The Power of Intrinsic Motivation


“When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation. ” -Arsene Wenger

The power of motivation can be huge to accomplishing anything, but it can also be nonexistent for many people especially in the intrinsic form.  What drives a person to achieve anything is likely a reward. If I finish this marathon, I get to drink and eat all day with no consequence. And if I study for this test, I will get an A+.  And if I finish all of my work projects, I get to go buy new shoes. It’s as simple as that – new shoes and food. Those extrinsic motivators push people to achieving some of the most basic tasks in their life up to athletic goals they never thought obtainable.

But what about the other type of motivator – the intrinsic kind. The kind of motivation to do something because it’s exciting and challenging…to participate in a task for its own sake.  These people are motivated by the sheer internal reward of completing a task – finishing a race…getting a PhD…completing work projects – just simply…because.

As an ultra-distance runner, many people ask how I am able to complete such long races, or how I have time for daily 3 hour sessions with a full-time job and responsibilities…and I shrug my shoulders and typically say, “I dunno, because it’s what I do.” I set my goal to be the best at something and that’s what I do regardless of winning or not. Its challenging and pushes my limits. I don’t need more than that to be satisfied. In my mind, why would I do any form of running if it doesn’t present a challenge. I don’t go into a race clouding my mind with rewards I could get if I finish. I go into a race because it’s a personal challenge and betters me as an athlete. 

Isn’t that the point of living?  

So, how are some people internally motivated to do these things? Why? How do you turn external reward into internal satisfaction? Is it wrong to have rewards, or can there be both external and internal rewards? 

First, you have to set a goal and think about why you do what you do. If you run to stay healthy your purpose of running might be to avoid disease later in life. That makes sense, but that’s still an external motivation. I’ll say it as it is – many people who exercise to battle disease and weight typically don’t actually like exercise. They may like the idea of it, but need rewards to actually accomplish it. If your goal is to reach the Boston Marathon, that is typically the external motivation to run the qualifying time. For most people, the qualifying time is tough to reach and many people give up…probably because they are focused on the external motivator versus why they are running in the first place. Finding the goal and then determining why it’s a goal is key to turning external into internal motivation.

Remember it’s not suppose to be all flowers and butterflies when you challenge yourself; its supposed to be hard – risk taking is not for everyone, but for the intrinsically motivated, it’s huge. As you start to challenge yourself more and push your limits, intrinsic motivation will increase immensely.

Certainly motivators can co-exist together. For one runner, his goal may have been to break a course record by running as fast as possible during a race. Imagine running a 7 minute/mile pace during a 100 miler and the next best guy is running at a 10 minute/mile pace…why wouldn’t he just run a 959 minute/mile pace and still be in first? Externally, he is tying to break a course record. Internally, it’s the drive to push limits. They operate together, of course, but in the end, it’s the intrinsic motivators that get you to your limits, where passions are found, and people can actually see they can do more than they think.

Maybe for you, running any distance is entirely external – and that’s definitely okay! You may participate in a different sport, or work, or school, etc. which is completely intrinsic. Essentially, it’s where your passion lies. If your true passion in life is running, it will be entirely intrinsic. If your true passion is being a parent, those will be your most selfless and internally motivated moments; and if your true passion is volunteering, then yes, it’s all internal. It’s important to recognize this and also accept that not everyone will be like you or understand your true passion (or path) in life.

I sometimes forget that many people, even family and friends, do not understand why I devote so much time and energy to what they consider a hobby. They wonder why I would want to spend so much time away from home or why I have to get up at 4am everyday or why I eat the way I do. Well, because I found my passion – its challenging; its exciting. My motivation is within me. And once you find that, it cannot be avoided.

Motivation speaks to me in many ways; it’s the basis for why I do anything in my life even outside of running. Think about your motivations and what internally drives you. Latch onto that power! 





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