Pouring Concrete

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You may not know it, but you’re in the concrete business…

And if you’re not, you should be. Because it’ll get you more of what you want out of every aspect of your life. And, it’ll let you tell, sell and persuade more people to do more for things…for you, for them and for the world.

When I say concrete, though, I’m not talking about the stuff skyscrapers are built upon, I’m talking about concrete…the adjective.



adjective – pertaining to or concerned with realities or actual instances rather than abstractions; particular (opposed to general ): concrete ideas.

The concrete I’m talking about the the opposite of abstract, general, vague. It’s graphic, vivid, detailed. And, adding this quality to the way you operate in the world can be very powerful on both a behavioral and communications level.

Concrete benefits and goals provide far more effective motivation that vague ones.

Case in point. In the beginning of Summer, we challenged my daughter to complete a number of workbooks relevant to each of her school subjects. Our goal wasn’t to give her a competitive edge, that’s not what motivates us. Rather, it was to help set her up to feel confident when she began school in September.

Sure enough, August rolled around and most of the workbooks lay barely written in. I’ve never been one to use substantial material rewards to motivate my daughter, but I’ve also come to realize not everyone has the same visceral joy of learning that I do.

So, we made my daughter an offer we thought she couldn’t refuse.

The deal was–finish every exercise in every workbook (more than 100 pages) before we left on our trip to the Outer Banks, and we’d get her an iPod nano.

“Are you serious?” came the enthusiastic answer? “For real?!”

So, we agreed and figured out how many pages she’d need to complete each day to reach her goal. The next morning she did all her pages, plus two. The morning after that she hit her cap. The next, she fell a page or two short. And, by the end of two weeks, the workbooks and the goal had lost their motivational luster. I’d remind her about the iPod and she’d reaffirm her desire for it, then ebb into some other activity.

Hmmm, what gives?

We defined the goal, made it concrete, even looked at colors at the Apple store every once in a while. But, I began to wonder if, in her 8 year old easily distracted mind, the simple “idea” of the iPod wasn’t really concrete enough to serve as motivation for daily action. So, I decided to test a theory.

The next morning, when my daughter awakened, I greeted her with breakfast…and a satiny white bag with drawstrings from the Apple store. She tore into it to find a shiny new iPod nano in the color she’d been jonesing for. As she went to peel the tape off the plastic container that housed her shiny new object, though, I said, “not so fast…”

“The iPod is yours,” I said, “only if you finish all your workbooks, before we leave.” At that point, there was a lot of work left to be done and only a week to do it.

Step 2, I then placed the iPod, in it’s clear plastic case, on top of the TV, which had been one of her major distractions. This served two sneaky purposes. One, it would be front and center in her sphere of awareness every day. And, two, was where the sneaky part came in. I knew that the juxtaposition of the iPod and the TV would create an anchor that said “TV equals no iPod.”

So, what happened?

She worked harder in the next 7 days than I’ve ever seen her work on a sustained project. Every day, she’d pick up the iPod case, handle it, ogle the contents, then put it down and power through her required pages. If she missed a day or fell short, she’d make up the missed work the following day.

I have to confess to being amazed at how much more powerful a motivator the actual object of the desire was, versus the idea of the desired object.

So, in the end, it all came down to how much concrete I could pour.

Because, the more concrete the reward, the stronger the bond with the desired outcome and the greater the need to resolve the tension between where you are and where you want to go/what you want to get.

As always, I’m curious whether you guys have ever experienced anything like this in your own lives, with your own goals or in the quest to motivate others?

Is this the real power behind vision boards, buying that 5 size too small bikini 5 months before summer or walking past the Hummer dealership on your way to work every day?

And, here’s the real open question for me…

When the desired outcome is not about acquiring something material or external, but rather about attaining a deeper, more intrinsic goal, can you still pour enough concrete to make a difference? Especially when it comes to kids

What do you think?

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38 responses

38 responses to “Pouring Concrete”

  1. Mark Silver says:

    Sneaky concrete pouring there, mister. I love it. I know that for me, I need visual reminders of tasks- one of the reasons I use a project manager. Without the visual reminders, I’m lost.

    Rewards don’t work so well for me, either- but the visual reminder, the concrete poured, is definitely right-on.

    Do you think, for your daughter, that it was the reward or merely the concrete reminder? What do you think about it? What would have happened if you hadn’t put the iPod up there, but perhaps her workbook or other reminder?

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great questions. For me, one of my signature strenghts, i.e., core intrinsic drivers, is knowledge acquisition, so the process is a big part of the reward. but, many others don’t hold that same driver. Either way, though, as not only a dad, but a marketer, I’ve learned and measured the effect of getting more precise/concrete on overall response to any call to action and, for sure, the more specific you get, the better the response

  2. NomadicNeil says:

    Interesting anecdote.

    One thing I’d say is that it is pretty well accepted that we often mistakenly over-estimate how much other people are motivated by external rewards (money, material good, accolades etc.) And yet when we assess ourselves we always prefer ‘internal’ rewards (growth, challenge, satisfaction). So why would it be easier to motivate people to gain materially when most want ‘internal’ rewards?

    I guess it really depends on the individual and it’s not just dependant on age as even as a kid I remember people could not bribe me with the promise of toys or money.

    I’m going to start thinking more about how I motivate myself. For me the issue is that I usually get round to doing what I want to do just that I want to do them to a higher standard.

    Another thing, I’m glad I didn’t have a dad like you… several 100 page work books during the summer holidays! 🙁

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great points and questions. I’m especially thinking about the relationships between being concrete enough to provide motivation and being driven more by internal, intrinsic reward. I know Dan Pink’s soon to be released book speaks to this, can’t wait to read it.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alice Bachini-Smith and Niamh Owens. Niamh Owens said: Brilliant!!! No greater motivator!!!! RT @jonathanfields: Poured any concrete lately? http://is.gd/3pIUJ […]

  4. Patrenia says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this idea. My children just transitioned to a new school. TheY are a little behind mainly because of the adjustment period and just feeling a overwhelmed. I am going to try this method to give them the incentive to do the extra work needed to be A+ students again. I definitely think it will work.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s interesting, I wonder how different kids would respond to concrete external motivators. I think it depends in large part on what your kids “signature strengths” are, as Authentic Happiness guru, Martin Seligman would say.

  5. marirose says:

    Just a note on deciphering what concrete means, A child is not his actions. Granted the perceptions and getting there soon looses its appeal. He or she is a person who acts, simply in a way which has given an opportunity to grow, attain a much sought after goal, that they understood that the worth does not come from how well the performance measures against a given task but rather the belief that they are capable and achieve. This has help me to convey motivation with my kid and the more concrete I pour into the foundations, I can reassure myself that the bond is solid.

  6. Vincent says:

    This is a great experiment. It also gives us the reasons why visualization board works. The physical iPod acts like the visualization board in this instance.


  7. I can definitely relate to not being motivated by material goals. I tried that for years but it was never enough. In the last few months I switched my goals to a certain type of lifestyle (which is actually fairly modest by most traditional standards, but it’s what’s important to me) and have found myself able to push through procrastination barriers whenever I remind myself of what I’m going for.

    It’s not perfect so the procrastination does sometimes win, but I’m making more progress than I’ve ever made before.

    One part of my dream lifestyle is to wander the world, so early next year, even though I’ll unlikely have enough savings for a really long round the world trip I’m planning on going to Japan for 1-2 months with a friend. I expect once I actually experience the end goal it’ll be real, and thus provide more motivation once I end up back home. 🙂

  8. When the desired outcome is not about acquiring something material or external, but rather about attaining a deeper, more intrinsic goal, can you still pour enough concrete to make a difference? Especially when it comes to kids

    I think feedback is critical to making intrinsic rewards concrete. Feedback is one of the key factors in the flow experience – unless you know how well you’re doing at something, it’s hard to adjust, improve and learn.

    E.g. however much you love writing, it can be hard to sit at the typewriter day after day, knowing it could be months or years (or never) before you get any feedback from readers. But turn the typewriter into a laptop and start posting your words online, and it can be tremendously motivating to receive feedback that lets you know people are reading and responding to your words. N.B. I’m not talking about praise (an extrinsic reward) – criticism can be at least as effective at helping you hone your writing skills. It doesn’t even have to be in words, just seeing pageviews on your webstats that let you know your words are being read, and you are connecting with people.

    Or to take Purpose as another intrinsic motivator – it’s tremendously motivating when you can see the results of your efforts to improve the world in some way. E.g. charity workers spending time with the people they are working to help, or if you’re trying to cut down on your energy usage, installing a meter in your home to make the savings visible and concrete.

  9. Martin says:

    It might be just me, but … isn’t it somewhat strange to use a picture of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, one of the most depressing structures ever created by man, in a motivational blog post?

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Martin – I actually had no idea, never been or seen pictures. The image was pulled from a stock photo site I use all the time and they were simply categorized as “concrete blocks.” I’ve just swapped in a different picture now.

  10. Jonathan, I’m a fan or your writing. But I’m less enthusiastic about your content this time.

    The question I have is this: What did your expedient bribe teach your daughter? Did it teach her that learning is a joy? Or did it teach her to always look for the payoff?

    We live in a commercial society where everything is for sale. If we encourage our children to be part of this mindset (like you did), then we affirm that life is about having, and not about being. Our children then learn to look for the benefit in everything they do.

    But, hey – what is the benefit of being alive?

    Non. Because being alive is not about having – it’s about being. That what I want to convey to my child.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Mary – Great questions, all. I wish the answers were as black and white as suggest, but as a dad living in NYC with a daughter in public school and this being the first year of “testing,”…it’s far more complex than the conversation about having versus being. In fact, the issues are so important, they deserve their own post. Let’s keep this conversation going in that post. I am here to learn as much as I am to share…if not substantially more. 🙂

      • I am with Mary (GoodlifeZen) on this one. I am a HUGE fan of yours and as a former educator I feel a little troubled by this. There is no greater gift than a kids own curiousity and motivation to learn. As parents I think our role is to nurthure that. If school becomes a lesson in how to jump through other people’s hoops (e.g. excel on standardized tests) I am not sure we as parents have to reinforce that. In fact, we may need to counter act it. I feel sure you have read Alfie Kohn and there are probably others… Looking forward to more conversation on this.

        • Tim Kern says:

          Education involves both learning and practice. Feeding a child’s love of learning is crucial, but that love alone will be hard pressed to motivate one to practice {addition/side heel kicks/the C-sharp scale} for the 958th time. Working towards a goal is helpful in developing a practice. Rewards can be a useful part of this.

  11. I simply love this story. Now I just have to figure out how to get my goals as concrete as possible!

  12. Great post as usual Jonathan. It also reminds of how people are all different. At 8 years old, my daughter was not materialistic. She spent the summer with me (Post divorce) while I was living in a very ghetto area. I lived as boarder with 2 elderly people and the ladys’ 40 year old son, who had severe cerebral palsy. Her main chore that summer was helping with the son. Being poor, they had no health insurance. They did know about physical therapy, helping him move his legs to keep up blood flow etc. but my landlady was no longer physically able to do it. My daughter followed her instructions and did this, along with helping keep the house clean. My daughter had her own charge account at the local ghetto store, with a limit of 20 dollars a week, as her reward/allowance. This was 1994, it made her the wealthiest kid in the neighborhood. Being a kind and generous person, she spent most of the money on her new friends. About the 3rd or 4th week, she exceeded her weekly limit.
    Since my intention was to teach her about credit and the true value of money, coming up with a suitable consequence for the action required some thought. I finally decided on a list of things she could do to work off the excess expense and made it clear that the objectives were more important than the process, i.e. her friends could help since they helped her spend the money. When it came time to do the work, only one child stepped up to help, despite there being a dozen who had enjoyed her largess. This taught her: A)It requires a lot more effort to play catch up than it does to keep track of spending & B)Real friends can not be purchased.
    I’m sharing this, not because it relates to concrete, but because it relates to teaching children. Since I knew living in that area was only temporary, I also used that time to introduce her to crack whores, heroin addicts and other types of people she wouldn’t come into contact with once she was back in the suburbs. She got to witness firsthand what drug addiction and poverty does to people. She’s 22 now. She uses no drugs except alcohol and that sparingly. She’s also my best friend and vice versa. I can’t say for sure why that is, but I believe it’s because I never lied to her or treated her as if youth equaled stupidity. She is poor, but at least she is equipped to handle it. Motivation and material rewards are not bad things. I do believe we often do our children a disservice when we shelter them from the harsh realities of life. How will they handle being in a situation if they are thrust into it with no prior knowledge it even existed? I hope this comment helps you, and your readers, see child rearing in a new light. After all, they are the future. Will they be self sufficient or living in your basement in their 30’s? That depends on YOU!

  13. Deb Owen says:

    I’m looking forward to Dan Pink’s book on this as well, and agree with his supposition that carrots and sticks aren’t what it’s about anymore. In my former corporate life, I watched as promises of monetary rewards (including bonuses) often backfired.

    Most often, the people who would participate in special projects for the promise of a bonus were the people who would have done it anyway. Their co-workers then would become dis-engaged as they’d find the practice unfair (i.e. they couldn’t participate because they couldn’t stay after work due to not having a babysitter). Eventually, those who ‘would have done it anyway’ got tired of being the only ones taking on additional responsibilities. Longterm, running their business this way led to a fractured workforce.

    I will say that I can’t imagine my parents having ever offered me an iPod as a reward for learning at the age of 8. They would have possibly given it as a present, or I could have saved my allowance and done extra chores to earn the money to buy it. But learning and doing what I was told was something I had to do ‘because it’s the right thing to do’. They instilled a love of learning in me that continues, but I believe that is partially due to their not being a specific material reward (or punishment if not done) tied to it.

    As for that bikini? While I do believe in vision boards and have one myself, I wouldn’t buy a bikini 5 months ahead of time. My desire is to achieve a healthy ‘natural’ weight for my body based on feeding it properly, treating it well, and listening to the cues that tell me what I need to eat, when, and how much. I’ve worked towards a specific size that wasn’t healthy for me before and it was torture. It was a goal I set determined by media and where I thought I ‘should’ be. So if I had a summer vacation coming up? I’d continue doing what I’m doing and buy myself a bikini for the trip that was the size that was right when it was time. 😉

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
    All the best!

  14. Laurie Gay says:

    Concrete rewards – very motivating to get the work done!

    I wonder how to make personal growth (the reward for working with a coach) concrete – maybe when it comes to relief from feeling stuck and moving forward, specificity is the new concrete? So, instead of “Lose Weight” the goal is, Lose 10 lbs by Thanksgiving, or instead of, Find Your Passion, the work can be, Identify 3 viable career paths you will love through this class.

    Now THAT is helpful for me to think over! Thanks, Jonathan!


  15. Annabel says:

    Thanks for another great post, Jonathan. “Pouring the concrete” is indeed very powerful, but I too worry that using it to motivate a child to learn may backfire in the long run because it does nothing to foster real internal motivation, learning for the love of it.

    What’s sad is that all children are born with an innate love of learning but somehow it ends up getting extinguished in so many by the time they reach middle school. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I suspect that typical schooling and its carrot and stick approach with grades (as opposed to something like Montessori) contributes to this in large part, and perhaps also the passivity fostered by too much tv-watching and video game playing.

    I’m wrestling with these questions because right now my 3 year-old son takes great joy in learning everything and anything and I want to find a way to help him hang on to that intrinsic love of learning.

    Perhaps another reason kids lose their love of learning is that in most schools they are forced to be passive receptacles, they have no say in the materials or modalities (i.e. visual, auditory, kinesthetic, learning alone or in a social setting, etc.) of learning.

  16. Jonathan,

    This is something I tell parents when they want to use positive motivators. I have seen them try and fail countless times because the end result just wasn’t real enough for the child. Just like your situation, the kids lose interest, and the task doesn’t get completed.

    Its amazing how looking at something tangible motivated her behavior more than the idea of it. I hear you, Annabel, and understand your concerns, however, I think that internal motivation is something that must be taught to children (just my experience counseling kids, I could be wrong). If only we could apply it to our own lives, but alas, we can’t just purchase things and use that as a motivator. It would be nice if we could set those kinds of boundaries with ourselves.

    Also, when it comes to success, and being an entrepenuer, the success is not guaranteed. Its theoretical and intangible. It only really seems to manifest when the work we put in pays off. Then we can believe what we’re doing is real, and ground it in concrete theory.

    I would love to discuss this more and how to apply a concrete style theory to small business. I resonate with Mark in finding the motivation to write, when it could be a long time before you see the results of your hard work. Successful writing may come easier for some and less for others, and there are no guarantees in life, so finding concrete results to base actions on seems a little tricky in our ever changing world.

  17. Jim Vickers says:


    Your post brings to mind a personally valuable principle you showed me on page 233 of “Career Renegade.” I’ve been working for several months now creating my first web-business. I never dreamed how complex this would be. There’s so much to learn and so many hoops to jump through that it has been really hard to maintain that “concrete” vision of what I’m trying to accomplish.

    Though maintaining my vision of my target outcome is key to staying on focus, you explained how focusing on the steps to that outcome had been shown to be a more effective way of reaching the outcome. So I took your advice. At the start of each week, I began listing five steps that I intended to take during that week to bring me closer to my target outcome. Before beginning my work each day, I take five minutes to visualize myself completing those steps. Then I go to work on them.

    Not only has focusing in on these steps enabled me to accomplish more each week, completing each “concrete” step has also given me more confidence that I will achieve my ultimate target outcome. Seeing each completed step is like your daughter looking at that ipod. It makes my ultimate objective more concrete. Thanks for that, Jonathan.


  18. I just read this before shutting down my computer during a break from a class I was teaching. The class is on managing change and this was a perfect lesson. I went right back to class and read the post to the students. We’d been working on an exercise that required them to identify a change that they wanted to make in their life. This blog post was a perfect way to challenge them to get more specific, detailed, vivid and precise in their explanation of the desired change. Perfect timing!

    I also have an example of motivation. My daughter was struggling with her kindergarten reading homework. She knew how to read but would get very frustrated if she made any mistakes and would want to quit. Since I knew she had the ability, it was just a question of motivation. Her eventual success in college wasn’t concrete enough. So I offered to extend her bedtime on the nights that she read her homework. It worked. The immediate and tangible reward of staying up later than her sisters was a powerful motivator.

    It worked so well that she asked to read (and stay up later) on nights when she didn’t have required reading. And it gets better. Her preschool age sister asked to stay up late and my daughter told her she could stay up late if she’d read. So, my 3.5 year old went to her room and got a basic phonics book. We gradually sounded out all the words and she stayed up 30 minutes later.

    Fast forward. When I asked my daughter about her favorite part of the day, she said it was doing her reading homework. She loves reading now and doesn’t need any external motivation. But it gets even better. Her younger sister is now so good at reading that she was put with the 1st graders for her reading group. She also loves reading and doesn’t still require a nightly reward for it.

    David Rendall

  19. Curtis says:

    Great idea! I’m going to try this on myself!

  20. Hey – that worked for me recently but until I read your post, I wasn’t exactly clear why. In June I started a new arm of the business AND committed to do 30 yoga classes in 30 days. On the wall of the yoga studio, where we milled about waiting for the previous class to clear, were paintings by a feature artist. I had been looking for some art for a while and the colours and style of these really resonated with me. When I read their names (‘Treasure’ and ‘Seek’) I just knew they needed to be my ‘reward’ pieces. So every day of that month, when I went in to practice my yoga, there they were winking at me. There were some really tough days during that month. Days when by muscles ached. Days when I couldn’t face picking up that phone even though I knew I had to lock in 5 new customers. But every day, the paintings sat patiently on the wall, tempting me. Had they not been so physically present, I don’t know that they would have had the same effect. I often ‘promise’ myself small treats when I finish this or that. Yet, I still have a writing project begun in January that languishes in my hard drive. Perhaps I need to go and buy myself a new car and leave it’s keys hanging out of reach above my computer. Tempting…

  21. […] used an iPod nano as a source of additional“external” motivation to see if it would inspire my daughter to do a huge amount of school-prep work in a short period of […]

  22. jskipburns says:

    I liked this and thought it was funny and clever. I recommend you read “Teach Like Your Hair Is On Fire” By Rafe Esquith. He talks about getting his students internally motivated vs. externally motivated. I taught for a bit and have to agree with the other teachers that this is tricky and to proceed with caution.

    I remember more the times my parents offered me money/toys/etc for me to quit or stop doing an activity and how I continued in the activity and usually found success. My refusal and perseverance
    made me stronger.

    this was a good post though and I found it very interesting and think it’s very applicable to adults in the work setting (and in my own life).

    thanks for writing

    Skip “not without a purpose not without a fight” Burns

    (but I don’t know if I was ever that good at teaching, I’m not a Dad, and so feel free to tell me to @#$^off or whatever. I mean this is YOUR kid. )

  23. […] Pouring Concrete This is a great story about making goals concrete. It’s actually kind of similar to a story I’m telling in my upcoming book – I made a goal of my own concrete in a somewhat similar way. (@ jonathan fields) […]

  24. John Bardos says:

    There is a lot of debate about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards in education and in business. I personally believe there needs to be a balance. You can’t keep upping the prizes every time you want your child to perform. You will soon be giving away cars, exotic vacations and luxury furniture. At the same time, real, concrete rewards can produce results in the short term.

    Lasting effort requires intrinsic motivation. Your daughter will need to learn to excel for the value of improving. This is a harder goal to accomplish. Push too hard and she will rebel and do the opposite. Push too little and she will not live up to her potential.

    “Push” isn’t even a good word, because it is more of a pull. Working hard for her own personal satisfaction and partially to impress her parents, is the ultimate goal.

  25. IRG says:

    Often the rewards in life are not “concrete.”

    Whether we’re talking work or personal life.

    Although I get why you did this experiment with your daughter, it does, as others have noted, concern me that the effort is directed towards getting something–and a big something. What about parents who can in no way afford such “rewards”?

    Why does one have to reward a child for doing what they are supposed to do in the first place? I mean besides schoolwork, at that age, what else is a kid doing/contributing? Learning is their priority.

    Kids need to learn to work well not just for good grades–and any rewards they bring, but because they value learning and the effort of solid work to learn something.

    The work is the work and the effort is the effort. Not the result.

    It reminds me of a company I worked for where the staff in general was underperforming and not meeting defined goals and specs due to lack of interest, laziness, etc.

    These folks were messing up the lives of people on the team who did their jobs but couldn’t finish them because the others DID NOT do their work.

    They were actually penalized even though they were acting like professionals.

    So the manager decided that a contest with a cash prize would motivate the slackers.

    When I heard this, I asked the manager to NOT do the contest as it really was a reward for people who were only being asked to do exactly the jobs they were paid for. Not go above and beyond. If they didn’t want to do their jobs, they should not be there (replace them!)

    I told him that negative motivation was needed here. Announce job cuts if the project goals were not met.

    Reluctantly, he did this. Some slacked off even more and he finally fired them (thank you.)

    Others regained their focus.

    One of the problems with a lot of young people today is entitlement. Many have never really had to work much for anything thanks to well-meaning, but ill-informed, parents who coddled and helicopter parented.

    They believe the world owes them and that they should be rewarded for just “being”

    Real achievement doesn’t come from motivation that is based on getting something, regardless of what it is.

    Yes, a lot of people would like Oscars and Emmys and Noble Prizes.

    But most of the folks who get them (ok, maybe we should exclude hollywood awards as they are often popularity contests), were only focused on the work.

    When you look at the achievements by many famous people and successful ones, you will see that they were simply focused on the work. That they got rich, or famous or successful was almost “accidental.”

    it’s about the process and the work and the learning.
    NOT the reward.

  26. […] articulate and has a pretty good grasp on most things involved with business. However, he recently wrote a post about  extrinsic motivation, and this really perked my interest. Seeing as I’m a behavior modification guy, especially […]

  27. Nice analogy, nice correlation – but don’t you think that their is a little bit of fluid ideas that are always changing instead of concrete ones?

  28. Concrete goals are absolutely the way to success but please do have in mind that emotions can not be concrete..life is dynamic, not static and we may not leave out that things are changing constantly

  29. […] is from Jonathan Fields. He wrote an article a while back, about motivating his daughter to study (check it out here). It elegantly explains the principal of Outcome Clarity with the added bonus of Jonathan’s […]