Essence of Motivation – Sadhu, Strangers and the Van Driver

What moves you… what drives you to take a certain path or do an action in a certain way?  Your motivation can carry you through some tough ethical and moral dilemmas or pull you down in a cesspool of guilt trip for as long as you live.  Let us take the case of the Sadhu and compare it with five strangers in Manhattan.


In 1997 while on Sabbatical from his work, Buzz McCoy went on a 60-day trip to Nepal that would take them to an 18,000 feet pass to the ancient holy place for pilgrims called Muklinath. He was with his anthropologist friend, Stephen, a “committed Quaker with a deep moral vision” as Buzz described him. There were other groups that were with them on the trek, a New Zealander, Japanese and a Swiss group.  While on the trek, one of the New Zealanders came back from his ascent struggling with a limp body of a Sadhu, an Indian holy man that is almost stripped naked, already weak from hypothermia.  However, he just sort of dumped the body on Buzz’s group and continued with his scheduled task of climbing the summit.  The responsibility of what to do with the Sadhu fell upon Buzz.  He too would not want to miss a once-in-a-lifetime experience and is now torn between helping the near-death Sadhu and continuing his ascent to the summit.  Stephen who was starting to suffer from altitude sickness was more concerned about the Sadhu and talked to the other mountaineers to bring the Sadhu to a hut below for better protection, but to no avail.  In the end, everyone in the group continued with what they set out to do in the first place – make the summit, leaving the Sadhu now fully clothed with some provisions but no more than that.  While all the mountaineers achieved their goal, nobody knew what became of the Sadhu, if he survived with the help afforded him or if he eventually died.


Then there’s the story of Peter Bergman.  One rainy evening in Manhattan, New York, Peter saw an old disabled man struggling with a walker trying to get down the slippery stairs of his building to catch his ride – Metropolitan Transit Authority.  As the process becomes tedious, four more gentlemen helped the old man get down the stairs of the building while the driver of the van kept inside his van warm and dry  almost about to give up on his passenger as traffic has started to build up behind the van.  The men persisted that he wait for the old man and after a few slips they finally reached the van.  However negotiating another set of stairs going up the van in the pouring rain can make the task almost impossible.  Then one man asked the driver if the van had an electric lift and that was the only time he seemed to remember, “Oh yeah,” jumps out of his stupor to join the men in the rain to open the electric elevator and help the old man finally get in the van.  This little act of kindness from total strangers produced ripples of happiness and gratitude from the stuck drivers from the New Yorkers who uncharacteristically smiled and waved their hands in gratitude despite being stuck in traffic for ten minutes because of the incident.


These two stories give us a good study in contrast – actions based on motivation versus actions based on instinct.  The mountaineers and the men in the rain both had the opportunity to play the Good Samaritan to a complete stranger.  One group helped just a little perhaps to assuage the pinch they felt in their conscience because as morally upright citizens they have a moral obligation to help somebody in time of dire need and are embarrassed not to do so; (though not embarrassed enough to finish the job).  For all intents and purposes, they were in Nepal to achieve a goal and experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of reaching the summit.  Except for Stephen who tried to persuade his colleagues to go the extra mile, everyone mentally weighed the pros and cons and voted that their set goal was more important, forget about the Sadhu.  What this parable says to us is that when confronted with a complicated corporate scenario, one individual offering a solution should get the backing of the group.  If he cannot muster the group’s endorsement, no matter how morally correct or beneficial the proposed solution is, it will not prosper and the individual will be left feeling confused and alone.


The five New Yorkers on the other hand, saw the disabled men struggling and had no compelling reason not to help him.  Peter instinctively ran to steady him and it was not hard for the other men to follow his lead (persuasion through safety in numbers).  The pouring rain made it a bit cumbersome but they were already wet anyway and could not get any damper than they already are.  Their response was almost spontaneous because there were no significant deterrents to their decision to help this poor guy catch his ride.  No greater purpose will be set aside; no goals will have to be disregarded.  The driver, in contrast, was dry, warm, and comfortable inside the bus and will not readily change his current secured situation if he can help it.  Besides, he could have thought there are already too many of them helping him out, I might just as well stay out of the way.  When he was “reminded” of his obligation as a van driver for people with disabilities, he suddenly remembered that there was a way he can help and readily sprung to action.


It is interesting to note the driver’s complacency in the midst of all these.  What will motivate him to take action without further prodding?  When the motivating factor is financial rather than intrinsic, there is always a tendency to go the shortest way to get it and conditioning their minds that the end always justifies the means.  On the other hand, when the financial reward is not that enticing, the individual could either stay unaffected and lethargic, or he could be hit by an inspiration or a desire to help even without the promise of any reward.


Motivation is indeed a compelling and complex process and one that should not be taken lightly as it can change the course of humanity.  When we talk about moral or ethical dilemmas, it is highly possible to encounter a wall of ambiguity.  When it comes to making a decision, our actions normally reflect the values that we hold dear and what we believe is the greater purpose; when at work, inculcate these values and you will set a leadership trend.

My thoughts above are based on the classic published in Harvard Business Review – “A parable of Sadhu”  by Mc.Coy Bowen.




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