Growing up I was a terribly good boy. I got good grades, went to a good school, graduated and got a good job. But once I reached adulthood, I realized I was mainly good at two things – getting authority figures to like me and working for extrinsic rewards.
When I work for extrinsic motivators instead of intrinsic ones, there’s an angel on my shoulder begging me to listen to my heart, not my bank account. And the more I ignore that voice, the more heartless I become.
I have allowed myself to be tricked into believing that extrinsic motivators, like money and status, are more important than intrinsic ones, like love and creativity. Now multiply my problem by 300,000,000 – this is the root of economic inequality in America. Heartlessness is not conducive to inclusiveness and fairness.
How can we solve this problem? Economic success is traditionally based on the gross national product, which encourages us to focus on production and making money, even if it’s at the expense of other fundamental human needs, like creativity and freedom. For example, I got a job I didn’t find meaningful in order to make more money.
If I could change one thing to create a more fair and equitable economy in America, I would redefine economic success as an economy’s ability to meet all fundamental human needs, not just its ability to produce capital. I personally like Manfred Max Neef’s list of fundamental human needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. But any measure of economic success which is more far-reaching than production would be an improvement on our current evaluation mechanism.
If my government’s economists considered these fundamental human needs, they would see that in fact America is not such a wealthy nation. It is rare to find someone with a job they find meaningful. And the people who are lucky enough to have jobs are overworked – with a majority not using all their vacation days every year.
It’s not enough for our government and leaders alone to think about fulfilling human needs – this is something each and every one of us has to practice. We need to retrain ourselves to focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators. We need to remember how to listen to the whispers of our hearts. If we can do that, it will be clear that the inequality around us is not OK, and we will intrinsically want to do something about it. This requires great courage and transformation.
And the transformation starts with me. I decided to solve this problem on a personal scale by cutting out from my life everything I do that is extrinsically motivated. I quit my comfortable job at Google to move to China to be a stuntman in the film industry. Then I quit my stuntman job to start a coaching business to serve others who want to live a life for themselves instead of authority figures. In short, I started listening to my heart instead of my boss, my math teacher, or my parents. I started working for intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators.
But to be honest, I’ve only just begun to learn how powerful my conditioning is to work for extrinsic motivators, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of eradicating them completely. Even in the small amount of changes I’ve made to my life, something wonderful has happened – the people around me saw my growth and started creating similar transformations in their own lives.
One of my best friends was running a business she hated – so she quit and moved to the Philippines to become a free diving instructor. And then her friends were so inspired by her, that they began to transform themselves as well. And there are countless other examples, like an old co-worker who quit his comfortable job to live his dream of being a digital nomad after a conversation about my journey.
In all of these examples, not only did individuals become more empowered and fulfilled, but they also became more compassionate. Our lives are so intertwined that the more we connect with ourselves, the more we will connect with others.
When I realized how powerful this was, I decided to be more intentional about it. I started a project called Fearless. It’s a regular meet up group where we invite members of the community to join us in practicing courage and compassion. We do that by creating lists of things we’re afraid to do but would also empower us, and then create challenges based off those lists. There have been small things, like people introducing themselves to their neighbors. And there have been big things – like an impromptu road trip to Montreal (12 hours from Detroit by car). But the common thread across all the challenge attempts has been increased empowerment and connection.
The more empowered we become, the more we will stand up for what we know is right. The deeper our connections to ourselves and each other, the less we will tolerate inequality.
Eric Couillard is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper with the Detroit hub. His article is this month's winner in the Global Shaper essay contest, on the theme of inclusive growth.