Series on Meaningfulness at Work – Internal motivation

Career advice to ‘follow your passion’ or ‘do what you love; has fallen out of favour in recent times and is often dismissed as hackneyed and unrealistic. But a new study suggests that finding one’s vocation, or a special calling to do a certain occupation, will always be an invaluable way to motivate yourself to overcome academic and career challenges. And, in contrast, motivation based on the influence or monetary rewards of a profession — especially for difficult and elite jobs like military leadership — makes you more likely to perform poorly and quit earlier than if you are motivated by passion for the work itself. In fact, the negative impact of motivation based on power or money is so strong, it can lead to less success among those who both love their work and the prestige that comes with it.

Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor at the Yale School of Management, and Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, surveyed 11,320 cadets across nine classes at West Point and followed alumni careers for up to 14 years in an effort to determine the relative career impact of different motivation types. They found that the most successful West Point graduates wanted to become Army officers because they loved the job responsibilities – what the researchers called an “internal” motivation.

“We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers,” wrote the researchers in a New York Times op-ed about their study. “Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service…”

This conclusion seems simple, but in fact reasons for attending the elite military academy are complex. Some cadets, for instance, reported chiefly “instrumental” motives for attending the school; things like benefitting from the school’s reputation, getting a good job and earning more money after graduation. Those cadets didn’t do as well academically or in their careers as officers as those who mostly reported strong “internal” motivation.

The negative effects of instrumental motivation were so strong, they overpowered the benefits of internal motivation for cadets who had high levels of both. This group of candidates were less likely to be considered for early promotion or stay in the military once their mandatory time period was up, said the researchers.

“It seems obvious and incontrovertible that if people have two reasons to do something they will be more likely to do it, and will do it better, than if they have only one,” wrote the researchers in their study. “Our results demonstrate that instrumental motives can weaken the positive effects of internal motives in real-world contexts and that this effect can persist across educational and career transitions over periods spanning up to 14 [years].”

More broadly, however, the study suggests that while instrumental motivations may initially help you clear a lot of major hurdles (say, West Point’s steep admission requirements), it can only get you so far. Internal motivations, on the other hand, can actually give you the endurance to see your goals through all the way to the very end.