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Understanding Motivation

Understanding our Calling: Part Three

This is part of a series of blog posts about finding your calling, based on podcast episodes. If you're interested in this, you might like to listen to the podcast episode here.

What I’d like us to do is to have a bit of a think about what the science, the psychology, of motivation tells us. Because that gives you a lens through which to look at what it is that really switches you on. Actually, the thing you are called to do will be tapping into something intrinsic within yourself, it will be calling out of you something about your unique self, and how your unique self connects with the world, and helps you to offer something good. It will motivate you. Which is why understanding motivation can help us to understand our calling.


So we can divide motivation into 3 levels. There are bodily needs. These are things which we are motivated towards because we have a bodily need for them. Such as air, food, water, warmth, shelter. So if you’re feeling chilly, you will be very motivated to find yourself a cardigan, or to turn the heating on. In fact your search for a cardigan might be quite enthusiastic. But once you’ve found it, and you’ve met that bodily need, then that level of motivation goes away. So a couple of hours ago I needed breakfast, and I was really motivated to cook some bacon for breakfast. My level of motivation now for cooking bacon is absolutely zero. So once you’ve met a bodily need, the motivation disappears.


Then there is extrinsic motivation, and intrinsic motivation. The thing which will help us to understand our purpose and our calling is all connected with intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, as it’s name suggests, comes from within us. It’s intrinsic to us. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside.

It’s often extrinsic motivation that gets us hooked into doing something that doesn’t necessarily suit us very well. It’s the thing to do with duties and obligations and societal conditioning. So we’re going to have a look at extrinsic motivation, just to help you to understand that a bit, and then we will think a bit about intrinsic motivation, and then we’ll go back to thinking about how we can use these things to help us to understand our purpose and our calling, our unique offering to the world.


So extrinsic motivation is so called because it’s imposed upon us from outside. It’s not coming from within us, it’s coming from other people who are setting the agenda. At it’s most basic level, extrinsic motivation is the way in which we try and persuade our children to do things which we think are socially acceptable and that we would rather like them to do. It’s punishment for things that we don’t want, and reward for things that we do want. It’s where naughty steps and reward charts come from. So that’s the basis of extrinsic motivation. You’re going to reward the thing that you want. What you’re hoping is that the more external rewards you give, the better performance you will get.


It turns out that that works reasonably well under certain specific conditions. And in some ways it kind of goes along with the bodily motivation. You can get people to work for a wage in situations that are not great, if they know that by doing so, they are going to be able to provide themselves and their family with their basic needs. Food and water and shelter, all those sorts of things. If you know that by going and doing something pretty grim, you can make sure that you and your family are not going to starve and that you’re going to have a roof over your head, then that’s a really good motivation. It also works a bit if you are getting people to do things that are simply mechanical. That don’t require a lot of thought. So if you want handles sticking on cups, then a financial reward for every handle stuck on a cup to the person who’s doing it for you, is likely to be reasonably effective. If somebody knows that they can get more money by sticking more handles on more cups, then it is quite likely that they will do it, and they will work to get quicker and more effective at it. That was the basis of the old piecework system.


Where extrinsic motivation, it turns out, breaks down completely, is the moment that you are expecting somebody to engage their brain and their creativity. There have been quite a number of studies that have shown that if you give somebody a creative task to do, then it’s their intrinsic motivation and their sense of reward and achievement at having done it, that is going to make the most difference. Interestingly, providing larger extrinsic rewards can actually cause performance to dive rather than improve.

There was a study done a number of years ago and Dan Pink references this in his book Drive, where a group of artists were given the opportunity to paint some paintings, and they were divided into two groups. The first group was offered a paid commission for producing the art. The second group was simply offered the opportunity to produce the art. There was no extrinsic reward for that, but there was the opportunity to express their creativity, and honour from having done the pictures. When these works of art were assessed by external assessors, who did not know who had done which picture, consistently, the people who were not paid produced better art than the ones who were. That seems somewhat perverse. But it turns out that once you’ve got to the point where you've got enough money to function in everyday life without worrying about it, offering more financial reward doesn’t help. In fact some research suggests that the bigger the reward you offer under those circumstances, the worse the performance gets.

This is completely counter-intuitive. It certainly calls into question the frequent assertions that you sometimes hear, that heads of industry must be paid obscene amounts of money to secure their talents. And that bankers need ridiculous bonuses to ensure their performance. The evidence suggests that this isn’t really true. So extrinsic motivation is a bit flawed. The whole carrot and stick thing is not really what’s going to keep us going.


Extrinsic motivation isn’t always as crude as being directly about reward and punishment; often it’s a lot more subtle than that. There is a second category of extrinsic motivation, which is all about taking on board the values, the rules, the expectations, of the people around us and of the social groups and the cultures that we’re part of. There are things we do in order to fit in because we are social creatures. To some extent it is true that there would be chaos if we didn’t conform to a degree. But I think it’s really important to understand why we are doing what we are doing, so that we don’t end up stuck doing things that really don’t suit us, for reasons that we’ve not really examined.

This social/cultural level of extrinsic motivation happens not because someone is standing over us demanding that we do what is expected. There is an element of choice, but essentially the motivation is coming from outside rather than from within. So one of the ways that you see extrinsic motivation working is when people end up swallowing the rules and the expectations of a group that they are part of without analysing or questioning them at all.


So just a personal example, when I was in my teens I attended a church that had got really quite a strong hierarchical structure. I was a bit of an outsider, in that everyone else who was a member of the youth group that I attended had grown up within the church, they’d attended a church-run school, and there were quite a lot of rules that, by and large, young people complied with. Girls dressed modestly and wore hats in church. No-one listened to pop music. Which when I look back seems astounding! And on one occasion I said, in the context of a group meeting, that I quite fancied celebrating my birthday with a barn dance. That was followed by a shocked silence, and then one of the girls said “we don’t agree with barn dances”. I said, “why don’t you agree with barn dances?” Deathly silence. In actual fact, nobody had any idea why they didn’t agree with barn dances. What they knew is that barn dances were taboo and shouldn’t happen. I can’t imagine what dangers it was regarded would be entailed in barn dancing. There are a lot of people who would regard barn dances as a bad idea for reasons of taste rather than religious morals. But my point is, that this was a rule, one of many rules in fact, that had been culturally absorbed by people, without much examination.


What often happens with extrinsic motivation is that as time goes by, we take on bored rules and expectations and sort of make them our own, so they become sort of semi-intrinsic, but their source is sort of still from outside. And of course it could be argued that when those extrinsic motivators are pushing us towards a healthier lifestyle, eating more fruit and vegetables, being kinder to the planet, all of those sorts of things, then they are good. But they are still not going to be the things which set our hearts on fire.


For that we need something different altogether. We need intrinsic motivation. The motivation that comes from within.


So what is intrinsic motivation? One answer is simply to say that it’s that intangible something that fires people up, that gives them passion and energy. We know that we’ve got it when we find that we get joyfully lost in something. When we discover that hours have passed without our even noticing. We are intrinsically motivated when we work really hard and come away feeling energised and enthused. We’ve hit the motivational jackpot when there are 5 elements in place. Passion, Purpose, Mastery, Autonomy, and Community.



There’s something a little bit indefinable about passion, but we know when we’ve got it. Passion is when you’re doing something simply for the love of it. I once met an AA man who spent a lot of time talking to me about his passion for car mechanics. We’d got a lot of time to talk because he had to tow my car quite a number of miles. I asked him about his work, and whether he enjoyed it, and why he continued to do it. He spoke with such passion and enthusiasm about his joy of fixing all things mechanical. He told me that the first thing he’d ever fixed was a petrol lawnmower that he’d acquired from a science teacher who lived at the other side of the town he was in. He had walked for miles trundling this old broken-down petrol lawnmower back home, so that he could then spend hours making it work again. That’s a lot of work to put in, and quite what a teenage boy wanted with a petrol lawnmower, goodness knows. But in actual fact he probably didn’t want anything particularly with the petrol lawnmower, it was just the opportunity to spend time fixing it.

That passion for mending and fixing things had brought him into the job for the AA he was doing when I met him. At one point he talked about a job he’d had in a garage which he’d really enjoyed, and then that garage had been taken over by new people, who made a number of changes. They changed pay and conditions, they took away a canteen, but neither of those things bothered him. What really bothered him was when they removed from people the opportunity to use the garage and the tools outside of work hours for their own projects.

This is a really good example of the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The extrinsic motivators, of having a good canteen, and having good pay and good working conditions, were not the things that were the deal breakers for him. What the dealbreaker was, was when they interrupted his ability to do more of what he was passionate about. And so obviously working for the AA was something that enabled him to fulfil his life purpose and something that he was passionate about. I felt incredibly privileged to meet him, actually. And very pleased that this was the AA man who was sorting out me and my car. Because he was doing something that he was passionate about.


There are people who are passionate about all sorts of things that might not float our boat at all. What brings joy to one person might leave somebody else completely cold. But we know passion when we see it. So thinking about what it is that you actually enjoy, that you love, that you care about, is a really big clue as to what’s going to motivate you.



The second ingredient of intrinsic motivation is purpose. Loving something is great, but if it has a deeper meaning, a greater purpose, then that is a really big motivator. We love to be doing something that we understand has meaning.

And actually you might be beginning to think about this as being grand and worthy and unattainable, but if you take a step back and you look deeply at what it is that you’re doing, purpose can be found in many things that might not be regarded as great and worthy.

When I was a student in Sheffield, I occasionally visited a hair salon called Hair By Christmas run by a guy called Andy. It was called Hair By Christmas because he was really, really, really slow. Getting your hair done took hours. But that actually meant that I spent quite a bit of time listening to him talking about what he did and why he did it. One of the things that he said that he loved being a hairdresser because people left his salon feeling better about themselves.


I can remember a conversation with a caterer a number of years ago who did catering for United Christian Broadcasters. I happened to have a conversation with her because the catering was particularly brilliant at an event that I attended, and I wanted to thank the person who was doing the catering. When I got chatting to her, she talked about just how much she loved doing her job because, as she put it, “I get to feed God’s people”. So actually feeding people, not only was she passionate about cookery, but she could see some purpose in that. That she was doing something beautiful for the world.


The deepest sense of purpose comes from a combination of two things. Firstly, it reflects something about love in the world. It reflects something of the character of our Divine Creator, and what the Divine Creator is doing in the world. When you think about it, people generally find meaning in things that reflect something of God’s character. Of love, justice, compassion, creativity. Of a regard for creation and the world and the cosmos. And that are about helping people to live more fulfilled and better lives that offer dignity to people and to animals, quite often. But something about showing love for creation and for people. Usually, those deeper sense of purposes come from that. 


And secondly, from doing something which expresses something which is uniquely us. Something that we are created to do. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddel, the famous runner who actually went on to become a missionary in China, said “God made me fast, and I feel His pleasure when I run.”


Mastery is the ability and the desire to get better at something. As human beings we’re driven to develop mastery. We want to be good at what we do. And being good at something gives you a real buzz.

To develop mastery generally means we need a certain amount of innate ability or potential in the first place. It is really difficult to find the motivation to work at something if you’re fundamentally unsuited to doing it. So my ballet career was never going to take off Neither was my career at badminton, or basketball, because I just do not have an innate predisposition to be good at any of those things. But when we do have an innate ability, and we are able to get good at something, then that can give us a certain level of motivation that we might not otherwise have.


I remember, interestingly, somebody who’s gone on to become quite famous as a mathematician, who describes how the ability to develop mastery was a real motivator and driver for her, that has actually led her to go on and do maths at a higher level.

In a conversation on Radio 4, she said that the thing that one summer, her mother gave her some maths books, that covered all the stuff she was going to learn the following year in her lessons at school. When she got back to school, she’d got a head start on everybody else, which meant that she was able to be masterful at maths in a way that she hadn’t been able to be the previous academic year.

That sense of mastery, of achievement, enabled her to gain a sense of motivation about doing maths that she'd not had before. I’m sure that that wasn’t the only component, but I think it’s really interesting that it’s the mastery that gave her the hook into some of the other elements of motivation that meant that she actually went on to become a mathematician. I suspect that if there wasn’t also something in maths that was going to help her to be passionate about it, that might not have made the difference long term. But it was the mastery that got her on the way.

People will spend a lot of time working and practising something, if they have an innate ability and they can develop mastery. That’s why musicians will spend hours practising, They are continuing to develop mastery, and mastery is something that is always really around the corner.

Sadly, we are often pushed to get better at things which we are inherently bad at. To work on our weak spots. Whereas in actual fact, if we are going to find our sweet spot in life, often what we need to do is to find workarounds and find ways of managing the things that we’re not so good at, and actually put the time into stuff that we do have an innate ability for. Because that’s where the payoff is going to be.




To be intrinsically motivated, we need space to pursue the things that we want to do in a way that suits us. We need to be able to put our stamp on something. We need to be able to do something in a way that uniquely expresses who we are. In other words, we want freedom.

When things are overly controlled, that leads to unthinking compliance, or rebellion. Autonomy leads to engagement. Autonomy trusts people to do a good job, and to make their own decisions. It allows for mistakes and encourages people to experiment, take risks and find their own unique way forward. And let’s face it, none of us likes to be micromanged. We all know what happens to our productivity when there’s a teacher, or a supervisor, or a manager looking over our shoulder and wanting to control what we’re doing.



The final part of the puzzle is other people. Lots of studies have shown that while some people can be pretty self-motivated, most of us are much more likely to stay motivated and inspired if we are supported and encouraged by other people. If we are working together. If there is somehow a sense of community. If there are people around us who are acknowledging and valuing our efforts.

So whilst the best motivation comes from within, to make the most of that inner motivation, we really need a supportive community. That might be about your family, or the team that you work with, or your colleagues, but having people around us who care about us and cheer us on, and having people that we can care about and cheer on, makes a big difference. We’re not creatures designed to work in isolation. We are designed to work together. So finding your teammates, finding people you can work with will make a big difference to your level of motivation.

So that's the core to motivation. Passion, purpose, autonomy and community. When those things are in place, we find ourselves naturally motivated. And what naturally leads to you feeling motivated is a big


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