It’s Really the Journey that Matters, 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 161

Kevin Novak
8 min readMay 23, 2024

Issue 161, May 23, 2024

In our never-ending quest to understand human behavior in the context of organizational culture, we study a lot of nontraditional, surprising, and often seemingly unrelated, strange material. There is plenty written about pop psychology and behavior, but every once in a while, we discover a paradigm-shifting visionary. Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, written in 2017 is still relevant and a seminal thought-shifting proposition. We introduced our admiration of Sapolsky and his writings a few months ago in one of our most popular issues of this newsletter “Is this Us.” We discussed Sapolsky’s book: Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will which reveals how little is really in our conscious control.

Behave

We’re going to share this brief book report and our discussion as the catalyst for you to rethink how leaders and their organizations manage a workforce, develop strategy, and market products and services in terms of what drives us and how we are influenced. Stay tuned for those connections; it is likely not what you think.

But first, a topline summary describes Behave as the exploration of the complex factors that shape human behavior, from biology to culture. The book provides a detailed understanding of the hormonal, developmental and life experience influences on our present and future actions and offers insights into what really makes us tick. Sapolsky looks at the “factors that bear on a person’s reaction in the precise moment a behavior occurs, and then hops back in time, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its evolutionary legacy. His cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines provides a subtle and nuanced perspective on why we ultimately do the things we do…for good and for ill. Sapolsky builds on this understanding to wrestle with some of our deepest and thorniest questions relating to tribalism and xenophobia, hierarchy and competition, morality and free will, and war and peace (Good Reads).”

You may be asking at this point who is Robert Sapolsky. Well, he is a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University, and a research associate at the National Museum of Kenya. His unique perspective on the human condition comes from more than 30 years spent as both a field primatologist and a laboratory neuroscientist.

In the many summaries of Sapolsky’s work, what fascinates him most about human behavior is a paradox — we are both the most violent species on earth, as well as the most altruistic, cooperative, and empathic. He believes every act, heroic, appalling, or in between, is caused by the neurobiology that goes all the way back to childhood and fetal experience sculpting our brains, as well as the effects of genes, culture, ecology, and evolution. His perspective is that as biological organisms, we have far less free will (or control) than we usually assume.

Rewards

Okay, that’s a lot of neuroscience and behavioral expertise and perhaps a lot to digest. But in reading Behave, there’s one particular point that caught our attention and the reason we have provided such a long prelude. Sapolsky discusses dopamine and its role in our motivations.

A word about dopamine. Simply stated, dopamine is one of the feel-good” hormones. It gives you a sense of pleasure when it is released in the mind because of thought, presence or action (virtual or physical). Consider a practical example. You arrive home, and your pet is excited to see you as soon as you open the door. Your mind in that moment provides you with a dose of dopamine. You immediately feel good, and you also feel a sense of connection. Perhaps the more interesting side of the equation is that research shows that dogs also receive a boost of dopamine upon seeing one in its “family.” Dogs, like humans are equally subject to a hormone boost.

“Dopamine acts on areas of the brain (frontal cortex) to generate a feeling of pleasure, satisfaction, or motivation. Dopamine also has a role to play, along with other hormones, in controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, concentration, movement, and other body functions (Healthdirect). It is a topic we covered in The Truth About Transformation as we described how human factors impede or propel organizational transformation.

So, what got our attention is Sapolsky’s statement, “Dopamine is not about happiness of reward. It’s about happiness in pursuit of reward that has a decent chance of occurring.” He represents that we (and our brains) are driven by the journey, not the end goal. There is also an element of expectation that results in a dopamine release. If we believe we may get tickets to a concert, despite the high demand and limited seats, the pursuit itself results in a release. When we feel good, we are even more motivated.

The Journey

Consider another situation that represents a journey. We identify a problem that needs a solution. We get energized about the possibility of solving the problem whether or not we are going to make a difference or receive accolades from our leaders or peers. That energy represents our motivation as a result of the hormonal release and the anticipation of the journey of solving the problem. In short, we may feel more motivated and energized as we develop the solution than putting the actual solution in place. The end result isn’t as exciting as the steps along the path. Contrary to popular thought, the achievement of the goal isn’t as pleasurable as the steps to getting there.

Think about that for a moment as it relates to how we communicate a new idea, market an event experience, introduce a new product and service, and lead a customer on the discovery journey to become a subscriber, member, or customer. Think about that as well as we seek to change and transform an organization.

It is of course important not to confuse short-and long-term thinking in consideration of our very human default as pleasure seekers. Focusing on the journey is short-term. But consider how we are motivated and rewarded along the way. As we have written again and again, decision-making that envelops short-term gains/change comes with consequences; many consequences that are completely unintended. Sapolsky reveals to us why so many individual leaders take the shorter road and make decisions that are short-term in focus.

We have and will continue to argue that taking the long view is critical to successful organizational change and transformation. There is a necessity to recognize what really motivates us and either work with it or seek to work around it.

It’s the Journey, not the Destination

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” describing the enjoyment of ‘getting there,’ as just as important as arriving at the destination.” Sparked by Sapolsky and Emerson, it occurs to us that creating a meaningful journey for stakeholders (the workforce, customers, constituents and the like) by inspiring their imaginations and feeding their anticipation could have way better results (think dopamine release) than focusing on the results.

Let’s consider a familiar example. An event marketer focuses on the event itself describing the great networking opportunities, beautiful location, stunning content, and great food. This messaging is interchangeable with just about any event marketing strategy.

What if instead of focusing on the endgame, the messaging focused on building levels of interest, intrigue, and excitement? A systematic cascade of communications piques the curiosity of potential attendees. Intentional event previews that develop a level of anticipatory pleasure with each subsequent message. A series of sparks unleashing that dopamine-infused sense of pleasure. The journey fuels the reward of the destination. This is a complete reversal of how organizations typically communicate. Rather it is invariably about the result, the payoff, not the pleasure of getting there.

Or how about the innovation team introducing a new system or solution? In most cases, the process is to extol the virtue of the innovation. Rarely is the onboarding about how the employee may benefit or how a job will be enhanced. What if instead the messaging was designed to build up the anticipation, personal rewards and fuel the imagination of the workforce? The same principles apply to the event marketing example.

The Means Justify the End

Another way to look at it is the opposite of Niccolò Machiavelli’s perspective, the end justifies the means. His approach was that if the goal is important enough, any method of getting there is acceptable. His perspective seems to remove the potential inherent motivation and therefore enjoyment that the ‘getting there’ may deliver for us.

To go back to our event marketer and Machiavelli, the team would do anything necessary to make the event successful. The ethical dilemma is promising an experience (and a journey) that may be out of touch with the reality of the actual event. Over-promising has consequences in creating the opposite of the dopamine effect for attendees. Or, undercutting fees to paper the room for the sponsors. Or overstating the reasons to attend or exaggerating the expected experience. Machiavelli was known to be a hardcore dogmatic who was dedicated to succeeding at all costs. But today, business ethics are called out by proactive consumers who will raise the red flag when there are misrepresentations and overstatements.

So, let’s flip the equation: The means justify the end. This goes back to Sapolsky’s findings that when “one chooses between an immediate versus a delayed reward, contemplating the immediate reward activates dopamine. Contemplating the delayed reward, the more likely there will be gratification postponement.” So put more simply, the means with its dopamine-infused pleasure rewards can be more satisfying than marketing the end result. How many event organizers feel a sense of emptiness or loss after a successful event has ended?

Changing the Paradigm

We are complex beings, and we sometimes take for granted that we are far too simple. We believe we are in control, know why we do the things we do, and why we make the decisions we make. At our foundational core we are driven to feel satisfaction, achievement, and success. But taking a page out of Sapolsky’s work, how do we correlate short-term pleasure with the assumption that it is not just the end result that provides pleasure? How much control do we really have when we instinctively (read subconsciously) seek the ways and means to have dopamine and other “feel good” hormones released?

As we consider human behavior in the context of organizational change and transformation, it merits considering the journey (the means) as the most important part of the process to arriving at the end result. Invariably, we feel differently than we rationally think. So, consider feeling as the new marketing and communications strategies in introducing something new!

Explore this issue and all past issues on 2040’s Website or via our Substack Newsletter.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut