How the right kind of motivation will make you happier

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Like most people, I enjoy praise. It soothes the insecurities that I have about my own intelligence, and encourages me to do more of the praised activity. This is known as extrinsic motivation, and it plays a big role in influencing our behaviour.

Consider your job for a moment – if the people at the top of your company declared that henceforth, you’ll be receiving zero payment for your services, because you should be motivated to do your job for the sake of the job itself, I fully expect you to launch at them with scorching coffee and sharp office equipment. Sadly, few people seek employment because they enjoy it – it’s mostly to earn a wage.

In the world of social media, extrinsic motivation comes in the form of our compulsive little red circle clicking, to check whether any approval has come our way.

Much of our lives are motivated by outside forces, and while it’s a necessary and often valuable source of motivation, there’s a preferable way of being driven to do something: intrinsically. This is motivation from the inside, generated from what you personally value. You may enjoy playing the piano, for no reason other than the playing itself. This kind of internal motivation can drive us towards activities that are incredibly fulfilling. If you had high-achieving parents who forced their ruthless ambition onto you in the form of weekly piano lessons, you’re probably fully aware of how the intrinsic joy of playing an instrument can be ruined. Some kids just won’t enjoy playing the piano, and no amount of coercion will convince them otherwise. When we’re internally motivated to do something, we’re much more likely to keep at it, and to enjoy the activity. Your values are your own. You can be driven to pursuits by a dangling extrinsic carrot, but unless it includes aspects that you personally find valuable, when the carrot is removed you’re going to stop doing it.

External motivators remain important because they can spark interest in new activities, and as such, have the potential to add variety and excitement to our lives. They can offer the push that we need to learn valuable new skills, or acquire challenging knowledge. But they can only take us so far before we need something that’s more in sync with the desires of our soul – that which we enjoy for its own sake. These enterprises are what make life worth living. Intrinsic value is the impetus behind some of our most fulfilling and meaningful undertakings – intimate relationships, listening to music, travelling the world, immersing yourself in nature, etc. For the most part, you’re motivated towards these things because you just enjoy them, not because somebody is nudging you in their direction. Extrinsic motivators can be thought of as the entry point to meaningful activities, which after performing for a while, have the potential to become intrinsically valuable. Even if they don’t, they can still be beneficial to us, as is the case with exercise regimes that are completed for the sake of physical attractiveness, but are improving our health regardless.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Goals that focus on external rewards can have a negative impact on intrinsically motivated activities, because they can change our priorities from the activity itself, to the reward of the activity. This is known as the overjustification effect. If you’re a professional quizzer who has a goal of memorising as many song lyrics as possible in order to win quizzes, you’re probably not going to enjoy listening to the music. Similarly, teaching kids that winning the league trophy is the most important part of playing soccer will probably decrease their enjoyment of soccer, i.e. the part that actually counts. Intrinsic goals, however, can be an incredibly valuable motivator, but you need to be sure that they’re genuinely coming from within. Do you go to the gym mainly because you want to be healthy, or because you’re attempting to develop a hot bod so that you’ll get compliments? You’ll be much more determined and satisfied with an activity if your main motivations are intrinsic.

Research has revealed that adding external rewards to an activity can reduce its intrinsic value. Introducing KPI-driven bonuses to employees who enjoy their jobs is probably a terrible idea, because similarly to goal-setting, the benefit is shifted from the job itself to the potential reward. It’s a damaging change of focus – over time the work itself will become less enjoyable. As something that takes up a gargantuan chunk of our lives, this seems awfully tragic.

It’s important to note that many undertakings are likely to have a combination of internal and external motivations. A pimpled teenage skateboarder might hop onto his wheeled plank because of the thrilling speed, and the intrinsic satisfaction of a perfectly executed trick. He’s also likely to revel in the external admiration of his friends. It’s a question of proportion – if an activity is mostly undertaken due to outside motivators, and has been that way for a while, it might be time to say goodbye to it.

How can you identify your intrinsic motivators, so that you can undergo only the worthiest of pursuits? There’s a few ways:

Know your values
What’s most important to you? What piques your curiosity? This is crucial for everyone to know – a happy life is one that is guided by your values. If you’re unsure what your core values are, consider completing this exercise to illuminate them. By knowing your values, you can identify the activities that are most aligned with them, which can then be pursued for intrinsic, fulfilling purposes.

What happens when you remove rewards?
Contemplate what would happen if you removed external rewards from an activity. Would you still want to own an ostentatious Lamborghini if nobody could see you drive it? Do you really dance that way when in your apartment by yourself? Would you continue to wear those fucking stupid sunglasses if you didn’t think you looked cool?

List out your reasons for an activity
Writing down your reasons for doing something can help to determine its source of motivation. I enjoy writing because:

  • I like combining knowledge and humour to create something valuable.
  • I’m reinforcing useful ideas in my head, and gaining a better understanding in the process. I’m also learning a lot.
  • I’m (hopefully) forming good ideas and helping to spread them, bringing value to the world.
  • I like the approval that I get from people who have benefited from my work.
  • I think I’m pretty good at it.

On the whole, writing is intrinsically motivating for me, but this was already apparent. Some things are obviously enjoyable for intrinsic reasons.

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Much of our behaviour is influenced by external factors, but the real goodness comes from within. Occupations of this kind can bring us unadulterated joy, and infuse our lives with an often elusive sense of meaning. By understanding our intrinsic motivators, we can lead much more fulfilling lives, and be at the mercy of desires that are solely our own – aspirations that are truly valuable to us.

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Why less is more on Medium

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I’ve read a ton of articles on how to gain a following on Medium, and I assume that the writers among you have done the same. Most of them offer the same piece of advice: write as much content as you possibly can. I assume that this is either a factor in Medium’s algorithm for promoting articles, or simply the shotgun technique. Either way, acting like a content mill only serves to make my stories shitter.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider some of the purposes of Medium, in their own words:

  • Welcome to Medium, where words matter.
  • Ideas and perspectives you won’t find anywhere else.
  • Medium taps into the brains of the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers, and storytellers to bring you the smartest takes on topics that matter. So whatever your interest, you can always find fresh thinking and unique perspectives.

My conclusion is that Medium is about telling engaging, fresh stories, which people find useful. It’s all about the quality of the stories themselves.

As a regular human being with a full-time job and an average brain, I struggle to post five engaging, valuable stories a week. The more stories I write in a week, the worse they are collectively. So if Medium is all about exceptional quality, surely it’s better to write two or three great stories, instead of five mediocre ones? At least I’ll be proud of the great stories, and won’t feel like I’m being whipped by some story-pushing slave master goblin.

The desire to succeed is strong, and I feel like I’m under constant pressure to keep on contributing in order to build an audience. The result is crappy, mediocre work, which benefits few people. By following the advice of the so-called Medium successes, all I’m really doing is watering down my content and damaging the credibility of the platform as a whole.

I genuinely want people to get some value out of my stories, and it’d be nice to have a decent readership too. The question is – am I willing to sacrifice quality for quantity? Should I sell out? What’s more important to me – being a popular, mediocre writer with 10,000 followers? Or an awesome writer with only a 1,000?

Personally, I think that credibility and self-worth is more important than success. The contented feeling that washes over me after posting a satisfying story has infinitely more value than a bunch of virtual claps, and at the same time, there’s more chance of it being beneficial to the readers, even if they’re few in number. It’s foolish and unhealthy to continue stressing myself out by attempting to post five times a week, in order to gain a following.

Earlier today I learned about a tool called The Hemingway App, which reviews your work and passes judgment on what is and isn’t readable. The fact that such an app exists is a shocking example of how desperate people are for success. Whatever happened to having your own writing style, of being proud of your own uniqueness? Writing is an art-form given to us by the gods, and here we are pasting it into apps in the hope of getting a few more readers. You might be a beautiful writer with a fresh and engaging style, a style that the world would love to read. Such apps are ruining that by encouraging you to conform to hard and fast rules, recommended by writers who see nothing but dollar signs in their eyes.

It’s also tough finding the time to read and learn from other people’s content if you’re doing nothing but tapping out your own. Our curiosity is what motivates us to seek out and absorb new ideas, which after being mixed and sloshed with existing ones, can emerge as something profoundly original.

I want to be proud of the work that I produce. I want to write for the sake of writing, not for the number of claps that it receives. You can take your “five stories a week” advice and put it where the sun doesn’t shine, which is precisely where it belongs. Quality triumphs over quantity, don’t cheapen yourself or your integrity for quick-success life-hack nonsense. You’re better than that.

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The dangers of approval

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Approval is something that many of us greedily seek. Whether it’s regarding our looks, work performance, intelligence, or anything else that we suppose to be important, receiving a smile or a compliment from a fellow human kicks our reward system into action, and temporarily brightens our day. Many aspects of our society have approval at their foundation, social media being a particularly potent example. We all know how satisfying it feels to receive a truckload of virtual likes. The conclusion is that our actions are appropriate, even loved, and so we’re encouraged to repeat them.

Companion validation is rooted in evolution. Getting along with the individuals in our group was essential for survival; without it we’d have been cast out, and would have quickly found ourselves in the belly of a sabre-toothed tiger. As a result, approval is ingrained in us. But today’s world is drastically different to the past, and what was crucial for us back then isn’t necessarily what we need now.

Our insatiable appetite for approval can be crippling to our wellbeing. When we consistently look to others for validation, we’re relinquishing control of our own self-esteem, and anchoring it to the whimsies of the crowd. It’s no longer possible to rely on the only person who should be responsible for your prosperity – you. We’re selfish animals to the core; handing the command of your happiness to such creatures will inevitably end in tragedy.

“Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.” – Thomas Fuller

An Objective Leader Assessment survey found that 55% of people credit their value to what others think about them. It’s mind-boggling to consider that so many people put their trust in the judgment of others, when it’s their own judgment and values that should be the sole consideration. Are you happy continuing to live your life on somebody else’s terms? We need to extinguish the erroneous assumption that external approval will improve our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. We must retake control of our own destiny.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How to break away from the herd, and be your own person? It’s all about your values, that inner light of truth; the most honest guide you’ll ever know. They imbue our ultimately meaningless lives with drive and purpose. A core value can be identified with things that just feel right to you. They’re entirely personal, and that’s what makes them so special. If you’re unsure what your values are, this article from MindTools may help. If you’d prefer something more thorough, you might consider reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, a fantastic guide on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which also focuses on finding your values. Whichever you decide, write your values down, so that you can refer back to them.

Once clear on what gives your life meaning, try your absolute hardest to live it. You’ll find that life is a lot smoother when you’re living in synch with what is important to you. Over time, instead of clawing for approval from others, you’ll validate your own successes. Rather than having others approval, you may even be faced with stone-cold disapproval, which can sting our delicate egos.

“There are some values that you should never compromise to stay true to yourself; you should be brave to stand up for what you truly believe in even if you stand alone.” – Roy T. Bennett

Living by your values is tough going, and you’ll mess up constantly. The miracle that is mindfulness can teach you how to ignore that ruthlessly critical voice in your head which tells you to give up. Progress can only begin with awareness; the ability to identify whether you’re doing something for external approval, or something in line with your core purpose. The more you practice this skill, the better your life will become.

It’s important to point out that approval isn’t totally evil. It’s fine to receive praise from people, provided you don’t need it in order to feel worthy. It’s what the Stoics would call a preferred indifferent; nice to have, but ultimately worthless. Similarly, paying someone a genuine, heartfelt compliment is a beautiful thing to do, provided that the praised action doesn’t clash with your own values.

“One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Also, if we’re aiming for something and we receive external approval, this can boost our motivation. We just need to be sure that our aim is true, and intrinsically driven.

Fed up with your delicate self-esteem resting in the hands of other people? Take back what’s truly yours, get to know your core values, and start living a more honest and fulfilling life.

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