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Reflections on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

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Reflections on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Keeping motivated can make a big difference in both your personal and professional lives, but what are the different types of motivation, and is one better than the other?

· Agile Zone ·
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I've learned a lot by reflecting on how I responded to and resisted my father's parenting. My father used to keep a note in the pocket of his blue work shirt, with two columns: one of plus signs, one of minuses. He used the columns to score my behavior and determine whether I had earned privileges and rewards. This did not have the intended effect.

I had a long history of tension with my father over unfair punishments, but I put aside my misgivings and tried hard to make it work. As I expected, it became clear quickly that my father's scoring would be imbalanced. A negative mark was easy to gain and difficult to prevent, and on some days I received many of them. If my spoon made a noise against my teeth, I got a negative. If I looked unhappy about that, I got another; if I protested, yet another. I couldn't avoid negatives, no matter how hard I tried.

I could offset the negatives by earning positives, so I threw myself into it, going above and beyond and doing things such as volunteering for chores. But my father didn't notice, because he was scrutinizing me for imperfections. I tried asking for a plus sign, but he gave me a minus for asking, à la Oliver Twist.

The minuses accumulated quickly: the column reached the bottom of the page and he started another next to it, and then another. After many weeks, I had only a few pluses in the good column. I don't remember what I had to do to earn them, which feels significant to me now. I remember I once did the day's dishes for my family of six, and my mother noticed and said I deserved a plus sign. My father demurred: plus signs were rewards for special efforts. My mother fought with him, pointing out the asymmetry, but he was unmoved.

I'd been cooperating sincerely in the spirit of giving the system a chance and my father the benefit of the doubt, but that was the straw that broke the camel's back. I knew the deck was stacked against me. No matter how hard I tried, playing by the rules would get me nowhere, and I had no hope of gaining the advantage my good behavior should have earned me. So I rebelled openly against the scoring system. This escalated swiftly into severe punishment, but I stubbornly continued to protest the injustice.

This particular incident wasn't my father's only attempt to figure out how to control me. He tried many different approaches, all of them fundamentally flawed. It went in cycles, and the pattern was always the same. He'd explain the new rules of engagement to me, I'd suspend my doubts and work hard to comply, he'd prove that the only real rule was that I had to lose, I'd object almost without regard for the personal consequences, and life would be miserable until my mother intervened strongly enough to get him to try a different approach.

Recently I've been thinking again about the notebook with pluses and minuses, and made some progress on understanding better how I responded to my father. A few of the interesting questions are: why did I initially cooperate, despite all the history that showed it would turn out the same? Why did I fight so hard in the face of the terrible consequences when I gave up on cooperation; why didn't I yield to make it easier on myself? Why did more severe punishments make me more determined not to surrender? Why did he think his systems would work in the first place? What part did I play in sustaining the cycle of dysfunction?

What I've realized is that most of my motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic, and that an inner reliance on truth is the psychological anchor that helps me weather the storms of life.

As for why my father thought his systems would work, he was clearly focused on external motivations — rewards and punishments. I doubt he thought I'd be motivated much by how I felt about my own conduct. And that's the issue: this assumption is exactly backward for me. I'm not very motivated by rewards or punishments, I don't think I ever have been, and I probably never will be. You generally can't make much progress with me by offering me external incentives, either positive or negative: promising me rewards, bribing me, shaming me, withholding, threats, and so on. Those things usually make me much less willing to comply. At the same time, I'm highly motivated by internal factors. That's why it was so important for me to try so hard to work within my father's rules, and to be willing to let it begin with me. Only after a good-faith effort to make it work could I quit in good faith, and having a clear conscience is a huge motivator for me.

The other big factor was the importance of right and wrong and a correct understanding of reality. As far back as I can remember, I've been convinced that justice and truth matter more than a meal or avoiding punishment. And to mouth words I don't believe, and act out behaviors I disagree with, would divide me against myself. My brothers and mother urged me to put things into perspective and stop making my life needlessly hard. But I would not consent to injustice because it would mean agreeing that wrong was right, and I sensed it would have consequences for my mental health[1]. It was just wrong, and it was important for me to be clear on that point.

And did I play a part in the cycle? Yes: I've come to see that switching abruptly between the extremes of compliance and resistance amplifies repetitive patterns of behavior, just like setting up a resonance in a mass attached to a spring. But I long ago learned that I bear responsibility only for my actions, not for my father's. And I'm under no illusions that I could have changed the outcome significantly.

My brothers handled the conflicts with my father differently and perhaps more shrewdly. We all were wounded; we all have recovered in our own ways. Knowing that I held true to my North Star has been an important part of my own journey out of that suffering.

As terrible as my relationship with my father was, I have turned some of those grains of sand into pearls. Today I can be grateful for outcomes such as an ardent desire to develop relationship skills he lacked; empathy for how terrible it is to be criticized continually; and conviction that fairness matters. I learned to trust my judgment and rely on myself; I developed faith in my ability to be disciplined under duress. I learned to value the means, not just the end. Better to be a nice guy finishing last than to take an illegitimate shortcut and erode my own integrity. I learned that true freedom is my ability to choose to respond instead of react.

Knowing what to look for makes it easy for me to see these patterns and influences in my life. For example, when the Fedora developers switched the default to a new version of the Gnome desktop environment, I made a sincere effort to learn how to use it before I decided to abandon it. Another example: one of the four Core Values of VividCortex is empathy, which I contrast with the Golden Rule[2]. What makes work fun for me is growth, impact, and great people. But not everyone values the same things, so I try hard not to assume.

So many social and legal arrangements offer little beyond extrinsic motivators. This hints at an unspoken assumption that people are uniformly motivated, and that rewards and punishments have universal and constant value for all people. For example, psychologists think people are more motivated to avoid losing something than they are to gain the same thing. Standard legal and HR practices encode these types of assumptions: stock options are a "retention" mechanism, a payout for a confidentiality and nondisparagement agreement is the "consideration" that makes it binding, and so forth.

Those broad statements and blanket assumptions can sometimes be far from true for me. I have a strong sense that reducing things to transactions profanes them, but many social structures are designed to reward people with money and security. There's no fundamental conflict in this difference, but companies do best when they're composed of people whose values are at least compatible, if not shared.

Reflecting again on my father, and how I tried to work with him and then fought him, has reinforced to me the importance of knowing what I need and what drives me. I long for the sacred. I associate that with simplicity, with stripping to the essence. Thus I want to do things for their own sake-I aspire to the simplicity of pure doing, of detachment, of wu wei. This is an integral part of my worldview. I value the same simplicity and directness in all areas of my life, and the less separation or partition amongst them, the better.

Things that seem meant to motivate can demotivate me; tactics meant to make me stay might make me want to leave, and so on. I can examine wide swaths of my life and see this effect in many places. When motivation wanders close to manipulation, it can be more than unproductive for me: it can be counterproductive.

  1. Today, I know this idea is supported by an important Buddhist teaching: seeing the true nature of things is essential to wellbeing.
  2. Imagine the difference if my father had been empathetic and curious enough to understand why I resisted his systems. 
agile 2018 ,motivation ,intrinsic motivation ,reflections ,agile

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