Intrinsic Motivation

At a talk I gave recently to a room full of first year graduate business school students, I was asked “what motivates me.”  Before I answered, I felt compelled to explain what intrinsic motivation is and used the following example to describe it.

“Tonight, I’ll spend about 90 minutes talking to y’all.  I’m doing it because I enjoy it and I learn from it.  While I hope it is useful to you, that’s not the reason I’m doing it.  While I hope you have fun, learn something, and enjoy our time together, I won’t feel better or worse if you do.  In fact, since my goal is to learn from everything I do, I’d much rather you give me feedback about things you think could have improved our 90 minutes together.”

I then went on to explain that I’m motivated by learning.  I’ve decided to spend my entire professional life learning about entrepreneurship and have decided that my laboratory is “creating and helping build software and Internet companies.”  I derive enormous personal pleasure from the act of working with entrepreneurs, helping create companies, and learning from the successes and failures.

Over time, I’ve expanded the range of things that contribute to my learning.  During the past four years I’ve spent a lot of time with first time entrepreneurs through the creation and development of TechStars program.  As part of that, I decided to try to codify some of what I’d learned.  That led to me writing Do More Faster with David Cohen, which led to another opportunity to learn, this time about the process of creating, publishing, and promoting a book.

In each of these cases, I’m intrinsically motivated.  I hope that TechStars is a success.  I hope that every company that goes through TechStars benefits from it.  I hope that the book that David and I have written is good.  I hope that it is well received.  I hope that people learn from it.  But none of these are why I spent enormous amounts of time and energy on each activity.

I spent the time and energy because I continuously learned from my experiences.  And I deeply enjoyed the activities I was involved in. Sure – I had plenty of difficult moments (or days), lots of things that didn’t work, and plenty of things that I felt I didn’t do nearly as well as I could have.  But I learned from each of them.

I recently was in a conversation with someone who was clearly extrinsically motivated. He approached me as though I was extrinsically motivated.  He kept thanking me for what I was doing for him and then asking me what he could do for me.  I finally stopped him and explained the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  I told him that I had no expectation that he’d do anything for me – that I was spending time with him because I hoped to learn something from every interaction I had.

While I’ve presented this as an absolute (e.g. you are either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated), I know that it’s a spectrum for almost everyone (including me).  But I think it’s important, and very useful, to understand which end of the spectrum someone is on.  Don’t assume everyone is like you!

  • Great reminder, Brad. Reminds me of Daniel Pink's "Drive." Lots of recognition now of intrinsic motivation.

  • Sounds like Ayn Rand thinking!

  • messel

    Did you come to find intrinsic motivation as a source of greater satisfaction and happiness. I can imagine extrinsic motivation to be a never ending chase, while the intrinsically motivated are always happiest in the moment. That philosophy and world outlook has a distinct Buddhist characteristic.

    • It definitely is for me, but I'm not sure I'd ever try to make the general case as different things create satisfaction and happiness for different people.

  • Yep "Drive" is a great book on this. The RSA animation is a great summary too.

    And it is this reason that entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial organizations lead innovation. We do it because we can't help ourselves. What could be more fulfilling than living fully like that. Also just caught a TED talk that struck a similar chord too with great research into connection and the role of vulnerability in living fully. Also worth a watch.


    • I agree about 'Drive'. I think it is a must read for many entrepreneurs – was a nice confirmation of why I find this thrilling and satisfying, but found a corporate paycheck ininspiring.

  • I think this is a positive attitude that many should practice. Like, instead of seeing your job as only an income source, think of it as getting paid to learn and everything will suddenly change. Now, you're motivated to do more and excel because of your passion to learn — and the money you get is just a reward for all your efforts. I like this idea you have on intrinsic motivation, thanks!

  • PaulD

    I definitely agree that intrinsic motivation is best, but I question the wisdom of declaring, essentially by fiat, that it is learning that is the ultimate provider of meaning in life, even granting that you are limiting that statement to yourself. I also think, pace Ayn Rand, that selfishness is NOT the optimal life strategy, even if you happen to be a help to others through some kind of unintended consequences. YMMV

  • “When we focus mainly on money as a goal we increase our social distance from others and become less trusting and more aggressive.”

    • Sometime I can't define the goal of our working. If we decide the final destination is family's happiness, what should we do to keep pay attention to family during our working day? I guess, the own business is one of the best point to motivate our self…

  • Joe Parker

    Brad – I would add "an insatiable curiosity" as a factor for me.

    By the way, I like your book but the small font and light color of the comments at the end of chapter kill my eyes. On the next printing – enlarge the type for older eyes!!!

  • I dont think we can say classify/categorize each one of us in some place along the 'spectrum' of intrinsic motivation – extrinsic motivation. Everybody has a bit of both intrinsic and extrinsic. The same person may be intrinsically motivated in some circumstances and extrinsically motivated in another circumstance. And it can also change over a period of time. Today i might do something for free or low cost because I am hoping to learn (intrinsic) but tomorrow I might not be willing to do it unless I get what high cost I demand (extrinsic).

  • Well, from my point of view, the definition of intrinsic motivation is a bit different:

    Intrinsic motivation is something comes from within and is developed because of a specific triggers a person have.

    The underlying rule is that you will proceed with the change only if your desire to change
    is greater than the costs of the change and from this your intrinsic motivation starts to grow…