“Intrinsically motivated”
“Self motivated”
“Self starter”

I’ve seen these terms used mostly in the context of interviewing and looking for a job.  As one might expect, it’s good to be seen by a future employer as someone who is motivated and hard working.  However, I’ve always found these descriptors to be a little troubling.  What do they actually mean?

Let’s start with a concrete example.  I consider myself to be a very motivated person and as evidence I’ll present the following points: I go to the gym every morning, I spend very little time watching TV, I work long hours, and I am very enthusiastic about my job.  Given these points, I like to think I am way above average on the scale of intrinsic motivation.  However, motivation is difficult to talk about without context.  For instance, I am very motivated when writing my blog (something I love to do) but I do not share the same motivation for cleaning my apartment.  Does this mean I am “intrinsically motivated” or not?

It goes without saying that I’m much more motivated to do things that make me feel happy and self-actualized.  I find it comparatively harder to do things that don’t make me feel this way.  The problem is, we tend to treat intrinsic motivation as a trait, something that is absolute – but this is wrong.  Motivation is relative and depends heavily on context.  We all have things that we like to do and don’t like to do.  Motivation is not a static attribute like height, hair color or vision acuity, it varies wildly by task and over time.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Edward Hopper and passion.  My central thesis was that passion made Hopper a great artist.  This week, I want to take that a bit further and posit that all motivation is tied in some way to passion.

Our passions manifest themselves in our day-to-day lives as tasks we enjoy and are motivated to complete.

So what does this mean for “intrinsic motivation”?  In short, it’s a total myth.  It simply does not exist as an absolute trait.  As a job applicant, it is a waste of time to tout your intrinsic motivation.  Instead you should showcase how you are personally passionate about the job you will be doing.  Demonstrating a history of hard work is good – it suggests discipline, dedication and solid performance from 9 to 5.  However, hard work can’t touch passion.  Passion follows you home.  It visits you at nights, on the weekends, and in your dreams.

Intrinsic Motivation
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  • Shall I be cynical here?
    The whole “intrinsic motivation” thing comes from research in psychology that looked at how much effort people put into tasks when they were compensated (extrinsic) versus not compensated (intrinsic).
    Extrinsic motivation can displace intrinsic motivation in many cases – once you get paid to do something, it’s hard (the theory goes) for people to go back and do it without being paid for the work.
    If you have someone with high extrinsic motivation, they will work directly related to how they’re “motivated” (compensation, friendships, whatever).
    Someone with intrinsic motivation will work independently of how much their paid, i.e. you can pay them less and get the same amount of work out of them. You can save money on labor costs!
    P.S. The stuff you mention has more to do with discipline than it has to do with motivation. I think those are very different things – it’s possible to have a passionate but undisciplined person, and a highly disciplined person who couldn’t care less.
    I think your posts are demonstrating that discipline is important, not passion. Hopper was a very disciplined painter, regardless of how he felt about the work or his mood each day.