1: The year was 1977. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan were young psychologists at the University of Rochester. On the day they met, Edward had just become a clinical practitioner, and Richard was still a graduate student.

Both men “shared an interest in the science of motivation, which led to a long conversation, which led to a fifty-year collaboration that overturned most of the foundational ideas in that science of motivation,” Steven Kotler writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.

At the time, psychologists defined motivation as “the energy required for action,” Steven writes. It was thought “motivational energy was a singular characteristic.” One could measure the “quantity of motivation—the amount of motivation a person felt—but not quality or the type of motivation a person felt.”

Edward and Ryan had a sense there was more to it. That there are “different types of motivation and that different types of motivation produced different results.” Working together, they ran numerous experiments where “they pitted intrinsic drivers such as passion against extrinsic drivers such as prestige.”

When we are intrinsically motivated, we do something because it’s personally rewarding or enjoyable. Extrinsic motivation involves doing something because we want to earn a reward or avoid punishment.

The results made it clear: “Intrinsic motivation (a term that is synonymous with drive) is much more effective than extrinsic motivation in every situation excluding those where our basic needs haven’t been met,” Steven writes.

2: One set of experiments showed that when we are “seduced, coerced, or otherwise pressured into doing something—that’s controlled motivation,” Steven notes. “It’s a job [we] have to do.”

This type of motivation is very different from autonomous motivation, where we are “doing what [we] ‘re doing by choice,” Steven writes. Edward and Ryan “discovered that in every situation, autonomous motivation throttles controlled motivation.”

Autonomy is a powerful human driver. Controlled motivation much less so.  

“When pressured into action, people routinely look for shortcuts,” Steven observes. “The example [Richard] likes to give here is Enron. The energy company decided that the best way to motivate its employees was to give the best performers stock options—an example of motivation by seduction. But people quickly figured out that the best way to get those bonuses was to artificially inflate stock prices, committing corporate fraud and ultimately bankrupting the company.

“The history of Enron is often retold as a cautionary tale of greed and hubris, but it’s really a story about how the wrong motivation can easily product the wrong behaviors.”

Intrinsic motivation is very different. “We’re tapping autonomy correctly when we’re doing what we’re doing because of interest and enjoyment” and because “it aligns with our core beliefs and values.”

3: Not only that. “Autonomy turns us into a much more effective version of ourselves,” Steven writes. “The boost in neurochemistry provided by autonomy increases our drive, of course, but it also amplifies a host of additional skills. When we’re steering our own ship, we’re more focused, productive, optimistic, resilient, creative, and healthy.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: What motivates me at work? Am I intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? How might I boost my intrinsic motivation?

Action: Journal my answers to the questions above.

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