The Stick, the Carrot, and the Gift

The Stick, the Carrot and the Gift

(about a 2 to 3 minute read)

Most of us, most of the time, do the things we do for stick, carrot, or avoidance reasons. The problem is that these forms of motivation do not satisfy us. To really thrive, we need to do things for gift reasons.

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This is an excerpt from a new essay I'm working on. It'll be a while before the whole thing is ready, so I thought today I'd share a short piece of it.

I believe we do things for one of 3 basic reasons:

  1. To avoid a future punishment or earn a future reward; I call these stick or carrot reasons.
  2. To avoid discomfort in the current moment; I call these escape/rebellion reasons.
  3. Because it’s an authentic choice that feels good to our whole self right now, or it builds well-being in the long run; I call these gift reasons.

Here are some examples of each type of reason.


Stick reasons for some of the things you do:

  • Because if you don’t, something bad will happen, or something that you need to have happen, won't. The rent/mortgage won’t get paid or the kids won’t get a good education or the in-laws will be offended or [you fill in the blank].
  • Because if you don’t, an external authority—the teacher, boss, spouse, whoever—won’t be happy. You’ll be punished or penalized either directly or indirectly.
  • Because if you don’t, an internal authority—the one that was installed during childhood and that takes over where parents and teachers left off—won’t be happy. It will punish you with feelings of regret, guilt or shame. Possibly for a very long time.
  • Because you’re afraid not to. See all of the above.

The carrot reason:

  • Because if you don’t, you won’t get the carrot. The feeling (from your inner authority) that you are a good person, an okay parent, worthy of self-approval. Or (from the outer authority) the bonus, the long service leave, the praise and recognition, the good grades, the approval and acceptance.


Escape/rebellion reasons:

  • It’s a way to escape or avoid something worse, or a way to numb yourself or give yourself some sweetness or comfort or entertainment in an otherwise unbearable set of circumstances. (Not to be confused with “authentic enjoyment,” below.)
  • You’re rebelling against either the outer or the inner authority. Screw them. You deserve a reward. (This is really just another form of escape or avoidance.)


And finally, the gift reasons:

  • Because it’s good for someone or something you care about. It’s a gift you give, of support or compassion or generosity, which feels so good that through your giving, you are also receiving. (It’s important to note that this only works if it’s a gift you give freely. If someone else is manipulating, coercing, or guilting you into doing it, that stops it from being a gift reason and makes it into a stick reason.)
  • Because it’s good for you in the longer term. You’ve made an informed, conscious, deliberate choice to do it. You know that this action (which may be hard to get started with and may not feel great initially) builds increased well-being. This is a gift you give to your future self.
  • Because it’s good for you right now. It’s fully, authentically enjoyable right now. It deeply nourishes some part of you in some way. (Not to be confused with escape or avoidance, above.) This is a gift to your present self.


Doing things for the right reasons

Most of us do things mostly for stick, carrot, or avoidance reasons. Who has the time, energy or resources to do things for gift reasons?!

The problem with this is that your deepest self is not satisfied when you do things only to dodge the stick, earn a carrot, or indulge in short term avoidance.

Your deepest self thrives on giving and receiving gifts.


Please leave a comment below

There's more on this in the pipeline. Will you help shape it by leaving a comment or question on what you've read so far?

  • Erica says:

    Hi Kate :), I think when we are born into this world we are born with a “gift mentality”. Its our natural connection with nature. Nature shares her gifts. But we have created this different world/society to live in, so we are educated, taught and told to act in a different way in order to achieve a goal or to be successful . We are trained into using the “stick, carrot or avoidance” methods. We are rated in school and this continues throughout life and changes our behaviour. Now with social media every one of our sentences can be liked or not. We react in order to be liked and this can take us away from our true self. Its good to stop and think about the “gift mentality ” that still lies deep inside of us.

    • Kate says:

      I totally agree, Erika. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts, especially your points about how a gift mentality is our natural state, but things like school grades and social media train us to distrust it.

  • Alain says:

    Very interesting essay… Can’t wait to see the next parts! 🙂

  • alina says:

    Hm…this has huge ramifications. That’s why we build community; because we are social beings and feel better giving and receiving. Also, giving is in direct contrast with the mainstream economic model, which mandates currency be involved, and regulation, and enforcement. Our authentic selves want to feel good, and when that comes from outside of us, we aren’t truly satisfied. It’s difficult, but necessary, to recognize that we must learn (or unlearn) how to turn inward for these true gifts, and appreciate how important they are. Wow, heavy! Thanks for this perspective.

    • Kate says:

      Yes, Alina, you are right. This has enormous ramifications. Thanks for your comment; I need to chew on it a bit but I’ll be referring back to it when I get into writing more on this!

  • Aliaksei says:

    If we give a gift then our deepest self feels satisfaction.
    May be our deepest self wants to give a gift because wants to feel satisfaction.
    If satisfaction is a motivation then what is a difference between gift and carrot?

    • Kate says:

      Hi Aliaksei, thanks for commenting… A gift is freely given, no strings attached — the giver does not want to change the behavior of the recipient. A “carrot” is another word for “reward,” which is given to encourage a behavior that the giver of the carrot liked or wants the recipient to repeat.

      So you could say a carrot is a bribe; it wouldn’t be given if the giver didn’t want something back. I think many givers of carrots do not realize they’re perpetuating a control paradigm that they would gladly step out if they knew how to (me included). Lots more on that in the pipeline on this topic.

      We give carrots, fittingly, to donkeys in order to train them into desired behaviors. As a culture, we’re wriggling and kicking as we awaken to the realization that people are not donkeys, and that rewards, while a step in the right direction away from punishments, don’t bring out the best in people. I’m not just playing with words here; there is plenty of solid science explaining why rewards work when training animals but not when training people (some of which I’ll touch on when I write more).

      • Aliaksei says:

        Hello Kate 🙂
        What if our deepest self wants to give a gift because it wants to receive a carrot (satisfaction)? And the situation is unconscious self training.

        • Kate says:

          🙂 Hi Aliaksei,

          Your deepest self knows that it does not need carrots in order to feel satisfaction. it knows the difference between:

          – carrots (which are conditional on certain behaviors or performance, just the same as all carrots we received while we were growing up and all carrots we still receive as adults from ourselves when we try to control ourselves, and from others when they try to control us)

          – and gifts, which are freely given and received for the simple purpose of pleasure, enjoyment, and enrichment of your own or another person’s life

          your deepest self also knows that it does not need self-training. Self-training is another word for self-control. Control—of self and others—is something we have become obsessed with, and when I write more on this topic I will explore how this happened (it would take WAY too long here). Seeing how it happened, we might then begin to see ways that we could learn to gradually let go of control.

          In the meantime, if your deepest self wanted to feel satisfaction, and if you were listening to it and following what it REALLY wants and needs, you would simply do something that gives you—and your deepest self—satisfaction. That would feel so good, it would be a gift from you, to yourself. No control or self-training needed.

          But this is almost impossible for many of us to do, because we are so busy instead training our imperfect selves to do what we think we SHOULD do according to some “authority figure.”

          When our deepest self does not want to do what we think we SHOULD do, we have to give it a carrot. Then we have bribed it, and for a while it may do what we want because it does like the carrot, but sooner or later its going to feel dissatisfied again because you have not met its deepest need, and then you will have to give it another carrot. Probably a bigger carrot. And then another, even bigger carrot.

          Note that what I am calling an “authority figure” is either a real, outer authority (teacher, parent, policeman, boss, etc) or an imagined inner authority that plays the same role but is for control of self, not control of others.

          To live truly satisfying lives, we would look only to our own deepest self for guidance on how to behave.

          Since our deepest self wants only to gift enjoyment and satisfaction to itself and others, if we looked only to our deepest self for guidance, we would not need “authority figures” such as policemen, and we would not need any self-training (self-control).

          But to live without “authority figures,” we would have to do two things:

          – learn how to let go of self-control (giving ourselves carrots to make up for not giving ourselves real satisfaction) and instead give ourselves what we need

          – and learn how to live our lives in ways that give the gifts that meet the needs of others so that they don’t have to use control measures (various forms of violence, subtle or otherwise) on us to get what they need. Then we would no longer need policemen and other outer “authority figures”

          with everybody’s needs thus met, the necessity of control, or training, (of self or others) goes away.

          Yes, we still need to learn things. But this is also another huge topic – that we can learn in ways that do not involve “training”—self-training or training others—that is not FREELY CHOSEN by the learner. Too big of a topic for right now!

          to be very, very clear, carrots are used for control just as sticks are, because they are used to influence or manipulate someone’s (or your own) behavior.
          Carrots look better and taste better, and yes, they are better than sticks if you are using them because you want to move away from the violence of sticks. But any form of trying to control or influence anyone’s behavior against their free will—in a way that they would not give freely as a gift—is still a form of violence.

          Carrots are just a more subtle form of violence than sticks.

          These are very, very difficult ideas for us to understand. If you are an individual trying to live a good life, if you are a parent trying to give your children the best start possible, if you are a teacher, if you are any kind of human being at all in our current, modern, “advanced” culture, these are critical, and critically difficult, concepts to sit with, to ponder on, to experiment with.

          Here are some books that might help:
          Non-Violent Communication and all other books by Marshal B Rosenberg and by anybody who has trained with him in Non-Violent Communication

          Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, and other writings and videos (try YouTube) by Alfie Kohn

          The Yoga of Eating by Charles Eisenstein

          Transformational Weight Loss by Charles Eisenstein

          Aliaksei, I hope I have not made the whole thing more complicated!
          I hope my answers are a little bit helpful.
          And thank you, THANK YOU, for the gift of your beautiful questions!

          • Aliaksei says:

            > In the meantime, if your deepest self wanted to feel satisfaction, and if you were listening to it and following what it REALLY wants and needs, you would simply do something that gives you—and your deepest self—satisfaction. That would feel so good, it would be a gift from you, to yourself.

            Looks like if we become mindful then our deepest self starts training out consciousness self.

            > To live truly satisfying lives, we would look only to our own deepest self for guidance on how to behave.

            Here you speak about conscience. And it does not fill satisfaction. It says us what is right even if it hurts us. For example when we say truth that we ate all sweets.

            And as I understand, our deepest self uses conscience to communicate with our consciousness self.

            > Marshal B Rosenberg

            Yes, I also advice his book to people who are ready for it.

            > I hope I have not made the whole thing more complicated!

            Nope, you made it clearer.

            A few thoughts about this subject:

            > When our deepest self does not want to do what we think we SHOULD do, we have to give it a carrot. Then we have bribed it, and for a while it may do what we want because it does like the carrot, but sooner or later its going to feel dissatisfied again because you have not met its deepest need, and then you will have to give it another carrot. Probably a bigger carrot. And then another, even bigger carrot.

            If we do light running every day – we feel satisfaction.
            If we watch TV all evenings – our back is not satisfied.
            If we do what is the best for us – we are in good shape and we are satisfied. Otherwise we suffer.

            Our consciousness self can ignore deepest self of feed it with carrots because it is easy influenced by external wishes ( tasty fried food, new smartphone, cultural pressure to be rich).

            > If you are an individual trying to live a good life, if you are a parent trying to give your children the best start possible …

            For that we need to train our consciousness self to see external wishes but do not replace our deepest needs with them, do not allow external wishes to control us.

            I hope my opinion is make sense.
            And thank you for books.

            • Kate says:

              hi again Aliaksei

              >”Looks like if we become mindful then our deepest self starts training out consciousness self.”

              I think I would say that if we become more “mindful” or more “present” then what I think you are calling the “conscious self”–the part that has the impulse to control, train, and improve ourselves–starts to relax a bit and then our deepest self can come forth more…

              I’m not sure I would say that our deepest self wants or needs to train the other parts of us… it knows we are perfectly okay just the way we are…

              >”For that we need to train our consciousness self to see external wishes but do not replace our deepest needs with them, do not allow external wishes to control us.”

              I think you put this beautifully: we need to recognize external wishes (like your examples of new smartphone, cultural pressure to be rich) as just that–external. Assuming that meeting those external wishes will meet our deepest needs is one of the things that gets us into trouble.

  • John says:

    Motivations for doing things (maybe just different words for the above)
    – comforting ..that’s the way we have always done them, familiarity, habits formed which have long divorced from the original “stick, carrot, gift.
    – easiest route (few of us have the fortitude to push through the hard stuff);fear of failure reinforces this; doing nothing
    – controlling our environment
    – curiosity (a primeval motivation which has driven mankinds development since we climbed down out of the trees). Is this a forebrain motivation or something hardwired.

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for commenting, John. I liked your list of motivations. I think I would put curiosity into the “gift to self” category. Little children have no trouble gifting themselves all the time in the world to satisfy their curiosity.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “fore brain motivation or something hardwired”?

  • Si says:

    Hi Kate,

    As ever short and insightful post. I like the fact that you detail that a gift may be done for all the wrong reasons. I feel that information like this will likely fall on deaf ears, or should I say ears with fingers in them whilst singing la la la. The majority of the world is hoping that all the madness will disappear without them having to take responsibility.

    “Your deepest self thrives on giving and receiving gifts. ” I assume that this also means blessings and gifts to the self such as nourishment and praise. Beautifully put.

    Good Luck and Blessings to you Kate.

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for your comment! I know I’m singing to the choir here 🙂

      Yes, I did mean blessings and gifts to the self as well as outwardly into the world. This, I think, is for some of us the hardest of all — to be kind to ourselves for no good reason.

  • Craig says:

    I’ve not heard of this before and found it very interesting and thought provoking:-)

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for commenting, Craig! “Thought provoking” is exactly what I hoped to achieve 🙂

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