Despite being imaginary, some stories shake you up. They are unsettling because you wonder — what if this story is about me?
This is one such story.
The local goons were causing a nuisance for a shopkeeper. They would spray-paint abusive and derogatory graffiti all over his store window.
So the shopkeeper hatched a plan. The next day, he waited until the goons finished their dirty work and then he paid them Rs 1000 to thank them for their effort. The following day, he thanked them again but only paid Rs 500 this time. He continued to pay them to deface his property but the amount kept decreasing. Soon they were getting only Rs 10.
They stopped coming. Why bother doing all that work to abuse the shopkeeper for so little money?
I found this story in the book The Knowledge Illusion . The author writes —
This apocryphal (imaginary) tale is about what causes people to act and how you can modify their motivations, to make them think they’re doing something for a different reason than they initially thought.
You could argue that the local goons initially had an intrinsic motivation for derogatory graffiti. The clever shopkeeper subtly replaced their intrinsic motivation with an extrinsic incentive — money. And when that external reward dwindled, the goons didn’t have a reason to continue their work.
If you use graffiti as a metaphor for the so-called “passionate work,” then it’s important to ask ourselves — are we like the local goons who have been sold on ideas about how cool it is to spray-paint graffiti?
The unconventional (yet popular) advice says —
Follow your passion. Keep doing it and you’ll become good at it. Then they will pay you for following your passion. Wouldn’t it be a dream to make money from the work that you would do even if nobody paid you? Who wouldn’t want to live that dream?
But what if they stopped paying you? Would you be like the local goons who stopped coming when the shopkeeper won’t pay anymore?
I find this old story very instructive. Every time I revisit it, some uncomfortable questions surface —
- The work that I’ve been doing for years (or even decades), why did I start doing it in the first place?
- Maybe I had a goal in mind but is it possible that I was so busy executing my plans that I completely missed the moment when I zoomed past that goalpost?
- Or maybe I kept shifting the goalpost ahead. But what if the moving goalpost was just an excuse to stay in my comfort zone? The comfort zone of familiar work and predictable routine.
- What if all my decisions were based on borrowed ideas about what work is worth doing?
- And what if the definition — how to measure the worth — itself is an idea some clever shopkeeper implanted in my mind?
I think this story is a great reminder to reevaluate where we’re spending our precious life hours. Are we doing something which we chose to do or was it decided by some manipulative shopkeeper(s)?
Are there pockets of time in your life that are being spent doing paid (but meaningless) graffiti?
“Watch where your hours are going because an unexamined life,” observed Socrates, “is not worth living.”
Thanks for reading!