2 min read

The Purpose of Life is Through Intrinsic Motivation

When I left my finance career after eighteen years, the underlying reason was that it was performance art.  Success was connected to how people viewed you, not what you actually accomplished.  The gulf grated at me, I hated doing meaningless fluff just to get promoted.  There was something lacking - a sense of purpose.

Even deeper, what all my jobs were missing was intrinsic motivation.  In Drive, Daniel Pink argues that instead of motivating with money, companies need to intrinsically motivate their employees with three factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  I didn’t agree – I think companies should motivate with money AND autonomy, mastery, and purpose – but the concept stuck with me.  

When I climb, I’m intrinsically motivated.  Rock climbing fulfills autonomy, mastery, and purpose, but I hate almost every aspect of climbing.  I’m afraid of heights, the gym is a half hour away and smells, and the chalk makes me sneeze.  Before I begin every climb, I have a moment of trepidation.  But as I climb, all of that falls away.  There’s only the holds and me, the height no longer registers.  I don’t think of what I need to do, it just happens (or doesn’t - but let’s gloss over those times).

With all the negatives, I wouldn’t climb unless I was intrinsically motivated.  But the specter of extrinsic motivation is never far away.  In a climbing gym, every route has a rating of how hard it is.  There’s an app to record your climbs - with a leaderboard.  Am I climbing for the climb or am I climbing to get more points?  Am I climbing because I want to climb or because I want to show off?

There is a constant struggle between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

And it’s hard.  Even when I'm intrinsically motivated, I want to be extrinsically rewarded.  “Where's my karma?” I’m thinking.

But why do I care?  If it’s so hard, why not give in to Extrinsic Motivation?

Because the difficulty is the point.  The process of becoming intrinsically motivated requires us to constantly introspect.  Extrinsic Motivation is constantly knocking at the door, tugging at us, and tempting us, and the only solution is to continually consider whether the motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic.  

The introspection leads to self-discovery - you find what really matters to you.  And then you can do those things.  You will never be fulfilled by extrinsic motivation - because it’s not something that you actually like to do!  It’s a reflection of what you think other people like.  There’s a reason why corporate life is described as a hamster wheel - you’re not going anywhere even though you think you are.

And if you’re not going anywhere, you just want time to pass.  The biggest effect of introspection has been my relationship with time.  Knowing what I want means I make time instead of killing time.  I make time to climb, I don’t kill time by climbing.  

When I pursue Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, bringing value feels playful and playing feels valuable.  Because I choose what I do, obligations are no longer endured, but embraced.  

Success comes from acting on my introspection, not from jumping through hoops held up by my boss or keeping up with the Jones’.  So much of what I used to do is simply not important.  And what remains is captivating.

I’ve realized I have no Purpose.  But following my intrinsic motivation gives me purpose every day.  

The best part is, just wanting to be intrinsically motivated is enough to start.  Journal, meditate, talk with others - find a way to introspect.