• Rosie

Motivation and Curiosity

If you were guaranteed an income and comfortable lifestyle what would you choose to do in your day? Do you think you could motivate yourself to do something you found fulfilling?


The traditional idea of a carrot or a stick being necessary to motivate someone assumes that the answer to the second question would be no, as do many arguments against Universal Basic Income, but that’s another story.


Lockdown, for many, has been the first time since starting school that they’ve been required to motivate themselves, something I have found exceedingly difficult even before I was stuck primarily in my home and unable to see friends and loved ones. What I didn’t realise was that the way I was raised made me reliant on external factors, such as rewards, recognition or money, to motivate me.

I discovered the psychological principles of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation whilst attending a Guardian Live online with the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on his new book “Human Kind”. What he explained was that systems, such as educational establishments and many workplaces, that encourage extrinsic motivation do so at the diminishment of intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that is inseparable to the enjoyment of the activity itself, there is no need for any external factors to encourage you to do it. Conversely, extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to do something by something external like a reward or a potential punishment. This is the form of motivation that our education system utilises. What I found interesting is that if someone is offered a reward for something they are ordinarily intrinsically motivated to do, their intrinsic enjoyment of the activity has been shown to decrease.

Although these concepts are relatively self-explanatory, it wasn’t until listening to Bregman’s talk that I was able to put into words my struggles with motivation and finding enjoyment in things I used to do effortlessly and without thought. Understanding that for the majority of my life I have done things, not for the sake of those things, but for the external factors of grades, money and societal expectation is in some ways liberating as it stops me feeling like a failure when I fail to motivate myself.

In a world with, what feels like, ever-shrinking job opportunities and the majority of young people resigned to the fact that they will have to be entrepreneurs and self-employed in order to make ends meet, I find it somewhat ludicrous that our education system still follows a method designed in the Victorian era. In 2011 Lord Kennath Baker described the UK's education system as preparing children "for toil in the fields and factories".


My life has been completely driven by “short term” productivity. For over 12 years I, and every other child in the British education system, had my life determined by grades, exams and homework. I found it surprising when I was researching my A-Level history coursework and struggled to concentrate on books I used to read for enjoyment. It is the same with a lot of my reading habits, and it’s sad that once something I did for fun became framed as a chore and something I should require additional motivation for, my attitude towards it changed.


It seems to me that the aim of the majority of people is to find a lifestyle that they wake up each morning excited to enjoy. We aspire to work, and find such fulfilment in doing so that the wage is just a happy, but unnecessary addition.


The principles which motivate people are obviously very interesting to employers and to that end, there have been various studies carried out to investigate the best ways to motivate individuals. A study by MIT discovered that any work that requires more than basic cognitive skills is actually hindered by financial incentive, which seems to juxtapose what most people understand as motivating. Further research has discovered that people are motivated by three things once they no longer have to worry about money. These are autonomy, mastery and purpose.


An example of autonomy is Atlassian, an Australian tech company which have bi-weekly days where the employees have complete free reign over their work for 24 hours on the condition they present what they’ve worked on to the company the next day. What they’ve found is that these days have generated new solutions, products and ideas. The underlying concept of the day is that people have interesting and worthwhile ideas, and merely need the space and self-direction to explore them. Similarly, the best teachers I have had were those who encouraged me to discover what it was that I enjoyed about the subject, and to deepen my understanding by following my curiosity.


Mastery is evident in most people’s lives; we each seem to have a desire to progress, be it at a musical instrument, computer game or artistic endeavour, and we pursue these things regardless of financial incentive, and instead for the sense of satisfaction and fulfilment that progression brings us.


Purpose is the desire for us to feel like what we do is meaningful on a bigger level. Adam Grant called this “prosocial motivation”, he said that a person’s work ethic can be seen to increase if they are made aware of the positive impact it is having on others.


At a basic level what allows humans to motivate themselves is the recognition that they are, in fact, humans. In his Ted Talk Dan Pink points out just this, that the traditional view of fostering motivation in humans treats them the same as horses, either they move forward to gain the carrot or to avoid the stick. In order to lead lives that make us excited to get up in the morning the way we approach motivation needs to change.

Something that I have found during lockdown is that boredom is not a problem. In allowing myself to be bored and not fill that boredom with the instant gratification of social media, I have rediscovered old passions and found some new ones. It has allowed me to re-realise that my interests and passions don’t have to be “productive”, it seems quite a simple concept but one I think most people overlook. Since exploring activities beyond my normal educational routine, I have noticed that I experience guilt around using resources and time for non-necessary activities like experimental crafts. Whilst it is obviously important not to squander resources, it is also important to permit yourself to enjoy just playing without a need for an outcome.


Societal parameters about what is considered to be productive and worthwhile shouldn’t dictate how you spend your day or if it fulfils you. In allowing yourself to get bored and come up with something weird, wacky and interesting you are rebelling against the extrinsic motivations we are trained to need, and allowing yourself to discover what it is that you are truly passionate about, which in my opinion is never a bad thing.

Intrinsic motivation and curiosity seem inseparable to me, and the feeding of one feeds the other by necessity. In my experience curiosity is something that can only exist for curiosity’s sake, you cannot be incentivised to be curious with money, you’re either curious about something or you’re not. Curiosity is intrinsic motivation at its most basic.


©2020 by Musing in the Time of Covid.

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