Nine Strategies to Awaken Intrinsic Motivation (+ Dan Pink’s Reading List)

  Intrinsic Motivation

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

[The Walt Disney Company]

Life exposes us to all kinds of opportunities, options, and pressures. To sustain success we need a method that helps us filter through all possibilities and seize on those that allow us to give our best. But only 20 percent of us get to do what we do best every day.

    This means that the rest of the world feels they're not. In the same research, the Gallup organization found that focusing on unlocking strengths helps us increase performance. Marcus Buckingham championed the idea that discovering our strengths is the shortest path to success.

    In Now, Discover Your Strengths he says that rather than thinking we can be be whatever we want to be, which ends up being vague and may send us down paths that are not ours, we should work on becoming our best. While we can learn anything we put our mind to, each of us is wired to excel at some things. Discovering is one part of the process of finding our sweet spot.

    To unlock our potential, we still need drive. But not all motivation is created equal, or to last. In Drive, Dan Pink says people who have intrinsic motivation outperform those who are motivated by external rewards. According to research, when the source of behavior is internal, we also experience greater emotional and physical well-being. Dan calls intrinsic motivation Type I behavior, and it's something we can learn.

    In the book, Dan shares nine strategies he and others have found useful for awakening personal motivation, and bringing more autonomy, mastery, and purpose into our work and life. As he says, there's no limit for better, and we can practice to keep on the right track.

1. Give yourself a “flow” test 

In Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced a technique to measure if we're in flow. He told people to set an alarm to go off at random moments throughout the week and to record what they were doing and how they felt during those times.

But what is flow and why do we care?

[Flow is] a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.


[Flow lets people] achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.”

In our notes, we should document in detail the circumstances surrounding the best moments, then find ways to restructure our days to increase the number of optimal experiences, and list our source of internal motivation.

2. First, ask a big question

Clare Boothe Luce was one of the first women to serve in the U.S. Congress. In 1962, she offered some advice to then President J. F. Kennedy whose attention was splintered among many different priorities. “A great man is one sentence,” she said.

Lincoln's sentence was, “He preserved the union and freed the slaves.” Roosevelt's was, “He lifted us out of our great depression and helped us win a world war.”

What's our sentence? This is the big question.

3. Then keep asking a small question

We may look at big horizons, but our lives are made of small things, often a series of small decisions and actions we repeat often. Hence the small question, “Were we better today than we were yesterday?” We want to look for small clues of progress.

Progress is key to keep at it. Harvard Business School director of research Teresa Amabile found that:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.” 

Making progress on meaningful work is in itself a strong source of motivation.

4. Take a Sagmeister

Designer Stefan Sagmeister decided he was going to sprinkle five of the typical years Westerners take for retirement (25 years on average) throughout his working life, instead of at the end. Every seven years, Sagmeister closes shop for a year sabbatical. He says some of his best thinking came from those experiences.

“I had all sorts of fears that we would lose clients, be forgotten or have to start from scratch. And none of these fears came true.

[…] it is a simple time-planning event. I put the plan in the agenda, work out the finances and tell the clients.”

Sagmeister's list of works spans from album covers to full-blown visual identities for the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, The Talking Heads, The Guggenheim Museum, and many others. In the beginning it was hard to take the time off his own business, but having a plan helped.

Most people regret not having traveled more when in their prime, or engaging in interesting projects, or even having more space to think. Time is the culprit in most cases. Being masters of our own lives also means knowing when we need to regenerate.

5. Give yourself a performance review

This means exactly what it sounds like, except we do the goals and the review ourselves and do it regularly to see how we're doing. Honesty is important, because it's easy to deceive ourselves, or to become complacent.

The idea is to go beyond learning from mistakes, to learning to make fewer of them. Frequency helps us get over the idea of doing the reviews… and it keeps us on track.

Imagine trying to lose weight and weighing yourself only once a year! It wouldn't help much.

6. Get unstuck by doing oblique

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt published a set of 100 cards with strategies to overcome the pressure-packed moments of deadlines in 1975. The cards are questions or statements that, when pulled at random, can help us get our of a rut. Each card offers a challenging constraint intended to help artists break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.

Some examples of thought prompts from the cards:

The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten.

Go outside. Shut the door.

Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list.

Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them.

What would your closest friend do?

The cards help us leverage the power of an open mind.

7. Move five steps closer to mastery

Anders Ericsson is a professor at Florida State University. He says “deliberate practice” is a “lifelong period of effort to improve performance in a specific domain,” and is key to achieve mastery. Its objective is to improve performance.

Characteristics of deliberate practice are repetition and seeking constant critical feedback. We should prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting. Which is the reason why it works and few do it. This is how successful people rise on a tide of advantage.

We have to start with talent, hence strengths matter. But to get better, we need deliberate practice.

8. Take a page from Webber and a card from your pocket

In Rules of Thumb, Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, shares a simple way to assess if we're on the path of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

On a 3 x 5 card, we should answer “What gets you up in the morning?” On the back of the same card, write the answer to “What keeps you up at night?” The key is paring the answers down to a simple sentence each, and aligning both answers.

When we don't like one or both of these answers over time, we can ask “What are you going to do about it?”

9. Create your own motivational poster

Some sites offer templates we can use for this. What would your motivational poster say? Fun and games aside, the interesting aspect of this exercise is to think about what motivates us.

    Along with practical exercises, Dan Pink includes a list of fifteen books essential to discovering and encouraging our intrinsic motivation. Many of them are favorites.


In Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse says there are at least two kinds of games — he calls one finite, the other infinite. The difference between the two is that we play a finite game for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing to play.

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”


In Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin says Deliberate Practice is designed to improve performance, works through repetition, relies on constant feedback for improvement, it's hard and thus mentally demanding, requires a good understanding of goals to ladder steps to get there.

“If you set a goal of becoming an expert in your business, you would immediately start by doing all kinds of things you don't do now.”


In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi illuminates the kind of life we should all be living. He argues that one of the highest states of being is the state of flow — when you’re totally engaged in an activity, riding the narrow channel between boredom and anxiety. I talk about this book a lot, and try to live by it even more.

“Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, is we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur hen a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”


In Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, psychologist Edward Deci and Richard Flaste say the best way to motivate people—at school, at work, or at home—is to support their sense of autonomy. We are all inherently interested in the world, argues Deci, so why not nurture that interest in each other?

Instead of asking, “How can I motivate people?” we should be asking, “How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?”


In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck says our ability to grow depends upon our ability to shift from a fixed mindset we are who we are and our wins are attached to that identity to a growth mindset, which is based on on the belief that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts. In turn, this creates a passion for learning.


In Then we Came to the End, Joshua Ferris' debut novel, he describes what it means to be “we” in the modern world, with its ephemeral relationships and reluctant allegiances, what belonging means, and what happens when belonging comes to an end. Every office is a family of sorts, and the Chicago ad agency Ferris depicts is family at its best and worst, coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: through gossip, elaborate pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks. As they attempt to stave off the inevitable, the cast of this expansive epic contend not just with job loss, but with breakdowns, break-ups, and rounds of Celebrity Death Match that force them to confront their own mortality. 


In Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon consider three basic issues — our profession's mission, its standards or best practices, and our identity. What does it mean to carry out “good work?” What strategies allow people to maintain moral and ethical standards at a time when market forces have unprecedented power and work life is being radically altered by technological innovation? 

“What do you do if you wake up in the morning and dread going to work, because the daily routine no longer satisfies your standards?”


In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the idea of the “self-made” person. Success is more complicated because high achievers are often the product of hidden advantages of culture, timing, demographics, and luck. Without those advantages, we lose potential.

“It is not how much money we make the ultimately makes us happy between nine-to-five. It's whether our work fulfills us.”


In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Keans Goodwin illuminates Lincoln's political genius, as the one-term congressman and prairie lawyer rises from obscurity to prevail over three gifted rivals of national reputation to become president. He was self-confident enough to surround himself with rivals who excelled in areas where he was weak. He genuinely listened to other people's point of view, something that helped him form his own opinions. He gave credit where credit was due and wasn't afraid to take the blame.


In The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal, David Halberstam chronicles the relationship and hardship endured by the rowing team during the 1984 U.S. trials. What drives these men to endure a physical pain known to no other sport? Who are they? Where do they come from? How do they regard themselves and their competitors? What have they sacrificed, and what inner demons have they appeased?

“No chartered planes or buses ferried the athletes into Princeton. No team managers hustled their baggage from the bus to the hotel desk and made arrangements so that at mealtime they need only show up and sign a tab. This was a world of hitched rides and borrowed beds, and meals, if not scrounged, were desperately budgeted by appallingly hungry young men.”


In Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn asks “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.”


In Once a Runner, John L. Parker, Jr. captures the essence of competitive running — and of athletic competition in general. The book, which he self-published in 1978, has become one of the most beloved sports novels. A story that can help us see the toll that mastery has on us.


In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says we would rather learn a little bit more, or OVERthink something in place of constructing an action plan and then sticking to it. Even when we have an action plan, we don't really commit to it fully day in and day out. Doing the work is hard. Often we need to steel ourselves through a poor draft of something for long enough to zero in on the form that is on the inside.


In Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace, Ricardo Semler talks about how he turned his family's business, the aging Semco corporation of Brazil, into the most revolutionary business success story of our time. By eliminating uneeded layers of management and allowing employees unprecedented democracy in the workplace, he created a company that challenged the old ways and blazed a path to success in an uncertain economy.

“I want everyone at Semco to be self-sufficient. The company is organized — well, maybe that's not quite the right word for us — not to depend on any individual, especially me. I take it as a point of pride that twice on my return from long trips my office had been moved — and each time it got smaller.”


In The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter Senge introduces “learning organizations” — where autonomous thinking and shared visions for the future are not only encouraged, but are considered vital to the health of the organization.

“People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them — in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.”

    Management consultant Margaret Wheatley studies organizational behavior. She says, “Even though worker capacity and motivation are destroyed when leaders choose power over productivity, it appears that bosses would rather be in control than have the organization work well.” Her approach includes systems thinking, theories of change, chaos theory, leadership and the learning organization — particularly its capacity to self-organize.

    Why wait for someone else to make decisions on our behalf? It's up to us to stay motivated and to leverage our strengths. For more on intrinsic motivation in the workplace, see the Zen of compensation.

ven though worker capacity and motivation are destroyed when leaders choose power over productivity, it appears that bosses would rather be in control than have the organization work well.
Read more at: ” For more on intrinsic motivation, see the Zen of Compensation.