What drives you: Extrinsic or Intrinsic motivation?


What drives us is not just a key to the sustainability of our happiness, it also defines us as people more than we think.

What is extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? Extrinsic motivation is all that external stuff that tells us we have made it. People’s praise, a fat pay-check, a big watch, a nice car, a big house.. all those things have gained such importance in our lives these days, probably because of the advertising and marketing industry’s triumph in convincing us we are all losers, unless we have these symbols of success. These symbols have become very much what people measure themselves up against, signs of achievement and in fact rabbits, that whippet-like youngsters mindlessly chase around a track for, not because they necessarily want it, but because a lack of self-reflection and awareness has made it possible for the world to substitute individual values with collective definitions of what one SHOULD do, have or seen to be doing.

Intrinsic motivation is the opposite. It is about finding satisfaction from inner values, learning, growth as an individual, helping others, the sense of doing something useful, taking on a social cause and so on. Being driven by intrinsic motivation is also an opportunity to be authentic – think of your life as a house. Can you knock down the walls between the rooms and be the same person in each of them – if you did, would you like being the same person in all the rooms. Would that person reflect what you are all about? If you said yes to all the questions above, chances are you are an intrinsically motivated person. You have a Strong sense of values and it is very important for you not to be in conflict with those values – any job that offered you tons of money to be in conflict with those values you would feel bad about accepting, because you would feel like you are going against yourself. Maybe these things are not as clear in your mind that you could rationally explain why you said no to a tempting offer, maybe you need to remind yourself in case you are feeling foolish when friends rolls their eyes and tell you they don’t get your decision.

The extrinsic motivation is easy to get hooked on initially – the path of accumulating material wealth is clearly laid out. You know how to measure it and ironically, if you don’t pursue it people wonder what is wrong with you. The only way to avoid getting caught up in materialism is to understand where your happiness and fulfilment comes from.

The thing is that even though we are not in touch with our values, our drive can ensure our success for a while, but we will be unable to sustain it. Why? Because however we want to look at it, extrinsic motivation, although strong, will never be as strong as intrinsic motivation. As we age, we will find that something is missing in our lives and that we are holding back from being the person we want to be. We need the courage and honesty with ourselves to open up and examine our lives and ask ourselves the hard questions. As we do so we become more humane and vulnerable, but also more authentic as people. It also becomes easier to cope with times when things don’t go as planned, or the long-awaited promotion eludes us. We persist, because we are bigger than that.

Interestingly, it seems that at the heart of many successful companies lies the very notion of motivation too.  Built to Last  talks at length about what it is that makes companies great and it seems it is that inner sense of purpose, which is higher than merely the desire to be in profit. As the chairman of Hewlett Packard said on many occasions; “profit is what allows us to be here, but profit is not the reason for us to be here”. Those are examples of intrinsically motivated companies and they seem to be able to stand the test of time much better than their more extrinsically motivated competitors.

I suppose serving the test of time is what all of us earn for ultimately – fashion, fads, hairstyles all change, our jobs change, even our lifestyles – but who we are, well, if that rests on a more solid foundation than simply with the size of our car and the trappings of our latest salary package, means we also have the fortitude to last through the hard times.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. That was a brilliant and thought provoking article, I really enjoyed reading it. It is a shame that the need for financial security often detracts from responding to intrinsic motivation all of the time.

  2. Intrinsic VS Extrinsic Motivation

    I recently read a post (which is a very good way to spend 5 minutes) on Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation, and it made me ask good questions about why Ive made the decisions that Ive made throughout this year, especially coming from Thomson

  3. Piyush says:

    Excellent article. A must read for all in the rat race, me included. The feeling of an inherent unhappiness, despite being outwardly satisfied with work, did bubble up to the surface.

  4. Cecilia says:

    Hi Tim –
    Thanks for the trackback – I think you are spot on, it’s not that none of us dislike getting paid fairly for what we do, but if that is the only reason you are somewhere, then it starts feeling hollow after a while. Why? Because we get used to a higher income very quickly, the effect wears off if you like and soon enough we start wanting more.
    Being motivated intrinsically means you get satisfaction from other things too, and they end up giving you a sense of being true to yourself and growing as an individual. That’s exciting – realising your potential is exciting, fighting for what you believe in is exciting, having people around you that you can learn from is exciting – being around people who allow you to be yourself is exciting.. In fact, I believe those things bring out the best in you.

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