The power of intrinsic motivation – how to fuel your spark

Dancing salsa is a voluntary activity that takes up a lot of my effort and time. I am not doing it for commercial reasons or material rewards. To join classes usually requires long commutes, staying late hours after work or sacrificing weekends, and to pay a good amount of money. For a beginner to reach the intermediate or advanced level usually takes a couple of years, depending on the hours of practice someone puts into it. Sometimes people try to accelerate their learning by going to intensive workshops or trying to cram everything on weekends. But it takes frequent practice over a long period of time to gradually build muscle memory and find their flow. It is a long-term journey, driven by the power of intrinsic motivation, that requires a lot of daily practice, commitment, and discipline.

Based on the existing myths on motivation I have no reason to volunteer my time, money and energy on something that doesn’t have material rewards.

Then why do I do it?

The power of intrinsic motivation

Motivation is a topic that has been misunderstood for decades. Most employers put their focus on salaries, bonuses, and benefits to motivate employees. But this is a very narrow view of a more nuanced reality. It is true that extrinsic parameters, like a big salary or a bonus, can motivate us but they don’t lead to engagement and high performance. In fact, there is research showing the reverse to be true. It seems that we have underestimated the power of intrinsic motivation.

In 2022 Gallup asked 68,000 employees across 140+ countries how their lives and careers were going. The results were shockingly negative. According to the State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report only 21% of employees said they were engaged at work while everyone else was either not engaged (Quite Quitters) or actively disengaged (Loud Quitters). In addition, most employees say that they do not: “find their work meaningful“, “think their lives are going well“, “feel hopeful about the future“. In the US similar research showed that 50% of the workforce say that they feel dissatisfied with their job, or lack the motivation and willingness to put the required effort into it. They also said that “work is just a paycheque“.

These results are truly disheartening and show that we have a long way to go.

Shifting views on motivation

In the early 20th century Frederic Taylor introduced the term “scientific management” (although there was no real science behind it). In Taylor’s view of the world, employees were the “muscles” of the factory. Their only purpose was to perform repeated manual tasks. Taylor believed that he could create an incentive system, where he would pay workers per output instead of hourly wages. In his view, this would improve productivity. 

His work philosophy became popular amongst industrialists and influenced managerial thinking for most part of the 20th century. But we now know that unless the activity people do is purely mechanical, Taylor’s extrinsic “motivation” not only does not work but it affects negatively people’s performance.

Best-selling author Daniel Pink argues that the traditional extrinsic motivators do not address the needs of the 21st century workforce. According to research cited by Pink, bonuses work only for mechanical tasks, but once the task requires even basic cognitive skills, bonuses and rewards lead to poorer performance!

Daniel Pink suggests that there are three main intrinsic factors that motivate us all:

  • Mastery – getting better at things that matter to us
  • Autonomy – the ability to self-direct our work
  • Purpose – working towards a bigger meaningful goal

Hobbies and leisure

Many of us love investing our time on hobbies and activities without material rewards. In fact, if someone pays us to to do something we don’t like, we may try it for a while but we will never become good at it. What drives us to dedicate our time to learn and master something new, a sport, an art, a skill is more intrinsic. Our desire to expand our minds and grow. We volunteer our time because it makes us feel more fulfilled.

The interesting point is that we have known since ancient times the power of intrinsic motivation. According to Greek philosophers we become truly human when we devote our free time to self-development. In ancient Greek language the word for free time is Skoli (Σκόλη), which has the same meaning as school. A day off was a time to get educated, to learn something new, to take up a new challenge. It wasn’t a time to do nothing. In fact, sitting and doing nothing was perceived as the root of all evils.

We are motivated by overcoming challenges, by applying effort where it has meaning, by achieving great things.

The psychology of flow

Professor of psychology and father of the flow theory Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that when people immerse in the joy of their work or activity they feel more satisfied. He examined artists, writers, athletes and surgeons, who did activities they enjoyed. He discovered that when people were fully absorbed in what they were doing they were in a state of flow. Other expressions used to describe a state of flow are “being in the zone“, “finding your groove“, or “being in ecstasy“.

The power of intrinsic motivation in work and leisure

In his book Finding Flow Professor Csikszentmihalyi claims that our lives consist of three main experiences that absorb our psychic energy: Work, Maintenance activities (chores), and Leisure.

However, as mentioned earlier, most people claim that they don’t enjoy their work while doing house chores, like ironing or washing the dishes, is hardly enjoyable. More interestingly though, free time is even more difficult to enjoy than work. According to Professor Csikszentmihalyi, people feel more depressed on Sundays and report more symptoms of illness at weekends. Our nervous system doesn’t know how to adapt to long periods of idleness, where there are no obstacle to overcome or problems to solve.

Then when do we enjoy what we do?

The self-organising mind

The normal condition of the mind is one of informational disorder. When there are no goals we lose motivation, our minds wander aimlessly, and our psychic entropy increases. Many times we lose ourselves in unstructured thoughts that only bring us stress, worry and anxiety. Our minds create “monsters”.

To avoid being alone with our thoughts we resort to stimulation from passive leisure, such as watching TV, or scrolling our phones. Modern life provides a lot of easy distractions. But these activities help very little as they lack structure, goals and challenge. In fact, social media create even more noise and disorder in our minds, which can lead to more anxiety and worry.

On the other hand, people are happiest when they challenge themselves with tasks that demand a high degree of skill and commitment, have clear goals, and are voluntary. For instance, active leisure such as playing the piano, playing basketball, or dancing, are much more enjoyable as they entail high challenge and skills. During these activities our minds stop wandering and get absorbed in whatever we are doing. Our minds move from a state of chaos to self-organisation and spontaneous order, as our psychic energy flows freely into our activity.

When our skills our fully involved in overcoming a manageable challenge and receive continuous feedback, and hence reward, we achieve flow. If the challenge is too big or too small we either get frustrated or we are too relaxed and disengaged.

Dancing and the power of intrinsic motivation

Research has shown that performing music and dance are the easiest activities to get into a flow state . Dancing has rules, patterns and structure. It requires learning a number of skills, such as footwork, use of hands, body movement, active listening, leading a partner and more, providing just enough challenge but not overwhelmingly so.

In addition, dancing provides a significant social element, which is missing from other more solitary activities. According to “Finding Flow“, findings suggest that people feel more depressed when they are alone, where they usually report low happiness, motivation, self-esteem, and concentration. However, once they encounter others, even strangers, their happiness increases. This is irrespective of being introvert or extrovert.

Furthermore, when we dance we get immediate feedback from our partners. This creates a great number of small rewarding moments and a deeper connection with our partners. It also helps us get better at things that matter to us and achieve mastery, which as mentioned earlier is a great motivator.

However, it takes time to get into a state of flow. We need to dress up, travel to the dance class, and then spend 30 minutes on dull practice before it begins to be fun. So, there is a barrier to overcome before “getting into the groove”. This barrier explains why it is much easier to resort to passive leisure.

Intrinsic motivation taps deeper into our psyche and personality, it gives us meaning, it defines who we are. A study from Yale University showed that those who are internally motivated are more successful than either those who are externally motivated or those who have a mix of motivations.

We can achieve much more and be more successful when we are driven from a spark within.

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