If it is your goal is to do creative work it is important to be able to understand your motivation, your drive–is it strong or weak–and to know what drives you personally through difficulties and setbacks to creative fulfillment and joy. Without drive to sustain you, your creative career will fizzle out before you reach your peak. That’s so because drive is not a luxury, but a creative’s necessity.
Drive is that ingredient igniting the human spirit and pushing creative people forward to explore the scope of their talents. It is an irresistible urge to produce-and continue producing–works of your imagination and skill. Strong drive is the reason many successful creatives work so intensely and never give up when so many of their fellow creatives have cried “Enough” and simply quit.
Many people reading this post have been writing, painting, acting, composing–creating–for twenty, thirty, or forty years. How different are they from Vincent van Gogh who said, “That which fills my head and my heart must be expressed in drawings or pictures…Drawing becomes more and more a passion with me, and it is a passion just like that of a sailor for the sea.”
Psychologist Teresa M. Amabile wondered what motivated creative people. Was creativity merely a means by which the creator could reach other goals, or was creativity for the creative an end in itself? She staked her reputation on proving that creativity increases when you engage in the activity as an end in itself for the sheer pleasure it offers, and that if you do things to earn rewards other than the enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of performing the activity you become less creative. She tested subjects ranging from grade school children to undergraduate women, rewarding some of them for performing creative tasks. Their work was then graded by professional creatives–established painters grading the paintings, writers the writing, etc.
No matter what the reward was or when it was given, if the subjects thought they were working for external rewards they became less creative. But when they were playing and having fun and no reward was involved, they were more creative. The conclusion was: a playful approach to the task increases the likelihood of producing creative results and external rewards have the opposite effect on creativity.
Another experiment showed that even the hint that an external reward was riding on performance was enough to make the subject lose interest. The same happens to chimpanzees. Given paint and canvas chimpanzees become so absorbed in painting that they show little interest in sex or food. But if the chimps are tangibly rewarded for their painting, the quantity and quality of their painting declines. They do only well enough to get the reward. Chimps, like many humans, are more likely to be creative when no external rewards are contingent on their performance. Even thinking about extrinsic rewards reduces creativity among many people, possibly you. Playwright Oscar Wilde said, “Genius is born, not paid.”
Enjoying the work itself is reward enough for people who are strongly intrinsically motivated like those chimps. Virginia Woolf was writing about her intrinsic motivation when she referred to her “rapture”: “Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what, making a scene coming right, making a character come together.” Literary critic Alfred Kazin thought writers were intrinsically motivated. He said the writer writes in order to teach himself to understand himself, to satisfy himself. The publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratifications, is a “curious anticlimax.”
Intrinsically motivated creatives enjoying their work don’t have to wait for money or praise or any other kind of external reward to be satisfied. They don’t need anything else but their “rapture.” Intrinsically motivated writers are caught and captivated by the writing itself and compelled to be immersed in it and in making it into something they feel is worthwhile. The intrinsically motivated creative will often say, “What I do isn’t work. It’s joy. You can say in a real sense I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
But some creatives are driven by a need for extrinsic, not intrinsic, rewards.
Blaise Pascal who wrote that “anything that is written to please the author is worthless” was obviously not intrinsically motivated. Samuel Johnson wrote that no one but a blockhead writes except for money. And Anthony Trollope wrote in his wonderful An Autobiography that all “material progress has come from man’s desire to do the best he can for himself and those about him.” He said that what motivated him was what motivates lawyers and bakers—“to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort.” Stronger even than that after a troubled childhood was his drive to make something of himself, “to be more than a clerk in the Post Office…to be Anthony Trollope.”
Pablo Picasso loved being rich, and said he wanted to work without material worries “like a pauper,” “but with a lot of money.” George Orwell thought that a writer’s main motivation was also extrinsic: to seem clever and be talked about, and be remembered after death.
There are other kinds of extrinsic motivating factors than money alone—recognition, praise, encouragement, popularity, acclaim, fame, feedback, and other forms of positive reinforcement that can be far, far more powerful motivators than money. While writers often don’t consider themselves competitive, they are. When you’re told you’re the best there is, your motivation rises. When a writer’s work isn’t intrinsically interesting, as during those times it’s boring and tedious, an extrinsic reward such as a sumptuous dinner or a compliment might supply the right motivation to continue working.
The best way to recognize extrinsic motivation is to ask if you’d continue doing the work if no reward was to follow. If you’d answer “No way” your motivation at that time is extrinsic. But if you would answer, “Of course I would” it is intrinsic.
The majority of creatives pursue both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
Working skillfully makes writers feel fulfilled intrinsically. But they usually also want to see the work published somewhere—an extrinsic goal. American poet Anne Sexton wrote to her agent: “I’m in love with money, so don’t be mistaken, but first I want to write good poems. After that I am anxious as hell to make money and fame and bring the stars all down.” I suppose it’s possible to imagine anything, but it stretches the imagination considerably to imagine a pure intrinsically motivated writer who cares nothing about receiving some kind of external reward, or to imagine s pure extrinsic motivated writer who works only for rewards.
Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren’t two different types of motivation. They are on a continuum from most intrinsic to most extrinsic.
Whatever else we can say, we know one thing for sure: most human beings don’t do anything without anticipating a payoff. The payoff needn’t of course be monetary. It may be to be paid off for your efforts in other ways: through recognition or acclaim; through feedback and praise.
James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, said “I do think that the quality which makes men want to write and be read is essentially a desire for self-exposure.” Some people create to produce great art that aficionados will admire. Playwright/short story master Anton Chekhov wrote, “I take pleasure in anticipating that these same passages will be understood and appreciated by two or three literary connoisseurs and that is enough for me.” Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “A man really writes for an audience of about ten persons. Of course if others like it, that is a clear gain. But if those ten are satisfied, he is content.”
I think most creatives are driven to express beauty, the beauty they perceive in the world–the trees, the grass, a human smile, kindness, and the beauty in their souls that cries out to be shared–even if the subject of the work is not beautiful. Some are driven because they’re obsessed and can’t help themselves.
For some creatives performing their art is therapy. D.H. Lawrence, who should know, wrote: “One sheds one’s sicknesses in books.” Some are driven to have revenge. Mary Higgins Clark said that rejection slips only produced a “wait and see” attitude. She’d show people who doubted her. Perennial best-seller John Grisham said, “The good thing about writing is that you can get back at people.”
Other painters, writers, actors, composers, etc., are driven by the desire to have the self-respect they don’t get on their jobs or in social or family life. That desire sparks their creativity, drive, and hard work to succeed and gain respect they haven’t found in any other area of their lives. Some are driven by the pleasure of doing creative work.
Others are driven by their need for praise, and many others for tangible rewards like wealth that motivates almost everyone to a lesser or greater degree. There are many other reasons why creatives are driven. Many artists’ main drive is to improve their abilities so they might improve their workmanship to an exceptionally high level just to see how excellent they can become.
Ask yourself, “Where on the Intrinsic Motivation—Extrinsic Motivation continuum would I put myself? Most of the time I’m:
Rate yourself on a scale from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Where do you fall on the scale?
What motivates you most?
“The particular thing that motivates me more than anything else is:”
“Also important to me are:”
It’s worth assessing how intense your creative drive is by choosing one of the following statements to describe yourself:
- “My drive to survive, improve, and find fulfillment in the arts is very strong.”
- “My drive is so-so.”
- “I need more drive because right now I don’t have much.”
Assessing your motivation on the Intrinsic/Extrinsic motivation continuum and the current intensity of your creative drive can help you make changes in your creative practices that will make your work more fulfilling.
© 2019 David J. Rogers
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