How to move away from external rewards and build an internally motivated human.
Have you ever questioned what thoughts are racing through the head of an elite performing athlete before an Olympic showdown, a Superbowl, or a game 7 NBA final?
I picture it going something like this.
The fastest runner of our time, Usain Bolt, gently laces up his Puma Ignite shoes. He splashes cold water on his face and begins his pre-game routine of meditation and breathing exercises. Leaving the locker room, he makes a kissing gesture while looking up, and asks for a blessing from a higher power.
BANG. The shot is fired.
The scene looks like a wild hunt chase in the savannah’s of the Serengeti as if a lion is voraciously chasing a young antelope. Activating all their adrenaline reserves, the runners act as a large herd of antelope facing a life or death moment.
Except, what are they running from? There’s no vicious predator. Their body is questioning, “relax…where are we even going?”, but their mind guides them to push harder.
Bolt races past his competitors with easy, long strides (it must be the shoes). After he crosses the finish line 100 meters away, he receives his 8th gold medal. Showered in praise, he celebrates with his signature gesture, the “To Di World” lightning bolt pose towards a crowd of millions.
My question today is, what would happen if Bolt realized in the middle of the race that all of this was a lie?
What if he realized that the gold medal was fake?
What if he realized that the Jamaican flag drawn on his sleeve was just a made-up icon and the boundary that separates his country was drawn by ancient dudes who couldn’t draw straight lines?
What if all high performers had to rely only on their internal motivation stores to achieve greatness?
What Drives Us Anyway?
In 1977, two young psychologists by the names of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan came together to disrupt how we previously thought about motivation. Their findings became widely recognized as the Self-Determination Theory.
In a nutshell, they awakened to the idea that humans are driven from outside (extrinsic) or inside themselves (intrinsic). Let’s look at the differences.
Extrinsic motivation, as Deci and Ryan coined it, occurs when we are driven to engage in an activity or pursue a goal to receive a reward or avoid punishment.
Intrinsic motivation, on the opposite spectrum, refers to the motivation that arises from within. We do something because the activity or behavior itself has its own reward. We aren’t seeking anything outside to feel satisfied or engaged in what we are doing.
Here are some examples:
Look, I know this is a graspable concept, but it goes much deeper.
This is what science knows. But it seems like, in real life, there’s a mismatch between what we know to be true and what we actually do.
And as we enter a world of technological disruption, AI robots, and autonomous systems, we need to get this shit down…like…yesterday. Let me explain.
Carrots…Yum Yum. Sticks… Ouch!
In the 1800s, during the time of the Industrial Revolution, organizations, governments, and schools started to engineer methods of motivating people to do repetitive tasks all day, every day.
The answer was simple: long, sweet, and orange vegetables.
A philosopher named Jeremy Bentham (father of modern Utilitarianism) started preaching that humans are motivated by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.
Ding. Ding. An image of a donkey popped into his head. How do you get a donkey to move? The concept illustrates that if you dangle a carrot in front of a donkey, it will chase it. Also, if you wack the ass in the ass with a stick (see what I did there), it will also run forward.
This brings us to the theory of reinforcement, proposed by BF Skinner, an American psychologist. In this context, by awarding someone a “carrot” for a desired behavior, the individual is motivated to repeat the behavior (positive reinforcement). Consequently, if you want to avoid an undesirable behavior, the answer is punishment, in this case, using the stick… or the “chancla” for my Latinos out there.
There’s a huge flaw in Skinner’s theory. Can you guess? Basically, he and his colleagues completely overlooked the internal state of a person when inducing motivation. They explain how behaviors are trained and learned but do not account for deeper reasons that make us do things from within, or, our intrinsic motivations.
The Evolution of Our Skills
Large corporations that own factories use the concept of carrots to maintain their machines running. Paychecks, bonuses, and promotions are masked as little carrots to get the most out of people for the smallest amount.
Our society is still run by the power of external incentives. We are beaten with a stick (metaphorically) if we don’t meet deadlines or get minimum grades. We are rewarded with golden stars or decent paychecks for doing a good job.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us described that our present business operating systems are built around extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks). The 20th-century mechanistic, routine tasks are perfect for what Pink calls “if, then” rewards. They work because there are simple rules and a clear destination.
The magic of rewards play out curiously here. When the job is simple, there’s not much creative or critical thinking involved. We don’t need the mind of Einstein in order to work at Henry Ford’s production line or flip a patty at McDonald’s. In these scenarios, placing incentives and rewards work beautifully. Why?
As Daniel Pink says in his Ted Talk,
“[Routine, rule-based left brain work] narrows our focus and concentrated the mind.”
As we enter a new age, skills and talents are shifting naturally. Countries in Europe, North America, many parts of Asia, and other emerging economies are no longer requiring the 20th-century work environments.
What do we need now? The ever-evolving world and its upsurge in innovation requires us to tap into the creative, conceptual right-side of the brain. Every new day demands us to work through complex problems, develop unique solutions, and tap into alternative, internal reservoirs of motivation.
Where’s the Mismatch?
This past decade, hundreds of studies have been performed to test the relationship between financial incentives and performance. In 2009, the London School of Economics analyzed pay-for-performance companies and concluded,
“We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”
So here’s what the science knows: offering sweeter carrots or hitting people with thicker sticks does not work when cognitive, creative tasks are required. Let me repeat it for word count sake:it does not work.
The mismatch is that businesses, education systems, and society, in general, are still using the same extrinsic motivating techniques. And in order to enter a golden age where our societies thrive on creating amazing things, we need to stop doing more of the wrong things.
How to Build an Intrinsically Motivated Human
We all know that one person that jumps out of bed before sunrise and deeply immerses themselves in their hobby or life work, and has abundant stores of energy to do this day after day.
So my question is, how can we use what scientists know about human behavior to cultivate an upgraded humanity that is driven from within?
Such a big question would be hard to answer without the wisdom of thinkers who have studied human motivation for years. I analyzed that Daniel Pink determined that there are 3 factors that lead to better life satisfaction, performance, and energy. Let’s unpack this magical recipe.
Humans have an urge to direct their own lives. There’s an internal need to chase directions that only we have chosen for ourselves.
In order to optimize our motivation, we must feel in complete control of what we do, how we do it, when we do it, and who we do it with.
Pink states that traditional management is awesome if the goal is compliance. However, in a cognitively demanding environment that requires creativity and constant engagement,
Self Direction is Better.
Tech giants such as Google and software developers like Atlassian know this little secret. They’ve implemented the autonomy principle by having “do whatever the fuck you want” time. Employees at Google, for example, are urged to allocate 20% of work paid time to pursue personal projects. The results have been astounding and innovative projects such as Gmail and Google News arose from this autonomous time.
So, to begin to plant the seeds for intrinsic motivation, it is essential to pursue goals, projects, and career paths that allow us to feel autonomy over our lives. We must wake up feeling that the choices we make are self-directed and not imposed on from an external authority. In this way, our creative reservoirs will flourish and we will feel more engaged with what we choose.
Humans also have the urge to get better at something. We have a need for constant improvement in a skill that we enjoy. We also want our skills to stand out from the average, and there’s a sense of satisfaction for being the best.
In my case, I was deeply motivated by being the best three-point shooter in my basketball league. That internal drive lead me to shoot hundreds of shots Saturday and Sunday mornings when everyone was asleep. The only explanation?
I was seeking mastery over a skill.
How else could you explain teenagers dedicating countless hours in front of a screen playing Fortnite or an adult that plays their guitar during their precious free time from work?
We deeply care about being good at something for the sake of it. No money, no gold medals, and no candy pops will motivate us to do these things. It comes from within.
In order to feel intrinsically motivated, we must synthesize our goals, projects, and career paths with things that allow us to pursue mastery. I write because I want to be a great writer. Kobe Bryant played basketball because in his own words,
“I want to be the best. Simple and plain. That’s why I play the game.”
Having a higher sense of purpose, a mission that will provide us our own direction is the medicine for all our doubts, fears, and anxiety.
The best selling author, Robert Greene, dedicated a whole chapter in his book Laws of Human Naturethat talked about advancing our life with a sense of purpose.
He argues that we all have the right to discover our life’s work, which he says, is “what we were intended to do”. I know you may be thinking that I’m going off on some spiritual tangent, but hear me out.
Greene states that in order to align with our life’s work, we must learn to listen to what he calls,“the voice”. This is the voice of guidance, clarity, and wholeness.
There are many ways to begin to open our ears to that inner voice of intuition. Some may say through meditation, and others may say through immersing ourselves in deep reflection. I have no preference.
However, there is something that I know to be true.
Every single human being was gifted with a one-of-a-kind genetic makeup. Our brains are all wired differently because no two people will ever have the exact same experiences or personality. As Greene says,
“Consider this uniqueness as a seed that is planted at birth, with potential growth. And this uniqueness has a purpose.”
So, the biggest factor in order to tap into the highest reserves of internal motivation is having a strong ass purpose.
Mix It All Together
The greatest writers, business leaders, artists, and athletes of all time have always looked towards their north star. When we feel that our motivation is draining, it is crucial to look back at why we are doing all this anyway (keyword: why).
The reality is that I don’t know if we would have the Olympics if there were no gold medals.
However, I do know that the greatest performers of all time were motivated from within. I’m sure Michael Phelps didn’t keep swimming only because he wanted another gold medal, like, I’m guessing after the third one the level of satisfaction from getting another diminishes. Phelps has 28 gold medals.
The most extraordinary Olympians mixed the key elements for intrinsic motivation into a pot and achieved unimaginable heights.
The simple lesson is this: We should constantly shape our life around doing things we want to do (Autonomy), chasing skills that we want to be the best at (Mastery), and advancing our cause with a powerful “why” (Purpose).
In this way, we will no longer need to be running around like donkeys for the next carrot or going faster because someone is beating us with a stick.
We can all be internally motivated individuals and live tremendous lives that transcend our individual existence.Remember to choose to listen to that voice, and act on the guidance of your highest self. I wish you the best as you ignite the flame within, and pursue your life’s work.