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Why Intrinsic Motivation Is The Key To Fulfilling Work

Want a job that has you leaping out of bed in the morning? Here's how to find your intrinsic motivation and the benefits it will have.
by Rosie Allabarton | Sep 25 2019

What keeps you motivated during work? Is it the thought of a fat paycheck at the end of the month, or a sincere passion for what you do? As we’ve seen in the video above, sometimes incentives like a good salary can still lead to unhappiness—even if at first it’s hard to see what exactly we’re unhappy about. Though, let’s face it, puppies are always nice.

Psychologists have long shown interest in what keeps humans motivated. In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink discusses two categories of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from external incentives: like your paycheck, a shiny company car, or an office with a view. Intrinsic motivation is when performing and completing the task become the rewards in themselves, irrespective of pay, praise, or social approval.

In this article we’re going to look at why having intrinsic motivators in our work are the key to feeling fulfilled in our careers and, in turn, our lives. Once we have a better understanding of what gets us out of bed in the morning, we can start to build our working lives around producing more of that feeling. But if you only have a minute then check out the video above where Page and Turner explain how it all works. You can also read or listen to the key ideas from Drive, by Daniel Pink, on Blinkist in just about 15 minutes.

Extrinsic motivation kills your curiosity

In Drive, Pink gives us a history of punishment and reward in the workplace. He explains that since the dawn of more complex industrial processes, many workplaces use the carrot-and-stick approach of extrinsic motivation to control and motivate the workforce. The theory goes that if a worker is paid more money—“the carrot”—they’ll haul more coal or answer their emails more quickly. If a worker is threatened with losing their job—“the stick”—they’ll work harder to make sure that won’t happen.

This theory is based on the assumption that workers need constant supervision. Otherwise, they’ll try to avoid responsibility whenever they can, because they don’t actually want to perform the work they’re assigned. Even now, many of us can relate to this type of management. It’s assumed that if we’re promised a big pay raise when a target is reached, we’ll be motivated to reach that target. It’s also assumed that if we know we’ll be fired for bad behavior, we’ll follow the rules.

However, the carrot-and-stick model doesn’t take our natural curiosity into account. A study by professor of psychology Harry Harlow found that when human beings find a job fulfilling, they no longer need any other kind of reward. Even more interesting: If we do reward someone for a job that they feel intrinsically motivated to do, it can actually have negative consequences.

This theory is supported by other educators in the field. Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior. He concluded in this piece for the New York Times: “…when we are rewarded for doing something, we tend to lose interest in whatever we had to do to get the reward.”

A society founded on a rewards-based system can numb our natural curiosity and the enjoyment we find in everyday tasks. Extrinsic motivators like certificates or good grades eventually erase intrinsic motivators. An innate desire to learn could vanish for example. It’s important that we don’t give extrinsic motivators so much importance. Instead focus on intrinsic motivators—what Pink calls Motivation 3.0—if we want to be fulfilled and happy.

This also pays off in the long-term. Researchers interviewed students about their main goals in life. Those whose original goals were to become rich or successful suffered from depression and anxiety more often than the students who had stated goals like helping others or personal development.

Intrinsic motivation has clearer results

There are other flaws in using extrinsic motivation that might surprise you. Offering a reward for an activity can also lead to worse results because it adds pressure to achieve. Pink gives an example of participants offered different sums of money for hitting targets with tennis balls. Those offered the highest rewards performed the worst. The financial incentive fails to improve their performances, the pressure actually inhibited them.

Not all the results of the carrot-and-stick approach were bad. For short-term, routine, or repetitive tasks like packing bags, extrinsic rewards can be effective. What was consistently reported was that in more creative fields, or for tasks that were more mentally challenging, carrot-and-stick motivation leads to poorer performances.

What we can conclude from these studies is that we should be trying to find out what motivates us intrinsically. Once we know what interests us, what we’re passionate about and what inspires us, we’ll have found the key to a fulfilling career. We can be safe in the knowledge that we’ll remain engaged in and absorbed by what we’re doing.

Finding your flow state increases your passion

finding your flow state

An interesting aspect of Pink’s so-called Motivation 3.0. is that, once we’ve found our passion, the more we want to engage with it. Pink cites artists who will get into a flow state and paint for hours on end, or computer scientists who will work until they have solved a difficult problem. This state often goes hand-in-hand with the drive for perfection. The little tastes of success that we experience as we work hard on a project keep us inspired to continue. This applies to our lives more generally, too.

Interestingly, people who believe their talents are not innate, but something that can improve, are easier to motivate. This goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the flow state. If someone who believes talent is a question of working hard becomes passionate about what they’re doing, they’ll continue to work on it. This in turn will help them improve a lot faster and become more talented in their field than the person who believes we’re born with specific talents. Besides, the person who works hard at what they’re passionate about will find that it’s the small successes achieved while they’re in the flow state that drive them to complete that task to the best of their ability.

What we can learn from this in our jobs and careers is that to stay motivated at what we want to do in life, we shouldn’t limit our outlook by deciding some people are talented and some aren’t. This thought alone will demotivate us. We need to understand that talent comes from working hard at something we enjoy, which in turn leads to improvements and more skills in that area. If you love it, you’ll find that intrinsic motivation to continue and you’ll soon find the skills you’re practicing become second nature to you.

Grow your own carrots

We’ve learned there are short term benefits to extrinsic motivations like money and rewards. In the long term performance-related incentives can have a detrimental impact on how we do our jobs. More importantly, how we feel about our lives and work.

It can be hard shrugging off societal pressure to take home a certain-sized paycheck every month. If we’re all able to focus on what really makes us happy as well as the things that keep us challenged and fulfilled then those extrinsic motivators would no longer be necessary. Essentially when we’ve found a passion, we’re naturally inclined to work effectively without the need for carrots or sticks.

We recommend to take a look at Drive by Daniel Pink, available now on Blinkist. Learn more about different types of motivation, what intrinsically motivates and change your life for the better!

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