Are you intrinsically motivated? Really?

It’s easy to think you are, but your behav­ior might tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. For exam­ple, if you find your­self work­ing 24/7. It could be that you love your work, that you feel you are mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion to some­thing big­ger than your­self and that at the core you are help­ing oth­ers with­out ask­ing for some­thing in return. But it also could be that you feel by work­ing so hard you’ll achieve some high­er sta­tus in the future, you’ll have mon­ey, you’ll final­ly have con­trol, you’ll be noticed by peo­ple even high­er up who have pow­er over what oppor­tu­ni­ties you’ll be offered in the future. Per­haps you car­ry a secret hope that some­day you’ll get to a place where that con­tri­bu­tion of yours will be ful­ly rec­og­nized — final­ly — and your career will be a lit­tle safer. And maybe you’ll one day stop envy­ing those who seem to get ahead with­out the 24/7 rou­tine, the lack of vaca­tions, the ill­ness­es and acci­dents that dis­tract you from the goal of your inde­ter­mi­nate advance­ment. God knows how they did it. If only you were smarter, more tal­ent­ed, worked hard­er and oth­ers tru­ly saw you for who you are.

Such is the nature of extrin­sic reward these days. Per­haps you’ve been told you should be intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed so that you now do a good job of ratio­nal­iz­ing that you tru­ly are inter­nal­ly dri­ven. “Dri­ven” is the oper­a­tive word, right? The oth­er day perus­ing LinkedIn (an almost mag­i­cal source of data), I noticed some­one intro­duced a job descrip­tion with the words, “I’m hir­ing — a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for the right dri­ven indi­vid­ual.” And there you have it, appear­ing to be dri­ven or being actu­al­ly dri­ven is a key qual­i­fi­ca­tion, at least for that job, a way in and maybe even a way up. If you are, maybe there will be rewards some­day if you are dri­ven enough. Please do eval­u­ate what the mean­ing of dri­ven is, how that might be mea­sured, what it promis­es if you are fool­ish enough to fol­low it, and what the real­i­ty is. I’m sug­gest­ing that what it has to do with true intrin­sic moti­va­tion might be noth­ing at all. 


Do you love the work itself? Are you mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion larg­er than your­self? Are you help­ing oth­er peo­ple? Do you feel ful­filled? Well, these things are one way to look at it and there are oth­er views, includ­ing Daniel Pink’s now famous three part def­i­n­i­tion of what tru­ly dri­ves human beings: auton­o­my, mas­tery and pur­pose. What might your own the­o­ry be? It’s impor­tant to know, espe­cial­ly if you are in a lead­er­ship role because what­ev­er your inter­nal the­o­ry and your exter­nal behav­ior are say­ing, that’s what you are mod­el­ing to oth­er peo­ple, includ­ing every one of your reports. 

There’s the delu­sion and then there’s the “suc­cess for­mu­la,” which is anoth­er name for the habits peo­ple adopt in order to meet their implic­it life goals. A suc­cess for­mu­la is what we do in a pat­terned way to get what we need and want. If I’m suc­cess­ful in get­ting exter­nal recog­ni­tion, for instance, I prob­a­bly have a way of get­ting it. I may not be able to per­fect­ly artic­u­late it to oth­ers; but its my code, my way of get­ting ahead. We like to impose these codes if they’ve worked for us, so I imag­ine the per­son offer­ing a job to the right dri­ven indi­vid­ual is prob­a­bly pret­ty dri­ven him/herself. The aggre­gate of these views all too eas­i­ly becomes the nature of a pre­ferred soci­etal or com­pa­ny cul­ture, no mat­ter what it actu­al­ly does to peo­ple. Burn out? Lis­ten, I can’t afford to burn out! Then some­body else who works hard­er than I do, who puts in more hours, who puts up with even more exces­sive and unrea­son­able demands — then that per­son gets ahead rather than me! Burn out! For­get it! I haven’t got time!

It’s all non­sense. So what can you do? I say, stop. Being dri­ven is a smart per­son act­ing with­out the advan­tage of their own intel­li­gence and agency — the exact oppo­site of intrin­sic moti­va­tion. This is why, I guess, I believe there isn’t a thing called lead­ing with­out the fact of intrin­sic moti­va­tion. Because judg­ment, hold­ing a vision, set­ting lim­its, car­ing for self and oth­ers, speak­ing up and speak­ing out, ini­ti­at­ing and chang­ing and improv­ing things can’t just be for the exter­nal rewards alone. They come as an essence, as part of the nature of who you are and as an expres­sion of an inde­fin­able beau­ty you already have with­in you.

So I ask, do you enjoy your work? Do you love the con­tri­bu­tion you are mak­ing? Do you love help­ing oth­ers? Is it ful­fill­ing? I think this pret­ty much describes what peo­ple are look­ing for. It’s what peo­ple who gen­uine­ly lead hold with­in them­selves and express by being and mod­el­ing for oth­ers with­out try­ing to mod­el any­thing at all.



  • Hmmmm.…how one might desc­tribe the starv­ing artist, or the per­son who wins the lot­tery and says they would­n’t change a thing…continue to do what they do, and more of it but now for free.…living, serv­ing and contributing…from the inside out.

  • Yes, for sure, Peter, there are plen­ty of exam­ples of peo­ple who are intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed — you bet! I am high­light­ing here those that hear and poten­tial­ly respond to a pref­er­ence for “dri­ven” peo­ple and how that can be an exam­ple of exter­nal, com­pet­i­tive and “com­pelled” moti­va­tion, not intrin­sic forms. While I did not say this in the post, this may cer­tain­ly be a con­trib­u­tor to the recent phe­nom­e­nons of res­ig­na­tion and burn out, and a search for a bet­ter job or work­place. Any num­ber of clients and col­leagues demon­strate a cer­tain “do as I say, don’t do as I do” pres­ence, but as lead­ers they per­pe­trate the actu­al cul­ture norm of “dri­ven is good.” Starv­ing artists and lot­tery win­ners may be hap­py worka­holics — and some entre­pre­neurs, as well — but that’s not in my book the same thing. Thank you, Peter!

  • Nice piece, Dan. Methinks moti­va­tion is but one facet of things intrin­sic. Being ground­ed in one’s own earth, as source of safe­ty and cen­tered­ness. Hav­ing full emo­tion­al func­tion, one’s water. Pro­vid­ing direc­tion and flow, aware­ness of state of being, frozen as ice, vapor­ized as steam, flow­ing in con­nec­tion with oth­ers, always towards the sea. Ener­gy, fire, pro­vid­ing trans­for­ma­tion of object to heat, and light, with joy in the con­tri­bu­tio to the whole. Air, intel­lect, clar­i­ty, com­mu­ni­ca­tion but more impor­tant­ly the rhythm of breath­ing, tak­ing in what is need­ed, and releas­ing what is not. And last­ly space, the con­tain­er which hold the four man­i­fest ele­men­tal ener­gies, that is true source for intu­ition, imag­i­na­tion, pos­si­bil­i­ties, and most impor­tant­ly, tran­scen­dence of ego, self inter­est, fear, scarci­ty, and imbal­ance of mind or emo­tions, fire, or lack of safety.

    It is about the pres­ence of all, in bal­ance in rela­tion to each oth­er, and the mag­ic of the ener­getic flows by and between… Then the being in ser­vice as part of and in con­nec­tion to every­one, the bike and the plan­et at large just is, no?

  • Ah, Doug, how tru­ly poet­ic: the inner strength and the inner beau­ty swirling up togeth­er. Thank you for these love­ly images that both calm and ener­gize. One can say only, Yes! Yes!

    All the best to you!


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