Category Archives: Instant Gratification

It Grows On You!

Kudzu is a hearty and leafy vine that grows quickly and abundantly in the southeast part of the United States.  It grows so fast that those in the South quip that, “You might be a Southerner if… you’ve ever lost a loved one to kudzu.”  Kudzu covers everything it comes in contact with.  As you drive through a kudzu state, the roadside is draped with it, and you can only vaguely make out the shapes of trees, fences, small buildings, farmers…

With a name like “kudzu,” it’s obvious that it’s not indigenous to the U.S., so where did it come from?  In 1876, the nation of Japan originally brought it as a “gift” to the United States to celebrate the U.S.’s 100th birthday at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the government realized that the dense root system of kudzu would be an excellent deterrent to soil erosion.  The Civil Conservation Corps paid hundreds of unemployed men to plant the vine throughout the South.  Farmers were paid as much as $8 an acre to plant entire fields of kudzu in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

But by the 1950s, rapid growth of the plant (it grows a foot each day) had started to cool the government’s enthusiasm for what had been dubbed, “the miracle vine.”  They stopped advocating it altogether, and by 1970, the USDA had officially declared kudzu a “noxious weed.”  It had now earned the new nicknames of “mile-a-minute vine,” “foot-a-night vine” and “the vine that ate the South.”

But it was too late to pull back support.  Such large amounts of kudzu had been planted that it soon began to interfere with the growth of crops and destroy forest land.  Kudzu vines were so heavy that they often brought down power lines and even collapsed small buildings.  Kudzu was taking over.

Today, kudzu covers seven million acres of land in the Southeast, and it’s not going away anytime soon.  For years, we have been trying to find a herbicide that will kill the plant.  It’s highly resistant to poisoning, and most experts agree that it takes a concerted and persistent ten-year effort to kill just one patch of kudzu.  Even then, it’s likely to come back unless the patch is watched and treated regularly.  Current estimates put kudzu management costs at more than $50 million each year!

All this happened because the government broke one of the cardinal rules of problem solving.  They didn’t consider the long-term effects of their solution.  Some solutions create problems that are bigger than the original problem they were intended to solve.  What looked like an effective treatment of soil erosion and unemployment during the Great Depression was really a long-term relationship with a fast-growing, all-consuming predator weed.  Had we asked Japan about the growing conditions of the vine before we spread it all over the South, we might have realized that Japan’s climate and certain natural insect enemies help to naturally keep the vine at manageable levels.

I know what you’re thinking…    but before we start importing those natural insect enemies to take care of the problem we already have, consider a potential headline 50 years from now:

“The Insect That Ate the South!”

Beware the “quick-fix.”  It comes with small print (and creeping vines).


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Filed under Challenges, Decision Making, helping, Instant Gratification, leadership, management, overcoming obstacles, Problem Solving

Prime Your Pump

There’s an old story about a thirsty traveler who came across a pump in the desert. An attached note explained that there was a jar of water buried nearby to prime the pump.

“You’ve got to give before you get,” the note said.

The traveler was faced with a dilemma.  If he poured the water into the pump, he couldn’t get it back.  Worse, he was going to have to work hard to pump out the water from the well with no guarantee of success.  However, if he drank the stale water in the jar, he would never get to taste the sweet, cool water from the well.  He would also ruin any chance for other travelers to get any water from the well, since there would be no way to prime it.

So, with a sigh, the traveler poured the water into the pump to prime it.  Then he began pumping the lever as fast as he could.  He pumped, and he pumped, but no water came out.  There wasn’t even the sound of water coming up the pipes.  But he pumped and pumped some more….and then some more….and then some more.  Even though he was becoming increasingly frustrated, he knew he couldn’t stop.  As soon as he stopped pumping, the water would go back down into the well.

Just when he didn’t think he could pump even one more time, he heard a gurgle of water….then another….and then, to his joy and amazement, out poured a flood of cool, clear water!!  Everything changed at that point. He no longer had to pump and pump to get the water out.  The slightest pressure sent water gushing from the spout. Slow, easy strokes were all he needed to keep the water flowing.

So it is with success in just about any worthwhile endeavor you undertake.  You’ve got to give before you get.   You’ve got to work hard, and you’ll have no guarantee of success.  If you stop working hard, your success will slip away from you, but if you persist even beyond what you think you can do, your reward will often come.

Don’t drink the stale waters of instant gratification; put in the work to prime your pump!


Filed under Challenges, Change, Convenience, delayed gratification, determination, discipline, faith, growth, habits, Inconvenience, Instant Gratification, Preparation, sacrifice, Sowing and reaping, Spiritual Growth, stewardship, temptation, waiting on the Lord

The Motivation Killer

A group of young boys regularly stopped by an old man’s house on their way home from school.  Whenever the old man was out in the yard, they would insult him mercilessly.  One day, after enduring another round of jeers about how ugly and old and stupid he was, the old man came up with an idea.  He called out to the boys and met them at the sidewalk.

“Boys, this might surprise you, but I find your jokes at my expense quite funny.  In fact, for anyone who comes back tomorrow and insults me, I’ll pay one dollar!”

The boys were surprised but excited about the prospect of making a dollar.  They showed up early the next day and insulted the old man loudly until he came over and gave them their dollar.

“That was great, boys, but I’m afraid I’ll only be able to offer you a quarter for coming by tomorrow.”

A quarter wasn’t a dollar, but it was still enough to impress the young boys.  Faithfully, they came back the next day and dutifully delivered their insults until the old man came over and gave them their quarter.

“Ah, boys, those were the best yet!  Unfortunately, all I can reward you with tomorrow is a penny for your efforts.”

“What?  A stinkin’ penny!  Forget it!”  And the boys never came back again.

This story is funny, but it also teaches an important lesson about human nature.  When we are rewarded for doing something, we often lose the enjoyment that the task originally brought just for doing it.  It’s almost as if we make the decision that “if they have to bribe me to do this, it must not be worth doing.”  In psychology terms, extrinsic rewards (incentives, bonuses, awards, gifts, accolades…) kill intrinsic motivation (enjoyment of the task for its own sake).

In other words, when we say, “do this and you’ll get that,” our focus is shifted off the “this” (the task) and to the “that” (the reward).  It’s a counter-intuitive bait and switch.  The purpose of the reward is to get better performance, right?  But instead, what often happens is that performers see the task as an obstacle to the reward.  Before long, they are taking the quickest route to completion in order to claim their prize.  Unfortunately, the quickest route is rarely the highest quality route.

Could it be that some of our reward systems are sabotaging the improved results they are intended to create?  Don’t be so quick to offer incentives.  Some work is worth doing in and of itself.  Maybe all you need to do is help the performer see and understand the rewards that are already there.

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Filed under buy-in, commitment, delayed gratification, delegation, expectations, Incentives, Instant Gratification, motivation, ownership, Rewards

Building to Code

When deadly Hurricane Andrew hit Florida  years ago, it destroyed most everything in its path.  But when the winds and rain died down, TV networks used their cameras to capture the image of a lone house standing firmly in place amidst an entire neighborhood of debris.  When asked why his house was the only one in the neighborhood still standing, the owner replied:

“I built this house myself.  I built it according to the Florida state building code. When the code called for 2″ x 6″ roof trusses, I used 2″ x 6″ roof trusses. When it called for screws, I used screws. I was told that a house built according to code could withstand a hurricane. I did, and it did. I suppose no one else around here followed the code.”

Now, this man might have said to himself at the time he built his house, “Gee, I sure feel silly spending all this extra time, money and effort on precautions that might never be needed.  Everyone else in the neighborhood is cutting corners.  I think I even heard them laughing at me for adhering to all these unnecessary requirements.  I wonder if it’s really worth it.”  But in the end, he followed the code and was rewarded with the last house standing after the storm.

Of course, this story reminds me of the story Jesus told about the wise and foolish builders.  You can find it in Matthew 7:24-27. Two builders built – one on sand and one on rock.  When the storms came, the house on the rock withstood the wind and the rains.  Jesus said that the builders represented two types of people – those who build their lives on Jesus (the Rock, the solid foundation) and those who build their lives on anything else (the wisdom of this world, other religions, etc.)

Taking the metaphor a little further, “building to code” means living our life based on what we read in our Bible.  It may not always make sense to us at the time what God asks us to do, but if we will follow Him obediently, we will find that we can weather the storms of this life.  So, build on the Rock and follow the Code.  It will keep you out of the rain.

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Filed under Challenges, commitment, Compromise, Convenience, delayed gratification, determination, God's Will, Hardship, Instant Gratification, obedience, submission

Arrive Alive

Three men led expeditions to be the first to reach the South Pole in the early 1900’s: Robert Falcon Scott (1902-1903 and 1911-1912), Ernest Shackleton (1908-1909) and Roald Amundsen (1911-1912).  Shackleton was actually part of Scott’s three-man party in the first failed attempt, and during the long, exhausting and disappointing march back, the two grew into rivals. Shackleton returned five years later with his own team and bested Scott’s first attempt by leading his men 366 miles closer to the South Pole.  Although Scott was the one who ultimately achieved the Pole, Shackleton proved to be the better leader precisely because he did not.

Shackleton’s journey toward the Pole was costly.  All four in his party were slowly starving to death.   Each time severe weather conditions (temperatures reaching lows of -57 degrees Fahrenheit with blizzard winds over 90 mph) and dangerous terrain slowed their progress, Shackleton had to reduce their rations to ensure that they had enough food to last.  The party originally had four horses to pull the heavy sledges full of supplies, but three horses succumbed to the elements and one fell into a deep chasm that almost claimed one of Shackleton’s men, as well.  The men were forced to man-haul the sledges, and the few handfuls of food a day were just not enough.

Shackleton got within just 97 miles of the Pole before he turned his team back.  It was a huge disappointment for all the men, but it was the right decision.  While they were only a few days’ journey away from being the first explorers to reach either of the planet’s poles, they would certainly have lost their lives in the attempt.  Courageously leading his men back to the shore, Shackleton kept them all alive through expert leadership, tenacity and skillful rationing of their remaining food supplies.

Shackleton never made it to the Pole, but Scott would not accept a second failure when he returned a few years later.  He was determined to do what his rival could not.  Like Shackleton’s party, Scott lost all his horses along the way.  Dog sled teams and their leaders were forced to turn back in December, and only five men were left to make a final assault on the pole.  He and his men marched a total of 1,842 miles before they finally reached the Pole on January 17, 1912.  But to their utter disappointment, they found that Amundsen’s team had already been there five weeks earlier.

Dejected and exhausted, Scott’s men began the long trek back to the shore, but they would never make it.  In February, one of the men died after a fall caused him to have a swift physical and mental breakdown.  In mid-March, the weakest member of the team realized he was slowing the others down (he had lost the use of a foot to frostbite and gangrene) and sacrificed his life for them by leaving the tent and marching out into the snow, never to be seen again.  A severe blizzard trapped the three remaining men in their tent a few weeks later, and there they all starved to death.  Conquest of the Pole had cost them their lives.  Ironically, they were within eleven miles of the next food and supply depot.  Their bodies were discovered eight months later by a search party.

When Scott’s diary made it back to England, he was celebrated as a hero and even knighted posthumously.  In the eyes of his countrymen, his failure was a success in terms of its boldness and daring.  Shackleton’s accomplishments just two years before were all but forgotten.  But Shackleton was not surprised.  He had counted the cost when the Pole was in reach, and he chose the health and safety of his men over the glory of accomplishment.

Leaders who are only interested in their own achievements see their team members as a means to an end.  They are willing to sacrifice their followers if their loss will bring them closer to their goals.  But the best leaders are not in it for themselves.  They can’t conceive of success at the expense of their teams, and the goals aren’t worth achieving if the team can’t celebrate the accomplishment.

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Filed under Challenges, character, delayed gratification, determination, failure, Goals, Instant Gratification, leadership, management, parenting, priorities, Priority, sacrifice, Service, Serving Others

The Peter Principle

According to the Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards, Inc., nearly one-third of lottery winners go bankrupt.  There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons, but I have an idea about the root cause.  That which is earned without effort is often beyond our abilities to handle.

Maybe nearly one-third of lottery winners go bankrupt because they have not developed the financial maturity necessary to cope with so much money.  The internet is full of stories of lottery winners who invested in lousy business ventures, lent money to the wrong people, spent the money faster than it came in and even sold their rights to incremental payments for some up-front cash.

In this case, what is true of the lottery is true of leadership.  Those who receive lightning-fast promotions are typically singed in the process.  They rise within the organization faster than their skills develop.  Before long, they find themselves in a position that they can’t handle, and the results are usually messy.  Demotions, terminations, transfers to dead-end positions or dead-end teams, reduced responsibilities, early retirement…  If for some time no one seems to notice a manager’s incompetence, the manager will often try to cover it up.  The more there is at stake (pay, perks, pride, prestige…) the more desperate the manager often becomes to hide his or her struggles.  This can do no end of damage to an organization and its people.

With tongue in cheek, Laurence Peter defined this process as “The Peter Principle,” which states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  He tells us that the solution is to make sure that the candidate has the skills to do the job in some degree before promoting him or her to do it.  There’s a benefit to promoting people slowly.  While they are in their current job, they should be developing the maturity and the skills they will need at the next level.  They should be making mistakes and learning from them.  (Making mistakes at lower levels of leadership is a lot less costly than making them at the higher levels.)

If you are a leader, a mentor, a coach, a parent….make sure those under your leadership are faithful with small things before you give them larger things.  When they earn it, they will learn it.

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Filed under coaching, delayed gratification, delegation, discipleship, failure, Fathering, growth, Instant Gratification, leadership, learning, management, mentoring, parenting, performance

Yesterday’s Extra Effort

One time when I was working in a corporate environment, I got a new boss, who made it a point to fight for bigger annual bonuses for her direct reports.  Because my department’s bonuses fell under the heading of “discretionary,” they were typically rather, well…let’s just call them “modest.”  (Big enough to super-size your lunch for a few days but not big enough to start your retirement.)

However, this particular year, they were considerable.  My bonus was so large that I could have added all my other bonuses together and multiplied them five times without reaching the total.  In fact, when my boss called and gave me the number, I was sure I had heard her wrong.  Those types of incentives were reserved for the production departments – not for training.  But sure enough, when the check came, it was the number she gave me.

Do you think I was motivated by my boss’ generosity?  Absolutely!  I was ready to walk through walls for her.  I was prepared to volunteer for every project that came up, and I probably did….for about three months.  After that, a funny thing happened.  I forgot about the bonus.  The money had been spent almost as soon as I had gotten it, and the thrill of cash in the bank account had been replaced by the dread of credit card bills and car payments.

But that’s not the worst of it.  Fast-forward to annual performance review time at the end of the year.  My boss called me to tell me that I again got a bonus and to let me know what I could expect.  I was pumped!  I couldn’t wait to hear the number, and I just knew it was going to be a significant increase over the previous year.

Imagine my disappointment when the number was actually lower.  Now mind you, it wasn’t much lower – about the size of one of my previous bonuses lower – but I was so upset that I thought about quitting my job.  I’m ashamed to say that this was my attitude even though I still could have multiplied all my previous bonuses by five and fit them into this new one.

I’ve shared this embarrassingly ungrateful side of my personality to make a point.

Yesterday’s extra effort is today’s expectation.

This is true for most of us, not just spoiled rascals like me.  Let me give you a few examples to prove it.  Have you ever brought breakfast in for your team?  I bet you were met with smiles, appreciation and compliments on what a great manager you were.  But continue to bring that breakfast in on a regular basis, and it won’t be long before your team is complaining, “Glazed donuts again?  Couldn’t you get some jelly donuts or something hot?  What, no Starbucks coffee?”

Yesterday’s extra effort is today’s expectation.

Or how about when you put in extra hours at the office?  At first, your boss and all those who benefit will comment on your incredible work ethic.  They will commend you for your dedication and self-sacrifice.  But try to scale back to your regular hours and see what happens.  Suddenly, you’re “not as accessible as you used to be” or “you’re performance seems to be slipping” even though it’s just as high as it was before the extra hours.

Yesterday’s extra effort is today’s expectation.

Taking some liberties with the motivation theories of Frederick Herzberg, the phenomenon I’m describing happens because of the difference between Satisfiers (Herzberg calls them “Hygiene Factors”) and Motivators.  Satisfiers are things that have the ability to satisfy us but not to motivate us.  In a sense, they are the price of admission into that arena of motivation. Motivation starts where Satisfaction leaves off.  This graphic ought to help make the idea clear:
Herzberg - Satisfiers 1

When someone is 100% satisfied, it opens the door to motivation, but it doesn’t go in.  100% satisfied is not necessarily motivated, but it’s where motivation often starts.  For example, I’m satisfied with my level of pay, but I’m not motivated by it.  I don’t get up in the morning thinking, “I can’t wait to get to work to earn this salary I’m making!”  On the contrary, I feel like I deserve it.

If you want to motivate me, you’ve got to do it some other way – through recognition or meaningful work or incentives…  Now, if you pay me less than I feel I deserve, I’m easily dissatisfied.  You’ll find it very difficult to motivate me with any motivators until you’ve addressed my dissatisfaction issue.  Make sense?

What makes using this information tricky is that Satisfiers and Motivators are moving targets.  Let’s say that I’m perfectly happy with my level of pay, but at lunch one day, one of my peers lets it slip that he’s making a little more than me.  Do you think I will still be satisfied?  Nope.  Now, I’m highly dissatisfied.  Why?  Because my level of expectation just increased.  To satisfy me, you have to pay me at least what he’s making (and apologize).  Using the graphic again, here’s what has happened to what I need to satisfy me:

Herzberg - Satisfiers 2

Do you see what changed?  Now it takes much more to satisfy me.  When expectations increase, so does what it takes to satisfy me.  Are you starting to see why yesterday’s extra effort becomes today’s expectation?  In my previous example, the really large bonus increased my level of expectation.  I didn’t know it was possible to get a bonus that big before, but now that I knew, nothing less would satisfy me.  In fact, even just a small decrease created dissatisfaction.

These changes aren’t limited to pay and things related to work.  We change our expectations in many areas of our lives.  A friend of mine owns a very nice house.  It’s much larger and nicer than most of the houses my other friends have.  But he and his wife recently visited some neighbors who have a one-million-dollar house.  As soon as they got home, everything they had started to look smaller and less appealing in comparison.  Their level of expectation was raised.

Or here’s another example.  Remember when your kids were young?  Every little thing they did was a surprise and a delight, and you made sure to let them know how proud you were.  But as they have grown, so have your expectations of them.  If you find that you spend much more time criticizing them than praising them, it’s because it takes a lot more to motivate you to praise.  (I wonder what would happen if we started to lower our expectations in areas where we could afford to do so.)

So what lessons do we take away from this?  I have a few:

  • Before you start to hand out expensive motivators (like bonuses and costly incentives), consider that their motivational power has a shelf-life.  It will increase the performer’s level of expectation, and you’ll find that the motivator has to get better and better or bigger and bigger to continue to motivate.
  • Consider internal (or intrinsic) motivators first, because they have a long shelf-life and do not increase levels of expectation.  Internal motivators include things like pride in work well done, sense of contribution, learning and growth, challenging and meaningful work…  These are harder to use well, because you have to know your team members well enough to know what charges their batteries.
  • Before you commit to giving more and more of yourself to your job, your ministry or your community, count the cost.  You may not be able to scale back in the future without some heartburn.
  • If you find that your expectations are too high in some area of your life, lower them.  Believe it or not, you can just decide to be satisfied with less.  I’ve found that this strategy has really improved some of the most important relationships in my life.

As a general rule, expectations increase.  We tend to want bigger, better and faster.  Unless you intentionally slow their progress, you might find it difficult to keep up with them.

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Filed under delayed gratification, expectations, Instant Gratification, Interpersonal, leadership, motivation