Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have been coming up in my conversations lately. The Habit Design folks will say that only intrinsic motivation works. If that is true, it throws a wrench into the plans of sites like Beeminder that provide people extrinsic motivation to meet their goals by charging them for defection. I am not sure which side to take there. Extrinsic motivation can certainly work, but it may not be preferrable.
I have had projects that languished because I didn’t find them interesting and the clients didn’t pester me for status updates. Left to my own devices, I will only work on projects that are fun or novel. But when clients do demand project updates, I do get motivated to work on the less fun stuff. One friend likened this to outsourcing your boss. Why be your own boss when you can delegate that task to someone else? But ideally I would be able to find something intrinsically motivating about every project. If I can’t, I should just pass it along to my associates to handle. When we say everyone should do work that they enjoy, we are really saying that they should be intrinsically motivated to do their work. Kurzweil said that he feels that he retired at age 5 since he loves his work.
I heard an interview on the radio with psychologist Madeline Levine a few weeks ago. She was talking about child development and she made some interesting points about letting kids fail so that they can learn and be independent. She also talked about teaching kids intrinsic motivation. One example she gave was asking kids how much they learned from a test at school as opposed to focusing on what the grade was. She calls this intrinsic motivation authentic. That’s an unusual way to define authentic, but it makes sense. Authentic people are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated. Of course the line between internal and external can get a bit fuzzy. Much of what we value is learned from others after all. We don’t llive in a vacuum. But I do think that we take ownership of values and goals at some point.
One fellow I was talking with tonight brought up the Buddhist idea that desire is suffering. Just eliminate desire and they suffering goes away. That’s sort of like James’ equation:
Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions
As you can see, simply reducing pretensions to a low enough value can give even the biggest loser an enormous sense of self-esteem. Which is sort of how I feel about that Buddhist idea. Why bother with life at all if you desire nothing? But I guess they are trying to escape from some horrid endless cycle of reincarnation or something. That’s why I like my mindfullness stripped of all that superstitious bullshit. But introspection might perversely be a way to discover what truly motivates us. Now I just need to write up some more specific instructions on that and I will have a self-help best seller on my hands.