What gets YOU motivated?

It is time for the annual school spelling bee, and this year’s grand prizes have just been announced.  You have beaten your classmates with a flawless spelling of the word “bologna,” and you will be moving on to the final round.  Spellers from each class will compete on the huge stage in the auditorium in front of the whole student body.  The prizes: a large gold trophy and one hundred dollars!

You can almost see that glittering trophy with your name engraved across the front, placed high on the top shelf in your room.  You imagine what you will buy with your prize money: maybe a giant pool table, or a robot who will feed you an endless supply of cookies, or a private Jacuzzi.  The possibilities are endless.

Self determination Motivation

As you take the stage that day, your stomach flutters with nerves.  Robert the kid genius is sitting next to you, confidently practicing the words he memorized from his parents’ encyclopedia set.  Gina, last year’s champion, is stretching her arms and legs, as though she is preparing to run a race.  You concentrate on one thing and one thing only: winning those prizes.

Prizes can be amazing motivators.  It makes perfect sense: when you know that you are going to receive something in exchange for your efforts, you are more motivated, and more excited to work hard.  And there’s nothing wrong with working hard to gain something concrete, like a trophy or prize money.  Imagine you win the spelling bee and walk off with your trophy in one hand, and one hundred dollars in the other.  Your classmates cheer loudly, and Robert and Gina look on with jealousy.  What a great feeling, right?

This is known as extrinsic motivation.  It means that we are motivated to do something because there is the hope or promise of some external reward.  The motivation to win the spelling bee came from the promise that you would receive a trophy and money if you won.  You spent hours pouring over lists of spelling words because you desperately wanted those prizes.

Throughout our lives, there won’t always be prizes in exchange for hard work.  Sometimes we work really, really hard, and succeed at something, and there is no one there at the finish line to applaud our efforts or hand us a medal for outstanding achievement.  The only thing we are left with is how we think and feel about our accomplishments and ourselves.  When we are motivated to succeed because a) we want to feel good about ourselves, b) we want to master a new skill for personal gain and growth, or c) we want to contribute to our communities, this is known as intrinsic motivation.

self-determination theory

Let’s say you wanted to win the spelling bee because you wanted to prove to yourself how many words you know.  Or because you were determined to beat your personal record last year, when you came in fifth place.  Or what about wanting to win to feel proud of yourself for achieving a huge goal?  All of these are examples of intrinsic motivation.  Rather than winning for the prizes or the approval of others, you are winning for yourself.

Why This Motivation Stuff Matters

It actually makes a big difference whether we set goals for ourselves (intrinsic) or with the hope of gaining something in return (extrinsic).  When we get into the habit of working hard for some sort of concrete gain, like money, it becomes really difficult to work just as hard when there is no longer any gain—no more money in exchange for work.  Motivation researchers have explored just this.  In one study, researchers secretly observed two groups of students working on a school newspaper.  (Imagine, being secretly watched while working with your friends on a group project—let’s just hope they didn’t do anything too embarrassing!) One group of students was given fifty cents for every article they wrote for the paper.  The second group of students was never given any money for writing articles.

Now fast-forward several weeks later.  The students in that first group, the fifty-cent group, are told that the paper can no longer afford to pay them for each article they write.  They will no longer receive money in exchange for articles.  The second group is told nothing—they continue writing articles for no money.

What do you think happened to the students in the first group?  No more money, no more work ethic.   The number of articles these students wrote completely dropped!  When they were getting paid for each article, these students were in a rush to churn out as many articles as possible.  But now, things changed.  They lost their extrinsic motivation for working hard.  They decided to kick back and relax, pop open a soda and put their feet up.  Why bother working so hard when they weren’t even getting paid?

The students in the second group, who had always been working without any promise of money, continued to write the same number of articles for the paper.  Nothing changed.  They were already intrinsically motivated.  They had found other reasons to work hard—like the love of writing or the satisfaction of contributing to a big project with their fellow classmates—that had nothing to do with earning money.  These reasons proved to be more powerful in the end.  Intrinsic motivation kept these students working on articles even after the other group’s fifty-cent rewards wore off.

That’s why it is important to build up your own set of internal motivators.  It’s totally natural to be excited by an awesome reward, to work hard to get that perfect grade, or to imagine yourself bowing to a crowd of faithful admirers.  But it is also necessary to make sure that when the applause fades, you are still able to push yourself for the sake of being the best speller/student/person you can be.

Can You Do More For Yourself?

Let’s look at some ways to build up intrinsic motivation:

  1. What are your passions?  What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? What gives you that sense of personal satisfaction?  Maybe you love building robots or making your own clothes.  Or maybe you get a rush from solving puzzles or reading difficult books.  Whatever your interests are, you are more likely to feel internally motivated to succeed when you are engaging in activities you genuinely enjoy.  When you’re doing what you love, you may not need that external reward to keep moving.
  2. What are your goals? Work with a parent or trusted advisor to make a list of goals you want to accomplish this year.  Or make a list yourself!  Now go through the list, and think about the reasons behind each goal.  What are you doing to make yourself better or to make yourself proud?  Make sure that there is a healthy balance on that list between goals that are internally and externally rewarding.
  3. What interests you right now? Think about your current hobbies or activities.  Which of those activities are you doing for external gain?  If you paint, do you paint so that you can impress your art teacher, or do you paint for yourself? It’s okay if the answer is, well, a little bit of both!  But just being aware of why we do the things we do can help us refocus on what is intrinsically rewarding.

The phrase “It’s not about winning, it’s how you play the game,” might seem lame after the word “loquacious” sends you packing at the school-wide spelling bee.  But there might some truth in there.  The satisfaction we get from engaging in things that challenge us lasts much longer than medals and trophies.  It is what keeps us going even after the prizes run out.


Deci, E. L. (1972). The effects of contingent and noncontingent rewards and controls on intrinsic motivation. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance8(2), 217-229.

Learn More: Self-determination theory

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