Aspire Learning Space
Jul 5, 2021

Do you ever feel that what stands between you and your dream job is not your lack of passion, but your lack of motivation? You may feel that you know what you want to do, but you find yourself simply unable to develop the energy and willpower needed to achieve your daily objectives, to use your time efficiently, and to constantly strive towards achieving your dreams. You tend to procrastinate, struggle with stress, and you only do what needs to be done when it is absolutely necessary. It is likely that what you lack is internal self-motivation.

To understand what internal-self motivation is and how it is distinguished from external self-motivation, we can look at how David M. Kreps, professor at Stanford Business School, explains this key distinction. Kreps tells us that external motivation in the context of the work environment expresses itself in the worker’s desire to fulfil their obligations out of: “fear of dis- charge, censure by fellow employees, or even the desire for coworkers’ esteem (Bernheim, 1994).”[1] Essentially, to be externally motivated, is to incentivize yourself to work by relying on external factors such as reward or punishment by peers or authorities. If you convince yourself to work well because you are afraid your boss will fire you, or because you want to gain validation from your coworkers, then you are externally motivated.

On the other hand, to be internally motivated is to find that the satisfaction that is within you is sufficient grounds to move you towards achieving your goals. In this case it is the neither the rewards nor punishments of others that motivate you to fulfil your obligations. Instead, it is your own longing for self-fulfillment that drives your pursuit of success.

Having understood this difference between external and internal motivation, it is now important to explain why it is the lack of the latter that may be the main barrier between where you stand now and where you aspire to be in the future. Roland Benabou and Jean Tirole discuss one fascinating experiment which shows the value of internal motivation. College students were divided into two groups each working on an interesting puzzle. One group was paid to work for a certain time whereas the other was offered no reward. The results are deeply revealing: “Those in the no-reward condition played with the puzzle significantly more in a later unrewarded “free-time” period than paid subjects, and also reported a greater interest in the task.”[2] What this reveals may be counterintuitive since one may think that money as an external reward ought to be the greater and more lucrative prize that would push people to work. However, upon deeper reflection, it becomes clear that to work for the sake of external rewards is to lose interest in the work itself and to occupy yourself with the attainment of the promised rewards. It is important to have internal self-motivation because without it true passion for what you do is lost. You are only occupied with avoiding the pain of punishment or gaining the pleasure of reward. To overcome procrastination and the misuse of time, you must liberate yourself from the constraints of external motivation and seek to do your work out of a longing to fulfil your own self regardless of the input of those around you.

The question that now presents itself is what are some practical steps that one can take in order to become more internally motivated?  Educational psychology journalist, Sara Diggs discusses 25 ways to cultivate internal self-motivation in a school setting.[3] Her tips can be used in application to an adult worker’s own sense of internal motivation. One tip is quite helpful: “A Higher Purpose”. Diggs explains that: “Students who feel that they are working towards the greater good, or something larger than themselves, may have an easier time staying motivated.”

This piece of advice can have a clear equivalence in the adult work life. If you do not feel that your work is part of some greater narrative that you are involved in, you are unlikely to be internally motivated. If you view your life as a story where you are the protagonist looking to be the hero for those you love, then work becomes part of something greater than just yourself. This is not external self-motivation. You work not for the reward or punishment of others. You work in order to fulfil your own self-longing to be the hero of your story. Start thinking today about how your life can be a story where you are its hero. Imagine how you would like to see your story evolve over the coming years and let that greater narrative be your motivation to get up in the morning and live your days with ambition and success. 

[1] Kreps, David M. “Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Incentives.” The American Economic Review 87, no. 2 (1997): 359-64. P.361. Accessed July 2, 2021.

[2] Bénabou, Roland, and Jean Tirole. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation.” The Review of Economic Studies 70, no. 3 (2003): 489-520. P.490. Accessed July 2, 2021.

[3] Briggs, Saga, 25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation.” InformED, December 16, 2020.

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