What the United States Census Taught Me About Motivation

You have to give credit to the United States Census; just five weeks with them have taught me more about people and how they work than any other job I’ve been in—and none of what I’ve learned is Personally Identifiable Information.

One of the first lessons I learned from the Census was about motivating people. It’s a vital skill, both for game masters and writers. The GM needs to be able to convince the players, their characters or both to go in the directions for which she’s prepared or can improvise, while the writer needs to make it look like the characters actually want to do what they’re doing, instead of the reasoning boiling down to ‘the plot says so’. What the Census gave me was one little sentence that can serve as motivation in almost any circumstance.

“I’m going to take a chance on you.” That was how my telephone interview resolved itself, with one little sentence. Looking back on my time with the Census, I think that served to motivate me at least as much as the pay, and certainly as much as anything else during my employment. And to be fair, I was a pretty long shot. The Census requires standing on people’s doorsteps to count them; my range was limited to places accessible by foot and mass transit. It requires talking to people you’ve never met, a situation which I’m still rather discomforted by. In short, test scores or none, I was a bit of a risk for this hirer, and she knew it. But she hired me anyway, and that alone was motivation to get the job done as best I could.

Why does this sentence work? Let’s look at it a little more closely. A lot of sentences aren’t powerful because of what they say, but because of what they imply: the presuppositions of the sentence. This one is no exception. “I’m going to take a chance on you.” The sentence carries four presuppositions: “Most people would think you’re not cut out for the job.” “I think you can do it.” “I’m willing to take a risk to let you prove that you can.” “Don’t disappoint me.” That’s a lot of meaning for one sentence, isn’t it?

Successfully doing the thing that you’re being taken a chance on for carries two rewards, as well. One is proving the people who doubt you wrong. There’s something utterly satisfying about that: you get to feel smug about the fact that you knew better than they did, and you get to fight against expectation and win. I remember several afternoons walking home with the handheld and realizing with a certain amount of smugness that even when I counted in the fifteen minutes travel each way, I was still averaging better than an address per minute—better than the twenty per hour expected of us. The other reward is vindicating someone else’s trust in you; a lot of people can’t be motivated to help themselves, but they’ll practically rewrite physics in order to help someone else. The likelihood of being approved of doesn’t exactly hurt.

Now imagine using this sort of motivation on a newly formed group of adventurers, or even a single amateur. Another presupposition works its way into the mix; if you prove the doubts about you wrong, people will remember you, recognize you. Reputation is a powerful thing on its own.

“I’m going to take a chance on you.” For motivating characters, this might be one of the most powerful sentences in the English language. What do you think?

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