The Multitudes of Motivation

June 30, 2021


I've wanted to write about motivation for a while, but at the same time, I lacked the motivation for it… You see, motivation is not an on/off switch. It has many facets and layers. It has multitudes.

Let’s start with the common ground. Motivation is what drives people to act. So far, so good. The problem is that sometimes people are talking about incentives, other times about purpose, or even the need to get noticed, just to name a few.

To better understand how motivation works and be equipped to use it impactfully, we need to understand its different forms and how it works in different environments.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Most theories on the topic divide motivation into two types — extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is reward-driven, and also relates to avoiding punishment. For example, money incentives for workers or grades for students. It also includes more abstract things, like praise or fame.

Intrinsic motivation is engaging in a behavior because it's rewarding by itself, i.e., the behavior is the reward. It's usually associated with personal growth and long-term behaviors, but also includes more granular actions. For example, doing something because it aligns with the person's values.

One of the first reactions when people learn this distinction is to say that intrinsic motivation is the "good type" of motivation. Although it's easy to confirm this argument (we all think we are in control, right?), both types are important and play well together.

As we'll mention in a bit, feedback is crucial to the learning process. So, picture this, someone is learning a new skill, and an expert praises what the person achieved so far. This is clearly an extrinsic motivator, but can have a huge effect on the person's motivation to continue improving.

Self-Efficacy and Feedback Loops

Motivation can be the main ingredient which moves people to action, but by itself is far less powerful than most people think. There’s a game-changer to make it work, self-efficacy — the holy grail of motivation.

Self-efficacy is the confidence that you have the right skills and abilities to achieve your goals or solve your problems. For that, there's nothing better than feedback loops.

Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. And the only chance to improve in something is getting timely and concrete feedback. — Sönke Ahrens

In some cases, feedback loops are readily available, like in programming and gaming, but in others, they lag and can be "problematic".

Many learning journeys "suffer" from delayed gratification, which needs to be handled with care. For example, people that study to pass tests get fast feedback, but they will forget what they "learned" in the short term. People who practice to improve their adaptation skills (empathy, creativity, resilience, etc.) have slow feedback, but will get higher returns in the future.

So, the trick here is to understand upfront what type of feedback you can count on and be prepared for it.

Motivation and Work

When it comes to motivation and the workspace, the motivators identified by Dan Pink, in his book Drive, are not only spot on, but are also good examples of how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are intertwined.

His thesis is that, after ensuring a good salary (extrinsic motivator), people are more motivated by purpose, autonomy and mastery, all mainly intrinsic motivators, than material rewards.

And for this the importance of learning and development is key — and supported by several studies. But there is a BIG catch… employees need to perceive the Learning and Development initiatives as something valuable. Everyone is tired of pointless outdated “training sessions”.

Motivation and Kids

Motivation often comes after starting, not before. Action produces momentum. — James Clear

Many parents are struggling to decide how to help theirs kids on their learning journey. The education system is broken, but what’s the solution?

Well, we’re all experimenting with different models, but one thing is for sure. Motivation plays a major role.

So, independent of the approach, there are three steps that are almost natural:

  1. Expose kids to diversity (and experimentation)
  2. Let them find what motivates them
  3. Support them on their learning journey

A truly motivated kid will always be eager to learn more, but first he needs to be exposed to different things, experiment with them and only then follow through.

And this will invert the old system way of doing things: instead of learning the theory to be ready to act; they will gain momentum by doing things and looking for supporting materials as they go.

Speaking of kids, Ana Lorerna Fabrega, one of the educators I most admire, has an excellent article on engaging kids without rewards. However, I disagree with the way she differentiates between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation like they are almost self-contained. When you’re praising a kid for her effort that is an extrinsic motivator. The same applies when you give explicit feedback; it’s an external validation of the work done.


If you're struggling with how to help your kids on their learning journey, this may come in handy: Kids & Learning

Wrapping Up

As you can see, motivation is far from linear; it has many layers in itself. It has multitudes. It's a fascinating concept that can make or break a work environment or a kid's learning journey, among many other realities.

Remember when I said I lacked the motivation to write this article? For one side, there are many great articles on the topic (reducing my motivation); for the other, it's hard to find one with a good balance between rigor and simplicity (my trigger to write about it). I hope I helped to fill this gap.

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