How to Avoid the Next Great Resource Disaster

19/11/2012 13:09 | Updated 17 January 2013

At the end of a week when BP were fined $4.5 billion for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, attention should turn to avoiding the continuation of another waste of natural resources; human potential. Because every day thousands more barrels are being wasted by the promotion of a pursuit of happiness through synthetic means. Plugging this leak is a task for us all.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, what we do is determined by what we see and what this means to us, that these associations shape our decisions and that decisions become our lives.

To understand the power of associations let's start near the beginning of our lives, with our education. This week the education secretary, Michael Gove, gave a speech in which he said, "Exams matter because motivation matters... our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us." What Gove doesn't mention is that there are different types of motivation. This matters not just for exam performance but for the course of our society and our lives within it.

Exams are an example of extrinsic motivators - we do them in order to obtain a qualification. Financial incentives are another example - we do a task in order to get paid. But there is another type of motivators - intrinsic ones - the things that we pursue for the sake of doing so and nothing more. Gove and his sympathisers would argue that exams are necessary to get our children to learn, regardless of the source of the motivation. Now of course a looming deadline can help us to get things done but what matters in terms of fulfilment is the source of the motivation.

Are children learning because they enjoy it or because they are told that it is 'good for them'?

What we don't measure in exams is the source of the motivation behind wanting to pass an exam. And for so many education creates an association that achievement is linked to focusing on things that they have no interest in except as something to add to the CV. This isn't trivial.

In countless studies we find that those that are intrinsically motivated, far outperform those that are extrinsically motivated. And behind our greatest moments - the four-minute mile, climbing Everest, the Internet, to name the first three that come to mind - we find that the source of motivation is a not a pay-check but a dreamer with a passion.

Psychologists will tell us that our needs include things like; belonging, esteem and expression. If our needs are not met we feel incomplete, trying to fulfill them through what we do and who we do it with. And behind what we do are the associations that we have built up over the course of our lives.

If we grow up associating achievement from having to do things that we don't enjoy but do 'in order' to gain something else then this creates a synthetic pursuit of happiness. Just think of a time when you were motivated purely by money, did receiving it leave you asking, "is this it?"

It would be naive to say that money has no importance at all, of course it does, but seeking it has a price. Time is a valuable currency. What we often don't value in our pursuit of money is what we could have done with the time we've lost. If you are using your time doing things that you don't enjoy then one day you will run out of it, having spent it all on a life that you didn't want.

Because at it's heart this is the story of young people like John. John knew from a young age that he wanted to be a scientist, studying often in his own time - motivated by the love of the subject. But his grades didn't reflect his passion and he was at one time bottom his class of 250 at age 16. Around this time he was told by his teacher to give up because his dream was too ridiculous an idea. Maybe he should have listened, how many of us would have done?

However in 2012 John, or Sir John Gurdon to give him his full name, won the Nobel Prize in medicine. His prize was awarded for discovering that the specialisation of cells is reversible; that they can determine their own fate. The goal of our society should be no different.

In a society what gets measured gets managed. With GDP still the main focus of governments, hundreds of John's will grow up being told to 'do the sensible thing' and follow the money. How would the world be different if John, and others like him, hadn't pursued their own path? How would your life be different if you did?

Writing in 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said of the possibilities of future generations that, "It will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes."

That abundance is now in our hands - we have more wealth than we know what to do with as a society. The task now is to promote something quite different. To create a society promoting and utilising our potential.

Only in doing this will we prevent the next great resource disaster being ourselves. And only when we achieve this will we be truly free.