Intrinsic Motivation

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

February 18, 2013

Intrinsic motivation is what drives us to do things just for the sake of doing them. The execution of the task itself is the reward. Unlike extrinsic motivation, which is based on receiving money, rewards and punishments, or external pressures, intrinsic motivation exists within the individual.

Although most of our labor system is based on the idea that motivation is a totally rational mechanism—we will be more productive if we can get more benefits in return— recent studies show that it’s really not that simple. Extrinsic motivation only works until we meet a standard of living that we consider acceptable. When our basic needs are met, an increase of income does not produce an increase of happiness to the same extent.


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February 18, 2013

Intrinsic motivation is what drives us to do things just for the sake of doing them. The execution of the task itself is the reward. Unlike extrinsic motivation, which is based on receiving money, rewards and punishments, or external pressures, intrinsic motivation exists within the individual.

Although most of our labor system is based on the idea that motivation is a totally rational mechanism—we will be more productive if we can get more benefits in return— recent studies show that it’s really not that simple. Extrinsic motivation only works until we meet a standard of living that we consider acceptable. When our basic needs are met, an increase of income does not produce an increase of happiness to the same extent.

In most cases, reinforcing extrinsic motivation only boosts productivity in the short term. In the long run may even be negative, as it can make intrinsic motivation disappear,  provoking the opposite effect instead: lower productivity. This does not mean you have to eliminate extrinsic motivation from your life altogether, but it must be used only as far as it is actually helpful. And it is usually helpful only to incentivize people to complete routine, boring, and unchallenging tasks.

Today, most jobs are complex and interesting enough so that people can enjoy both their work and leisure time. This is how it should be. But to do this you must create the proper environment that allows workers to find motivation by appealing to their internal needs, their natural desire to learn, to cooperate with others, to be respected. What does it take to find this motivation?

  • Sense of meaningfulness. We should have a commitment to an important, significant purpose.
  • Sense of choice. We like to choose the way we fulfill our life purpose. We do not like others to tell us how to do it. We value autonomy.
  • Sense of competence. We like to feel that we are good at what we do, and that what we do allows us to improve our skills.
  • Sense of progress. It is important for us to realize that we are making progress in fulfilling our purpose.

No doubt people are much more productive when they do what they actually want to do. Use this fact to find your own motivation. What is the purpose of your work? Do you have enough freedom to do it your way? Do you have the necessary expertise to do it right?

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