Day 30: What’s Your Motivation?

I’m currently teaching a composition course linked with intro psychology, and the other day, there was a guest lecture on motivation.  As the man spoke, I couldn’t help but think of writing and, since it is now the end of March, all of you.  In a way, I think of this post as the most important post I’ve written on this Writer’s March blog so far.  It is also a meditation on the entire lecture.

First, some definitions…

When I’m talking about motivation, I’m talking about the drive to do something, anything, whether it be wake up and go for runs or – more on subject – what drives you to write?

Nothing makes me want to write as much as the Ghost Ranch library...

Nothing me want to write as much as writing in the Ghost Ranch library…

Psychologists divide motivation into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation comes in the form of external things.  Remember those programs they used to do in grade school where if everyone read X amount of books, then the class would get a pizza party?  That’s an extrinsic motivator where reading = pizza party.  Work = pay.  Study = good grades.  Intrinsic motivation, as you probably know or probably guessed, means that the thing you “get” out of any given task comes from inside you.  It is the feeling you get from playing soccer, playing the drums, scratching in your notebook.  It is, in a nutshell, the things we do just because we want to.  The things we do for ourselves and our sense of well-being.

So, which one is better?

It doesn’t take make to know/believe/understand that being intrinsically motivated is better in the long run, but why?  Remember that example above about books = pizza?  On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea, right?  If you extrinsically motivate kids to read more, then they will discover reading and will be readers for life, right?  Well that was the thought, but when psychologists studied these programs they discovered that in the end, the program was counter productive.  Here’s’s what I mean (and here I’m going to unscientifically summarize for you):

If someone offered me a pizza party every Friday, would the stack beside the bed get any smaller??

If someone offered me a pizza party every Friday, would the stack beside the bed get any smaller??

Let’s say that a kid was reading something like 5 books every month before the program.  During the program, the same kids had to read 10 books a month in order to help the class win the pizza party, and so he/she did.  Books were read, pizza parties were won, the program – as programs do – came to an end.

So here’s the important part: what happened to our readers after the program?  That same 5 book/month kid now reads 2, much less than he/she had read before.  Why?  Because there’s no more external reward.  The external reward (the pizza) had come to stand in for the internal reward (the joy of reading), and without the pizza, there was no more joy.

As I learned about this, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this is the reason so many people stop writing after attending an MFA program.  You take something intrinsic – the love of writing.  It is something you do because it brings you joy, makes you feel good, makes you feel like an individual with something to say while during the day maybe you are a starting to feel like just a cog in the working world.  You love writing.  You love it so much you quit your job for it.  Then you go to school, and now you are writing because you have to turn in a workshop story and then you start writing because you want a good workshop (you want people to just stand up and clap, not critique you anymore), and then you write because you have a dissertation/thesis to finish, and then you write because you want to get the book published because if you have a published book you can apply for the job market – and you see what I’m saying?  All the motivators for writing became extrinsic, and the intrinsic motivation is lost (for many of us, we can probably find it still hanging out with our healthy livers…)

But what about the extrinsic, doesn’t it make us work faster? Be better?  Get Stronger?

I mean, we are America, right?  Land of capitalism and opportunity.  Land of…be the best and get paid the most.  Land of…bonuses, commissions, incentives…you get the picture, but do these extrinsic motivators really make us into better beings?  This was a question tacked by  the following TED Talk by Dan Pink on “The Puzzle of Motivation”:

At the beginning of this video, Pink tells of two different psychological experiments.  First, in 1945, a psychologist did an experiment to test people’s ability to look “outside-the-box.”  He invented “The Candle Problem” where people were put into a room with three objects on a table: a candle, some matches, and a box of thumb tacks.  They were tasked with attaching the candle to the wall so the was wouldn’t fall on the table.  People tried melting the candle to the wall.  They tried thumb-tacking the candle to the wall.  None of those things worked. Eventually, they figured out that you could remove the thumb tacks from their box, tack the box to the wall, and then set the candle on top.

Another psychologist took this experiment even further.  Using the candle problem, he   divided subjects into two groups:

  • Group #1: These people were told that they were looking to find the average amount of time it took people to solve the candle problem.
  • Group #2: These people were told that the faster they solved the problem, the more money they might win.  The person who was fastest would get $20.  The top 25% of people would get $5 (think inflation – this used to be a lot more money than it is now).

Again, you would think that the people with the incentive to work faster would finish faster, right?  Right?!  But the opposite turned out to be true. Group #2 took an average of 3 1/2 minutes longer!  Again, contrary to what we might think, instead of inciting creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking, the incentive actually DULLED creativity.

Mom: extrinsically motivating since the days we were born...

Mom: extrinsically motivating since the days we were born…

Not sure about you, but this makes me consider my own writing life and the way my own desire to write and ability to be “creative” seemed to disappear the second I started to focus on the extrinsic factors.  Such as: I want to publish stories so that I can find an agent or qualify for residencies/fellowships, and I want to publish the book so that I can go on the job market so that I can make some money so that I can buy a house and start a family.  And what I’ve learned THIS MONTH (why only now!?) is that it is only when I STOP thinking about these things that writing is fun agan, and only when writing is fun again that I come close to finishing.

And so my posts have now brought us full circle.  I’m now back to where I was in the beginning of this month: thinking about how to make writing fun again.

And so, where does that leave us?

Here on the second to the last day of Writer’s March, I find myself wondering about what kind of a motivator this March is?  The hope is that it is meant to tap into our intrinsic side,  but I worry that it might be just another extrinsic motivator.

And so, today, as you finish out the month, I urge you to take a minute to examine your own motivations.  Are you more intrinsically vs. extrinsically motivated?  How are the extrinsic factors getting in the way (becoming the pizza party) for the intrinsic joy of our task?  How might you shift your focus to the things which bring you joy?  I urge you to make a list and put it by your desk.  Retrain your brain somehow.  See if you can start thinking of writing NOT as work, but as….I’m not sure…  Play?  Fun?  Your life?  You decide.

And, just because, here are my hopes for you at the end of this March month:

  • I hope you wrote more than you might have written
  • I hope that you had at least one day where writing brought you joy.
  • I hope you tap into that day of joy as often as possible for the rest of your writing lives.

Now, what are you waiting for?  This was a very long post.  Go to it!

7 thoughts on “Day 30: What’s Your Motivation?

  1. Hadn’t really thought of it in terms of motivation before, but this is a very good explanation of why I didn’t meet my goal last March. I set the goal of 31,000 words but they could only be words that would contribute to something “publishable” (if that isn’t an extrinsic motivator, I don’t know what is). Writing wasn’t fun and as a result my word count was so low I stopped even keeping track of it. I doubt I cracked ten thousand. Last November I was having a blast and called it a month when I hit 62,000 words, a number I picked because it was twice the goal I’d set for March.

    • Bob, totally!!! Thinking about publication ALWAYS kills my work. It so counterintuitive! And I also wonder if that’s why I’ve never been able to do the NaNoWriMo, but often do keep up with the writer’s march – I’ve never been quite able to embrace the essence of the NaNo, for the same reason I don’t make a good runner, I think. I don’t know how to find the joy in the sprinting word counts. Perhaps I think think more like… a team sports player – working towards a goal (sometimes literally), where the running is just one of the things you need to do to get there. Hmm, I’m gonna ponder this a bit more. Maybe I should be a psychologist and start studying the types of people who end up doing NaNoWriMo successfully…

  2. You know, I started blogging because I needed to develop a platform so I could get an agent so I could sell a finished book (which I basically wrote because I had fun doing it). So, initially, I was extrinsically motivated. But I now find that I like blogging just because I like blogging! I like the connection with other bloggers. I like thinking about the next post. Writing is again fun, even if I don’t ever get the book published! Well, it would be a lot more fun if I did……………

    • parishkathy, I love that example! I feel like things often go the opposite way so many times – you need to make a blog for an online platform, and then you just don’t write anything at all. Really awesome that it went the other way! After I published this post, I went on a hike, and I kept thinking about how there’s probably some science about moving the other way – from the extrinsic to the intrinsic. Perhaps that will be the subject of another post! Though likely not for tomorrows!

  3. I loved this post. It raised some thoughtful questions for me, and I read it today after thinking (about a piece I’ve actually started working on) that I’d like to write “something beautiful.” I meant something hopeful, something to lift someone up–if only me. Anyway, thanks for writing it.

  4. Sam,thanks for this post and for Writer’s March. I think you’ve hit the nail on its proverbial head. This month I didn’t write, I re-wrote. I went back and read things I wrote when I had to write. Had to get the ideas down, had to preserved them and massage them until they told the right story. I pulled up files, drug out old paper copies, and luxuriated in what was there. Took one of them and revised to bring it up to now, submitted for a public reading. Got accepted. And the thing I knew for sure was that the best part of that process was going back to work I did for myself. Work I did to say it, once and for all. Work I did to get the exact word where I wanted it, and to feel that incredible exhale when the baby was finally born, whole and healthy. Now I’m in love with writing again, and with reading. In a few months I’ll be retired, living in Mexico, and the plan is to go back to the fun of writing. I don’t need a job as a writer, i don’t need a workshop, and I can hardly wait to work from that space inside of me that simply wants to write for the adventure of it all.

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