Are Your Motives Intrinsic or Extrinsic?

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Over the weekend my husband had to drive back and forth between Chicago and Detroit—a long trip made tolerable by books on tape. One of the books he listened to was Drive, titled appropriately enough for a road trip, which talked about what drives us to do what we do.

Now since I neither read the book nor listened to it on tape, I’m filtering this through the discussion my  husband and I had about what impressed him most. Hopefully I’m doing the author and his topic justice. Basically my husband explained the difference between whether we’re motivated by love of what we do (intrinsic to our passion and nature) or if we’re motivated by the results we receive when we do what we do (extrinsic elements, i.e. money, a paycheck, acceptance, even fame).

I daresay most people believe artists are usually motivated by intrinsic values. We can’t help but write or paint or create, because we have characters or images or inventions swirling around in our head and they need an outlet. But over the years I’ve met a fair number of successful writers who are smart enough to write because they’ve learned how to do it, and enjoy the freedom, the title, and the money (even if it isn’t as much as people believe it to be).

It’s also possible to start out with intrinsic motivation, writing for the pure passion of it, but end up with more extrinsic values driving us. That’s when writing becomes a job: after the passion has cooled, but there are still publishers willing to publish you, readers waiting for another book. Another check waiting to be cashed.

Yikes! Writing, a job? Doesn’t that sound like a corruption of something holy? I admit there are areas of writing that unavoidably require job-like effort, such as anything related to the business end, including marketing. But the  longer our writing remains sacrosanct, the longer the quality will remain the best we can produce. I know, I know, there are people out there brilliant enough to produce great art just because of their brilliance. But I maintain that coupling talent with passion produces the best result. A writer might enjoy the freedom writing allows, but if a writer writes because they can’t wait to get the story down, then the whole process from the creation to the reader’s experience is usually more enjoyable.

I don’t think either motivation is wrong; perhaps one is easier than the other, for various reasons. Are you motivated by an intrinsic or extrinsic drive?


  1. Brenda Hurley says

    Mon Sept 24th,
    “Morning, Maureen.”
    Well … I believe I’d have to answer, that I am both intrinsically and extrinsically driven. I might take on a task because there is a natural bent to that feat, having a love and joy for it, and a self-sense of accomplishment. But, I would also take it on if I felt I would be commended, appreciated, valued and/or respected by someone else for doing so. One kind of feeds off the other. Guess I am motivated by an intrinsic AND extrinsic drive … can’t say if one is more prevalent than the other. Interesting, huh ?
    Thanks so much for sharing. Hope all is well.
    Take care, and, God Bless, In Him, Brenda Hurley

    • says

      Thanks for your thoughts, Brenda! I understand your view – in fact, your comments made me think of my daughter. She’s what I call my “pleaser” child. It’s a joy and a benefit to have someone in our lives who wants to please those around them, although I’ve cautioned her that sometimes it’s the pleaser that ends up pleasing others more than themselves. Is that good, or bad? I suppose it depends on the circumstances. If pleasing others brings joy, that’s good for both parties. But if pleasing others takes precedence over her own needs, then she has to be careful to stay aware of that, and that burn-out can happen more easily if the results are always centered on feedback from others.

      It’s a fine line to draw, especially since the Bible tells us to serve others, to be other-centered. Plus, I think those who are always focused on their own passions run all kinds of risks – self-centeredness, insensitivity to others, willing to offend others in order to feed their own art (see my review on the book My Name is Asher Lev for more on that).

      I actually think a mix like yours is probably the healthiest attitude to have!

  2. says

    I’m definitely both, too. I’ve done many jobs where I’ve not liked what I do but do it because I like the money, and writing fiction isn’t one of them. It’s sheer enjoyment much of the time, the off-days where I just push through being the exception. But I love the extrinsic rewards too; it’s nice to earn some money for doing what I like to do, and it’s fun having people like my writing (whether they paid for it or not!) After all, writing in a vacuum is a dead end. It needs the extrinsic dimensions gained through publication (or compensation if you’re freelance writing) to attain its full value.

    Of course my journal is pure intrinsic writing, between me and God only (I hope!)

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