May 13

Intrinsic Motivation: Why Focus on External Rewards Makes You Less Successful

Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying to you. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment. (

As a society, we're addicted to achievement. We celebrate the accomplishments of cultural icons by putting their pictures on magazine covers. We put pressure on young people to cross off the check-boxes of society's life plan. When we don't conform to the artificial timelines imposed on us by the world around us, we're labeled with red flags.

We prioritize status, prestige, and resume values over eulogy values so much that you end up with a college admissions scandal. Addiction to achievement morphs into unhealthy levels of self-obsession, envy, and comparison. In our desire to "hack" every aspect of our lives, we stop living them.

  • If a million people don't read your blog post, it's not worth writing.
  • If your book doesn't become a New York Times Best-Seller, it wasn't worth writing.
  • If your company doesn't become a billion dollar unicorn, it wasn't worth starting.

This creates a toxic social narrative that makes us think our lives are worthless unless we become the next Steve Jobs, Beyonce or Oprah.

If you're focused on external rewards, you will paradoxically diminish the likelihood of those rewards. It's rare that the person whose sole motivation is fame or money becomes rich or famous. If that is why you get up in the morning and it doesn't happen, you'll look back on your life with regret.

But if you focus on intrinsic rewards, you'll feel more in control of your life, be more productive, and will not become trapped in a self-inflicted prison of conditional happiness.

External rewards are out of your control. I can't control how many people read this article, buy my books, or listen to the Unmistakable Creative. I can ask you to refer a friend to our show or share this post. Beyond that, there's not much else I can do.

People waste lots of energy on things they can't control like rankings and vanity metrics. But if you want to live a fulfilling life, the only thing that's worth putting your energy into is the work. Particularly when it comes to creative work, the only thing you control is the effort.

  • You control whether you show up to write each day or if you don't.
  • You control the hours you spend in the studio rehearsing or practicing your instrument.
  • You control the volume of your creative work.

You can hack and optimize, follow best practices, and mimic your heroes and role models. This is not only a waste of your time and attention, but you overlook the blatantly obvious variable that throws off every formula for success.

When An Audience of One came out in August, I was stressed, anxious and depressed over book sales. When my sister asked how it was going, I told her I was disappointed by the results. She said, "That means you don't believe the message of your own book." Ouch.

But she was right. Everything you fight has power over you. Everything you accept doesn't. There was a moment last year when I surrendered. I let go of my attachment to the results of my book. I embraced what it meant to create for An Audience of One. By the end of December, my book was on bookshelves in India on the same shelf as Michelle Obama's book. As of this week, it's sold more than 3,000 copies.

Our focus on external rewards doesn't just limit our potential. It diminishes the likelihood of that potential being realized. But when you can tap into the power of intrinsic motivation, you'll not only experience a significant boost in performance, your external results will get better.

Focusing on External Rewards Kills Joy

Focusing solely on external rewards sucks the joy out of our lives. When it comes to creative work, we see the process as a means to an end. But in doing so, we deny ourselves the joy of creative self expression. We overlook the lessons we could learn and the opportunities to grow.

If the only reason you're writing a book is because you want it to be a New York Times Best-Seller, you'll be disappointed if it doesn't happen. You'll think you've wasted two years of your life. People write thousands of books every year. The odds that yours will become a best-seller isn't high.

If your happiness with your job and career is dependent on how the movie does at the box office, or how the critics respond to your role, you've placed your happiness with your own life in the hands of other people. That's a recipe for profound disappointment.

If all you care about is external rewards and you don't receive them, you set yourself up for disappointment.

Your Work Feels like an Obligation

If your blog is a waste of time unless you have a million readers, then you'll see your work as an obligation. The likelihood that you'll succeed at something that feels like an obligation is low. If you're not excited about your own work, it's a tall order to expect an audience to feel the same way.

On the other hand, if the work feels like a privilege, it's a lot easier to show up day after day. I can promise you that I get far more from my writing than you do from reading it. As I said in The Scenic Route, "I didn't write this book for you. I wrote it for me." If you can't enjoy the process, you're more likely to quit when you hit the dip.

You're Not Focused on the Work

The work is what's happening right now. It's what you can do today. When you're too focused on the future, your work suffers. "When what you consider most important lies in the future, the present can become simply a means to getting there. Yet, it is in the present that flow is found, so if the present is disregarded in an attempt to ensure the future, the quality of the experience will suffer." says Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in their book Flow in Sports.

Less Flow

There's only one reason I write 1,000 words a day. It hass nothing to do with building an audience, writing books, or career success. It leads to flow. Flow is addictive and feels amazing. I get so absorbed in what I'm doing that the world around me fades into the background.

Given that autonomy and control are what Steven Kotler calls "flow triggers", it would be hard to achieve flow if I was dependent on external rewards. Flow also amplifies performance, which paradoxically increases the likelihood of external rewards.

Decreased Motivation

Visible progress is one of our most powerful motivators. But if you measure your progress based on outcomes and external rewards, you'll feel like you aren't making any. But when you focus on the process instead of the prize, you're able to measure what you control. This creates a viscious cycle of progress, momentum, and motivation.

What are the most common factors that motivate people?

According to Dan Pink, the 3 biggest factors in what motivates us are autonomy, purpose, and mastery. Notice how none of those have anything to do with external rewards.

Autonomy starts with self.

Purpose comes from within us.

Mastery comes from your willingness to sit quietly in a room.

It means rehearsing the measure or guitar lick over and over. It means deliberate practice and deep work. All of this is done out of the spotlight, for and by an Audience of One.

You Live in an Imagined Future

You might think there's going to be a day when you feel like you've finally made it. But thanks to hedonic adaptation, there's an eternal gap between who you are and who you want to be. If you're motivated entirely by the external, you'll spend eternity in an imagined future. You'll be trapped in a self-created prison of conditional happiness, waiting for some mythical date that never arrives, and living in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction.

Every accomplishment is subject to the law of diminishing returns. At some point, it won't produce the level of fulfillment it did before.

  • Successful entrepreneurs don't start more companies because they need the money or to gain a higher status level.
  • Best-selling authors don't keep writing books because they have something to prove.

They're intrinsically motivated to do those things. The work itself is the reward.

It's one of the great paradoxes of success, that intrinsic motivation is what leads to external rewards.


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