't need to make 50 mugs to sell. Pottery won't make me money, and I want that. Wonderfully, I found what I wanted.

A friend of mine made a bunch of money selling a company. He still enjoys tech and working with startups, but feels content. He has abundance already. I've seen him a couple times at network-y sort of events — the kind where people jockey to impress each other with accomplishments and are trying to extract value from people they meet. He approaches the events entirely differently. Basically no one knows his success, and he's able to be driven by curiosity and enjoyment of meeting people. He doesn't want anything from others.

Within minutes of meeting someone open to playing this different game, they find themselves into beautiful, deep, and interesting conversations. He is in a space dominated by people wanting things, but is operating under entirely different incentives. Oddly, he is able to help and be helped more often because he's playing a different game.

Many of these feel like they have an economic component: a rich person decides they don't need more money, so don't have to play by the rules of everyone else. This isn't wrong — the largest incentives we have in our culture relate to money in some way. But not all are like this. Some of the most "wealthy" people I've met don't have much money. They have their needs met, and build wealth other ways: through deep connection with people, building something great that capitalism wouldn't, or help others in fulfilling ways.

I've found the bar for "enough" to be quite low. Not everything needs to be a hustle. Paradoxically, being under different incentive structures can actually enable greatness. This sort of rhymes with the core idea behind Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. Being able to play by different rules and operate with different incentives allows curiosity and wonder to drive explorations. Often, it ends in a better place.

One metaphor that I value is the idea that everyone is an agent playing in an arena. Your agency—your specific role, the position you play—has choice. Playing reminds us that in the infinite game of life, we're here to improvise and play. And the arena—the scene your agent plays in—is also within your control.

There's obviously limits. If you don't have tons of money, earning enough to meet your needs is quite important. But there is still choice.

If you don't love the game you're playing, change it. If we're all governed by incentives, make sure you like the incentives you have. Pick your the rewards you want to respond to, and ignore the ones you don't. Enjoy the beauty in having active agency in choosing the game you play.

Stay connected

I send out occasional updates on posts, interesting finds, and projects I'm working on. I'd love to include you. No tracking, one-click unsubscribe.