The Wicked Son: A Problem of Perspective, Not Personality

Why do people work for their success and find success at their work? For most, motivation is money – performance pay, bonuses, cash prizes. If the statistics are right, nearly seven out of 10 employees are driven by the almighty dollar. A smaller bracket – around two out of 10 workers – are preoccupied with the pursuit of power and the accumulation of influence, a drive for corporate domination. (They are also more likely to crash and burn than their colleagues. Go figure.) Then there’s the smallest subset, those whose profile might resemble the newly-minted (or never graduated) twenty-somethings from Silicon Valley. They seek out intangible factors like decentralized, collaborative work spaces, an ethos of eco-friendliness, social entrepreneurism, and, of course, trendy trappings like foosball tables, nap pods and an in-house sushi chef. But there’s the dark side of motivation: the motivation of fear. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of failure, or being perceived as a failure. Fear of disappointing a superior. Most of us live here – four out of five employees, spanning all age and experience subsets. For a long time, we’ve assumed that people either respond to carrots or to sticks, and that motivation is born somewhere in between. This assumption about human behavior is interwoven in our business practices, educational apparatus, and personal interactions, a belief that runs as deep as the mind itself.

Turns out, it’s not necessarily true. As Daniel Pink has pointed out, there’s a big gap between what science knows and what business does. And the science is fairly clear and unanimous: Motivation doesn’t emerge from external stimuli like threats or rewards. It isn’t produced by dangling a carrot or wielding a stick. The truest, purest, most raw forms of motivation come from an intrinsic drive to give. To contribute. To work with purpose, and to find purpose in our work.

This resurgent view of motivation and its roots can guide us to a more compelling understanding of the “work” that surfaces in the Hagaddah and its presentation of the four sons. “What is this work that you have?” rings a familiar voice. It belongs to the rasha, purportedly the wicked son, the wayward son, the son who can barely make it through a family dinner without a snicker or a sneer. For generations, we’ve portrayed him as the outcast, the misfit, the one who gets a seat at the table but hardly considers himself a member of the tribe. Generations of Jews (me included) have long associated the rasha and his query with wholesale condemnation of religion and its adherents. His tone sounds derisive and accusatory, his words piercing and exclusionary. And yet he sits at our seder table, year after year, railing against us and his silent siblings with the same rancor and hubris. I used to think that we saved a place for the rasha because of our family ties – that, despite his cynicism and total lack of interest, he’s still got the Jewish gene. We’ll suffer his indignations, absorb his barbs and blows, and swallow our displeasure for the simple reason that every Jew deserves to be heard, even for just one night. But maybe there’s more to the rasha’s standing invitation to Judaism’s hacienda. We don’t extend a hand because we are feeling high-minded or inclusive. We make room at the table because the rasha is still redeemable – flawed, but redeemable. He doesn’t have a problem of personality. He has a problem of perception.

That’s because perception can interfere with our thinking and better judgement. Consider Karl Duncker’s “Candle Problem,” a well-known cognitive performance task published posthumously in 1945. Duncker gave his subjects a wax candle, a matchbox, and a box of thumbtacks and instructed them to light the candle and make it stick to a corkboard wall using only the materials provided. Some tried to partially melt the candle and adhere it to the wall. Others tried to affix the candle to the wall using the tacks. Neither worked. The solution? Empty the thumbtacks from the box, put the candle inside the empty container, attach the box to the wall using the tacks, and light the candle. The study has become a favorite of business schools and social scientists enamored with problem-solving and creativity. Duncker labeled the failure to solve the problem “functional fixedness,” or the inability to perceive an object’s alternate purpose beyond the obvious. Laymen might simply call this a lack of creativity, but what it really demonstrates is a lack of perception. It’s not just a box for thumbtacks. It’s a platform for a candle.

Religion is hard work. Indeed, it is avodah, the rasha’s pejorative. But the word is hardly his own invention. God invokes it multiple times to describe religious faith and practice throughout the books of Shemot and Devarim. So why is avodah considered a dirty word only when the rasha uses it? Because for him, avodah is service. It’s a debt to be paid, a burden to bear. Religion imposes barriers and limits on the human experience. But with only a modest change in perception, avodah can be seen in an entirely new light – a form of contribution, the type envisioned by God and called as such. The rosier view of avodah – the remedy to the rasha’s myopia – is one that confers opportunity, autonomy and purpose. Religious practice allows us to live outside of ourselves, to contribute to the larger causes of our time. Far from placing limits on the human spirit, avodah can unleash kindness, generosity, selflessness, tolerance and humility, to name but a few nobilities. By labeling our religion an avodah, the rasha has named the antidote to human imperfection. All he needs to do now is recognize its curative powers. That’s why he can book reservations at our seder. He really is one of us, but looks out at his co-religionists with hazy eyes. Our job is to sharpen his worldview.

Fortune magazine just released its annual list of the 100 best companies to work for. They come from different industries and have very different businesses, but nearly all, without fail, share a simple belief: Great companies are built on great employees, and great employees are given room to grow. They are given opportunities to contribute within and beyond their companies and often strive to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. At these companies, work isn’t stultifying. It’s gratifying. And so it is – and can be – with the “work” of religious practice. Whether it inhibits or inspires, whether it confines or it connects – whether it is work, or it is joyis a matter of perception. The rasha can’t see it. On seder night, can we?

About the Author
Joe Hirsch teaches students at Akiba Academy in Dallas, TX and is a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School of Education.
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