Intrinsic motivation as a lifestyle

In education and work settings, we are expected to work faster, harder and better when extrinsic factors such as material gains, money, status, increased salary or grades are on the line. This method doesn’t work.

So what is the secret to motivation? It’s the same thing that sparks inventive and adventurous ideas; it’s what inspires us to continue working towards a bigger purpose outside of ourselves. Rather than extrinsically-based motivating factors, the secret to everlasting, unwavering motivation is intrinsic—motivators that come from within.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how people in our society are motivating themselves. We are taught to be motivated through reward-based systems that determine success in measurable results, which has proven to be a backward system.

In a study called the candle problem, those who were offered a monetary reward for solving the problem in the fastest time did much worse than those who were simply told they were being timed. Extrinsic, reward-based motivation actually hinders success.

In education settings, those who are motivated extrinsically—perhaps to get a good grade, credit toward their degree or to maintain a scholarship—have proved to be less inspired by their classes, will connect less often with their professors and tend to feel indifferent about class. Students intrinsically motivated—those who love the subject and genuinely want to reach mastery for themselves—are more creative in their work, seek out connections with their professors and are happier and more fulfilled.

This phenomenon is common in the workplace as well. Working toward a higher salary, monetary bonus or moving up the professional ladder to higher positions actually narrows workers’ creative outlook on problem solving and inspiration. Those who are allowed to complete their work on their own time have the space to cultivate their ideas and are generally more autonomous.

There are people listening to the research. Google’s 20 percent time—where employees use 20 percent of working hours to develop ideas and technologies on their own terms without prompts—has helped introduce a new business philosophy based on intrinsic motivators. Gmail and AdSense, among other breakthroughs, were developed during this intrinsically-inspired work time.

Facebook, Apple and LinkedIn all have their own methods of implementing employee creative freedom. In education settings, we can look to Montessori school models. They work with a similarly inspired education philosophy in which students participate in self-directed activities. The Montessori model encourages exploration of natural interests at a young age without the presence of outside incentives.

If we know that intrinsic motivation is the best strategy to motivate ourselves and others, why do we still rely on extrinsic motivation to get things done? Incentivising workers with money and students with a traditional degree can’t compare to the greatness achieved through the intrinsic love of the process.

We need to seriously adjust how we motivate members of society. We can’t just keep leading people along guided paths without opportunity for innovation or creativity when science has proved this doesn’t work. If we let workers and students wander freely off the main road, they might discover what we’ve been looking for.

Of course, this mental switch will be difficult to implement. Our society values and rewards those who power through their education with high grades to eventually get a diploma or degree whether they pushed themselves to be creative and innovative or not. Because of this, it can be incredibly difficult to find a path that intrinsically motivates you.

The danger of extrinsic motivation is a failure of fulfillment in work and school. The next time you find yourself doing something for an extrinsic motivator, ask yourself, “Is this putting me in a place where I can live my life by the things I love to do?”