Motivation: The Ins and Outs of Gittin’-er-Done


I recently heard from an old high school friend that our 40th reunion is coming up this month.  Wow.  Time sure flies when you’re having fun, huh?  I won’t be able to attend this gathering of old Pleasant Hill Billies (yes…a billy goat is really the school mascot) but my thoughts certainly went back to those days.  I recall meeting with a guidance counselor in the waning days of my senior year.  I was wondering about my next move after graduation and had questions about my college potential.  Keeping in mind that my academic record was not exactly stellar, the counselor did not encourage me to attend college.  I asked her pointedly, “Do people like me go to college?  Can I be successful at that level?”  I vividly recall her response.  She shrugged and said,  “I don’t know.  Maybe.  It doesn’t look likely but you can try.”  Her words stayed with me over the years.  As a matter of fact, my thoughts went back to that conversation as I walked away from my doctoral dissertation defense.  I smiled and thought, “Gee, I wish I could send that counselor an invitation to the hooding ceremony.”  Oddly enough, her discouraging words actually provided me with some motivation to persevere through 11 years of higher education.

The issue of motivation or the driving force behind accomplishing our goals can be a tricky issue.  Basically, social scientists break motivation into two categories:  Extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation involves those tangible rewards or punishments external to ourselves.  Money, trophies, recognition, or status are extrinsic motivators.  Penalties and punishments, as well as the loss any of those rewards are also external motivators.  Intrinsic motivation involves drives that exist within the person.  This internal incentive to achieve goals is related to individually defined concepts of enjoyment and fulfillment.  Acts of love, affection and altruism are mostly driven by intrinsic motivation.

Intuitively, most of us believe that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation.  I often hear parents denounce rewarding their children for desirable behavior as “bribery”.  They believe the child should do the right thing because it’s right to do right…right?   Unfortunately, they are racing ahead of the child’s developmental wiring by demanding such abstract and sophisticated reasoning.  Most theories of cognitive, moral and faith development feature movement from an external locus of control to internal.  That would seem to support the idea that intrinsic motivation is the more mature form.  I would suggest that the more mature expression is both.

The Apostle Paul’s writing demonstrates many references to intrinsic motivation.  One needs only refer to the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians (that’s chapter 13) to see our intrinsic priority in the church.  However, Paul also says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:24.  And “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  He seems to be saying the extrinsic motivation of Heavenly rewards is a worthy pursuit for all believers:  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”  2 Timothy 4:7-8.  In Paul’s motivation hierarchy, the lines between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation were often blurred.

Finally consider this statement by the writer to the Hebrews about the Lord Jesus’ motivation in the plan of salvation:  “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Hebrews 12:2  While Christ was motivated by His love for you and me, He was also mindful of the glory that awaited Him at the Father’s right hand when His mission was accomplished.

So, even though intrinsic motivation is the result of maturation, the integration of both motivational factors is not an inferior outcome.  Proving my guidance counselor wrong was a piece of the intrinsic motivation that got me through the years of hard work toward a doctorate.  However, I also wanted the knowledge, the expertise, the opportunities, and I confess…the status of the advanced degree.  I doubt the internal desire to prove myself worthy to one person would have been enough to sustain me over the long haul.  But the combination of tangible and intangible payoffs can keep you on task as you move toward your lofty life goals.

Hey…you’re probably wondering which academically underachieving Billie in the above photo wanted to go to college in 1971.  He’s #9.  Same number as his hero Ted Williams, who in childhood set a goal to be acknowledged as the greatest hitter who ever lived.  Mission accomplished, Teddy Ballgame.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: