Intrinsic motivation is a learning superpower
Our ability to learn could either be supercharged or stunted, depending on what motivates it.
I was a top-performing student at grad school while studying Computer Science.
To my utter dismay and surprise, I bombed at my first three job interviews after completing the program.
These were onsite interviews at highly desirable companies like Microsoft and Adobe. On every occasion, I had failed to answer some basic technical questions, ones that I felt immediately embarrassed about. As an academically successful candidate, why did I stumble at these interviews?
It was because my knowledge of the subject was sufficient to get me good grades, but incomplete for real-world applications. I had not cared to grasp the fundamentals or to generalize what I had learned in class. Because my learning until that point in my life was driven by “extrinsic” motivations. All I desired throughout my college education was to get good grades so I could score a respectable job. Going back further, all I ever wanted during my school days was to get into a good college. “Learning” anything was never the motivation, it was only a means to an end.
I eventually got a job as a database administrator at an old-fashioned bank. I had to wear a suit and tie to work even though my job involved sitting at my desk all day, hardly ever speaking to another human, unless the database was malfunctioning and needed a kick to start buzzing again. This was during the peak of the dot-com bubble, and I felt I was in the wrong place. I was curious about the internet and decided to develop a website to teach myself about the web. It was called bombaytalkies.org (now defunct), a database of Hindi movies with descriptions, cast/crew info, reviews, etc.
These were early days, much before Squarespace or Wix, and one had to essentially build the website from scratch. I taught myself DNS, HTML, PHP, and MySQL. I even hosted the website on my own Linux server sitting under my desk at home. I learned more about computers in six months than I had during my entire college education. In this case, I was driven by “intrinsic” motivation. There was no reward waiting at the end of the assignment, no grades, no jobs. I just wanted to learn and build something that I thought would be useful to me and others. It was about the journey, not the reward.
Ironically, soon after, I interviewed at a little-known company called Akamai Technologies. They were impressed enough with my internet knowledge that they offered me a title above the one they interviewed me for. I had an enriching career spanning 18 years, while the company became successful beyond anyone's expectations.
Extrinsic motivation fails when it comes to learning
Extrinsic motivation refers to engaging in an activity or behavior to obtain external rewards or to avoid punishment. It is an especially poor driver for learning a skill or subject:
Clear boundaries are already set, thereby limiting the knowledge you can attain - it is artificially limited to what is needed for gaining the result - nothing more, nothing less.
Not conducive to achieving breakthrough insights - since boundaries are well defined, one need not venture to the edges of the knowledge, which is precisely where breakthroughs happen.
Limited in time - learning stops as soon as the outcome is achieved
Intrinsic motivation is a learning superpower
The Bhagavad Gita says "Your right is in action only, never to the fruits; let not the fruit of action be your motive nor let your attachment be to inaction."
There could not be a better definition for intrinsic motivation, which arises from internal factors and personal enjoyment derived from the activity itself. When learning is powered by intrinsic motivation, like it was for me when I developed my website, the possibilities are endless. The desire to learn makes the activity so enjoyable, that it becomes a self-propelling machine. You end up not only learning the topic to a far granular degree but ironically it produces better extrinsic results as well - as it did for me by landing me a life-changing job opportunity.
Can you practice intrinsic motivation?
Motivation lives in the mind and the mind is malleable. With concerted practice, it is possible to cultivate intrinsic motivation toward learning. Here are some suggestions:
Re-frame extrinsic goals to intrinsic goals. You can not get away from extrinsic goals, and they serve a good purpose - as a checkpoint to ensure you are on the right track. However, it is better to convert them into intrinsic goals that are more inspirational. Example - "I would like to learn presentation skills so I can further my career" could be re-framed as "I would like to learn presentation skills so I could better communicate my ideas to my audience".
Offer the result to someone else. Since extrinsic motivation is unavoidable in today's world, offer it up to benefit others in your life - be it family, community, or company. It's a smart way to work towards extrinsic results, while at the same time not being driven by them. This frees us up to learn for the sake of learning.
Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Having a curiosity about a subject - any subject - is a gift. Every institution, enterprise, or masterpiece is ultimately the result of a chain of events starting with someone’s curiosity about a certain topic. Your curiosity to learn could eventually lead to extraordinary results, but today you must focus on kindling the spark and preserving the fire so it burns for another day. It's your opportunity to be grateful for the gift of curiosity.
AROUND THE WEB
If you are unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita, here’s a short introduction:
Monk Explains Bhagawad Gita In 7 Minutes - by Gaur Gopal Das
My preferred translation of the text:
Bhagavad Gita - by A. Parthasarathy
Hope you enjoyed today's post. Until next time.