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  • Blog
  • soft skills

Author  Jamie Taylor

Digital Content Editor

May 30, 2023 |

 9 min read

  • Blog
  • soft skills

From the choices we make to the careers we choose; different factors influence why we do what we do. This blog breaks down how to understand what drives you and how to apply that to your career.

Why do you do what you do? Understanding your motivation is critical to enjoy a fulfilling and stimulating career, and arguably a better life in general. Navigating the factors that influence your decisions, however, is no easy task.

At best, you can work in a role and industry where you live by the proverb choose a job you love, and you will never work a day. At worst, you risk finding yourself burned out, in a role you dislike, struggling to get up in the morning.

Understanding extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can provide a roadmap for finding your why and support a long and prosperous career.

Intrinsic motivation: doing what you love

In simple terms, intrinsic motivation refers to an individual’s desire to partake in activities for the simple pleasure of the activity itself. This is usually due to the innate enjoyment derived from it. Good examples of this could be an artistic or creative pursuit, listening to music, or playing sports. The critical point is that people do these activities with no instrumental goal in mind. If asked why they do these things, we would expect a response to the effect of: “because I like doing it”.

Extrinsic motivation: doing what you must (or should)

In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to any activity that is performed to achieve a distinct outcome beyond the activity itself. A person’s actions are directly linked to a goal of some sort, i.e., to earn money; to derive health benefits; to not break the law and get arrested.

There are many examples and levels of autonomy (personal choice) connected to extrinsic motivation. One example could be arriving at work at 7 a.m. after a warning from your manager that you would be fired if you failed to do so. In this instance motivation is driven by a fear of reprimand, you feel compelled to do so to avoid a negative consequence. At the other end of the spectrum, somebody might partake in exercise to improve their health. In this latter example, an individual’s extrinsic motivation is self-volitional; there is no reprimand. It is voluntarily undertaken, yet it is not driven by any pleasure derived from the activity.

There are many more complex gradations of extrinsic motivation, all with different underlying dynamics between the individual and the activity.

The distinction between these forms of motivation provides a framework for understanding why you do the things that you do (and perhaps, how to find the right blend of motivational factors for your ideal career).

Understanding your career motives

Many people genuinely enjoy their careers. With regards to intrinsic motivation, ask yourself: is there anything in your job that you would do if you were not employed to do it? If you are fortunate, it is likely that aspects of your work involve activities that you are intrinsically motivated by.

It is also instructive to ask how extrinsic motivation relates to your career. Is your job simply a means to afford the necessities of life? Are you driven to receive esteem or respect from your peers, family, or society (such as a doctor)? Does your job afford you power or influence (like a local politician or policeman)? Do you work for the benefit of others (your children, family, or society at large)? Understanding how you consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) rationalize your career choices can provide a profound insight into what kind of career you want.

Overcoming the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy

The dichotomy between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can prove problematic. We live in constant discourse with our environment, making it difficult to neatly separate what we do for subjective enjoyment and external validation or reward. Furthermore, we almost always derive our motivation from both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. An example of this might be eating a Mediterranean diet. We might choose to follow this diet because it has obvious health benefits but also because it is delicious, and we enjoy it.

Making the extrinsic intrinsic

It is also very possible for an extrinsically motivated activity to become intrinsically motivated over time. This could include initially exercising for health benefits but then gradually doing so simply for the enjoyment you derive from it.

Making the intrinsic extrinsic

Due to a (now slightly outdated) belief that extrinsic motivation is the poorer sibling of intrinsic motivation, research has looked at how to foster intrinsic motivation. The findings are that extrinsic rewards diminish intrinsic motivation. Essentially, rewarding individuals for completing tasks they intrinsically enjoy creates an association of the task with the reward, rather than its innate enjoyment. This, however, by no means suggests an individual will necessarily feel less motivated to undertake an activity. In many cases, such as paying a struggling artist for their work, extrinsic rewards could reliably enhance their motivation (but potentially diminish their pleasure in doing so).

Finally, it is important to avoid making the mistake of thinking intrinsic motivation is innately superior to extrinsic motivation, or that intrinsic motivation is good and extrinsic motivation is bad. A great example of this is cigarette smoking. Someone might derive intense pleasure from smoking and does so for purely intrinsic reasons. However, abstaining from smoking to protect their health (i.e., extrinsic motivation) will almost certainly benefit them. Intrinsic motivation has also been associated with a variety of mental health disorders and negative behaviour patterns. It is therefore far more useful to consider both as neutral categories.

Playing the long game: escaping the extrinsic motivation trap

Pursuing purely intrinsic motivation has significant downsides. It is impossible to enjoy everything you do. Does everybody enjoy washing the dishes, paying their taxes, or cleaning their toilet? Never developing the capacity to utilize extrinsic motivation will likely lead to the neglect of important responsibilities and never developing self-discipline (which is essential for adult and professional life).

Nevertheless, particularly in the realm of career decisions, it is easy to fall into what I refer to as the extrinsic motivation trap.

Whether it be pursuing a high salary, a position in a boardroom, or working in a sector with cultural capital or social esteem, we are often seduced by extrinsic motivation.

By toiling to receive a pay cheque or struggling through higher education for the prestige of having PhD next to your name, we often can’t see the forest through the trees when we rely purely upon extrinsic motivation.

For some people, basing a career just upon extrinsic motivation can be possible. This is especially true if they have a fulfilling set of hobbies and interests outside of work to satisfy their intrinsic motivations.

However, basing all key career decisions upon extrinsic factors can be a recipe for disaster. Pursuing a career just based upon monetary or material gain, or for esteem (like a doctor or lawyer, perhaps to satisfy a parent’s expectations), may lead to burnout. This is even truer for those that find themselves in roles that neither command a high salary nor social esteem. This is without even mentioning the consequences of such career choices on mental health.

Research on quiet quitting and the great resignation appears to support this hypothesis. The pandemic and post-pandemic era have triggered a collective reflection (in particular amongst younger professionals) on what kind of career and working life they want. This only underlines the importance of finding a career path based upon a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Furthermore, it’s also highly reasonable to expect that an individual’s extrinsic and intrinsic motivation may evolve over time. What motivates a university graduate may not be the same as an experienced professional in the twilight of their career.

Making intrinsic and extrinsic motivation work for you

Although romanticized images of the starving artist or caricatures of the money-grabbing investment banker remain powerful symbols in the popular imagination, the fact is that most people will benefit from a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to achieve career success.

Nevertheless, the precise balance of these drivers is highly individual.

Beyond obvious extrinsic (but non-volitional) motivational factors (like foreclosure on your home or the need to afford daily necessities, which can obviously be highly motivating) asking yourself the following questions is a good place to start:

  • What kind of activities do you like doing, irrespective of any external reward?
  • How important is it that you do something enjoyable throughout the working day?
  • Do you highly value material possessions and financial rewards?
  • How important is respect and esteem from colleagues/friends/family/society to you?
  • Are you highly motivated to do something with a clear benefit to others and society, or are you largely indifferent regarding how your job affects society at large?
  • Over your life so far (including hobbies and education, in addition to your career) when did you feel the most motivated and fulfilled? Can you identify and isolate what it was about those periods that supported your motivation (for instance learning new things, earning praise from colleagues, or enjoying the tasks themselves)?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions but considering them can help you understand how to thrive in a career that meets your needs (and doesn’t merely serve or reflect the preferences of others). Crucially, if you are considering a career move, considering your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations can also help you avoid picking an alternative career path for the wrong reasons.

Summary

The concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation carries a profound insight into why we make the decisions that we do. From the career that we choose, the incentives we strive for, and the skills we cultivate, knowing how to harness your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is key to a long and successful career.

Despite the fact that these factors may change over time, taking the opportunity to interrogate what drives you can help avert mistakes and take the steps necessary to understand yourself on a deeper level. This includes escaping an overreliance on just intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Revisiting and answering these key questions throughout your career will give you a high likelihood of professional success.

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