The Importance of Intrinsic Motivation

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation has to do more with title and financial rewards, status and power, and publicity and fame. Intrinsic motivation has to do more with meaning and purpose, service and duty, learning and growth.

It’s very easy to get caught up completely in extrinsic motivation. In fact, our society (especially the Silicon Valley tech scene) rewards and encourages extrinsic motivation. We look up to successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, and naturally want to follow in their footsteps. As a result, though, we are at risk of biasing almost entirely towards extrinsic motivation — title, status, financial rewards, fame, etc.

It’s important to balance extrinsic with intrinsic motivation. Why? A few reasons:

  1. You can’t control every outcome. No matter how prepared or talented you are, you can’t control the element of luck. If you are purely extrinsically motivated, you are setting yourself up for major disappointment when you encounter a competitive loss, failure, or setback based on factors outside your control. If you are intrinsically motivated, even if you suffer a loss or failure, you see the upside of learning from failure, you get fulfillment from the work that you have done, and you believe in a greater purpose and meaning from your activities.
  2. You don’t want to be dependent on what other people think. If you are purely extrinsically motivated, you become insecure and you depend on external validation to make you feel confident. You become overly concerned with what people say and think about how much status, fame, or wealth you have. Your quest for external validation is what drives your decisions, rather than any kind of inner compass. If you are intrinsically motivated, you can shrug off the naysayers, the doubters, the judgers. What they think does not define your value or who you are. It’s better to have inner confidence than external validation.
  3. You can take a longer-term view. External factors (your job title, your company’s valuation, your fame, your net worth) can be fleeting. If you pay too much attention to them, you often worry about short-term changes in any of them. If you’re intrinsically motivated, when change happens or you encounter a setback in one area, you are able to take a longer-term perspective and remain optimistic about the future.

I have been reading a number of books over the past several months which have reinforced my thinking that intrinsic motivation is important. Here are a few of the books and my key take-aways.

“Mindset” by Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck writes extensively about the difference between someone with a fixed mindset v. a growth mindset. People with the fixed mindset avoid challenges, lose faith with a single setback, and believe that success should be won without effort. People with the growth mindset seek and thrive on challenges, look beyond short-term setbacks, and believe they have to work hard to achieve success.

Importantly, people with a growth mindset find their work meaningful because they’re applying themselves, giving their best, solving challenging and important problems. These people are intrinsically motivated by the desire to learn and improve, to find meaning, and to serve a cause. Carol quoted Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee as saying:

“For me the joy of athletics has never resided in winning… I derive as much happiness from the process as from the results. I don’t mind losing as long as I see improvement or I feel I’ve done as well as I possible could. If I lose, I just go back to the track and work some more.”

“The Score Takes Care of Itself” by Bill Walsh

Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who led his team to 5 Super Bowl championships in 14 years, wrote extensively about his leadership philosophy. One of his leadership principles was the idea that you should focus on continuous improvement, not outcomes. He wrote:

“I had no grandiose plan or timetable for winning a championship, but rather a comprehensive standard and plan for installing a level of proficiency — competency — at which our production level would become higher in all areas, both on and off the field, than that of our opponents. Beyond that, I had faith that the score would take care of itself.”
“Consequently, the score wasn’t the crushing issue that overrode everything else; the record didn’t mean as much as the season progressed, because we were immersed in building the inventory of skills, both attitudinal and physical, that would lead to improved execution. That was the key.”

In other words, you should be intrinsically motivated (focused on learning, improvement and growth) and not extrinsically motivated (focused on victory, the score, or other external factors). Part of the reason why he advocates for being intrinsically motivated is that you can’t always control the outcome. Bill also wrote:

“Control what you can control — let the score take care of itself. The final score of a football game is decided, on average, according to the following percentages: 20 percent is due to luck, such as a referee’s bad call, a tricky bounce of a ball, an injury, or some other happenstance. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t control that 20 percent of each game. However, the rest of it — 80 percent — could be under my control with comprehensive planning and preparation.”

By being intrinsically motivated, you are focused on the things you can control — your own growth and learning, what you find meaningful, your own sense of duty and service.

“The Road to Character” by David Brooks

New York Times columnist David Brooks uses the analogy of Adam from Genesis to illustrate the two opposing sides of human nature — Adam I and Adam II.

David writes:

“Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, resume Adam. Adam I wants to build, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.”
“Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong — not only to do good, but to be good.”

He continues:

“Adam I — the creating, building, and discovering Adam — lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic. It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output… Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.”
“Adam II lives by an inverse logic. It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself… Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to greatest success, which is humility and learning.”

Finally David writes:

“We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I, the external Adam, and neglects Adam II… The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming… We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills necessary for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.” …
“If you are only Adam I, you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game… You lack the internal criteria to make unshakeable commitments. You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. You find yourself doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not.”

Our culture tends to reward extrinsic motivation. However, if you bias too much towards extrinsic motivation (Adam I), you become too dependent on what others thing of you. You lack your own inner compass for making decisions and commitments, and instead you need to get external approval.

If you’re intrinsically motivated (Adam II), you seek a higher purpose than just external validation. You behave in accordance with your own values. You engage in activities in pursuit of meaning, duty, or learning. And you can persist, even when confronted with setbacks, failures, naysayers, doubters, judgers.


Over the years, I’ve come to believe more strongly in the importance of intrinsic motivation. We live in a culture that rewards extrinsic motivation. So sometimes we need to remind ourselves to balance extrinsic with intrinsic motivation. By being more intrinsically motivated, we can find enjoyment in our activities regardless of the outcome; we have inner confidence and don’t need external validation; and we can persist through setbacks by taking the long-term view.

There is a spectrum between pure extrinsic and pure intrinsic motivation. In our society, it’s easy to end up on the extrinsic end of the spectrum. I encourage you to move your center more towards the intrinsic end. I think you will be happier as a result.