I submit that intrinsic motivation is hugely important for a successful early retirement. If you have somehow lost your intrinsic motivation, retiring early may lead to a boring if not directly miserable life. What is intrinsic motivation?

There are essentially four cognitive processes: motivation, willpower, thinking, and feeling.

Motivation and willpower are the two cognitive process that get things done. The other two significant cognitive process are thinking and feeling. In many cases advertising and adopting other people’s beliefs uncritically have dulled people’s ability to think. Indeed, most people don’t think, but this essay is mainly about motivation which is more important for early retirement than the ability to think.

Motivation is the initial spark that starts a course of action. Will or willpower is what keeps the action going until a result is obtained.

Motivation can be divided into intrinsic motivation (from yourself) and extrinsic motivation (from other people). This indicates the source of the motivation. A person can either be internally motivated or motivated by some external reward like money, fear of punishment, social approval, etc.

Quick check: If nobody was “looking” and your actions had no consequences for you whatsoever, would you still do it? In that case, you’re internally motivated. (Stop looking for loopholes in the example.)

It seems to me that children have lots of intrinsic motivation. Tell them to go and play and they have no problems. Tell adults to go and play and 90% of them are clueless. Adults want to compete or do something serious—few adults will do things for their own sake. What is the reason for that?

Maybe the school system and our general reward system. Research has shown that tangible (quantifiable) rewards tends to reduce intrinsic motivation.

Give a child a set of crayons and they will play with them for hours. Now tell the child that if they go and play with the crayons they will get a reward. The child will still do it. However, on another occasion the child is now less likely to just pick up the crayons and start drawing. Drawing has been associated with a reward. It will not be done without the reward. Intrinsic motivation has been turned into extrinsic motivation.

To give a personal example. I usually write because I like it. In those cases, I am intrinsically motivated. If, however, I start writing to increase my traffic or I write an article for money or I write certain types of posts which are bound to cause lots of comments, I am extrinsically motivated.

This is interesting because reinforcing behavior with rewards is a kind of extrinsic motivation which has shown to work… in dogs, and as such it underlies most management of humans. I think the difference with humans is that once the hygienic factors (something to eat, somewhere to sleep) are satisfied, extrinsic motivation does not work nearly as well.

The monetary component of the hygienic factors is easily satisfied by financial independence.

Despite this, as people “grow up” and “adjust” to their work, they become increasingly more extrinsically motivated. They will not work unless there is a reward. They may in fact find themselves unable to lift a finger unless some manager tells them what to do. Extrinsically motivated persons therefore need to have their tasks assigned to them.

Even for entertainment they need to buy activities where music and TV is either consumed passively or they need activities where someone tells them what they should do to have fun. They buy their entertainment. They can go on an organized hike but they’ll never go on a hike unless they pay someone to tell them when and where to go.

This can easily reach the tragic condition in which all intrinsic motivation has been lost. Such a person will see early retirement as a very boring life indeed. First the person will watch their entire DVD collection. Then the person will clean their house. After a year they’ve had enough of the boredom and they’ll go back to work.

People who are exclusively extrinsically motivated fully rely on other people to tell them what is worthwhile and what is not. They see no purpose in tasks motivated intrinsically. In my experience they have often completely forgotten that they were once intrinsically to do things just for the sake of doing them without the expectation of rewards.

To shield themselves from this realization they will use any kind of world view to condemn those who are intrinsically motivated:

  • Work without remuneration has no meaning. Activities are only worthwhile if you pay for them or get paid for them.
  • It is your duty and responsibility to society to work and fit into your assigned position (You gotta do what you gotta do).
  • To each according to their need and from each according to their ability. (This message has been approved by the Chairman of the Communist Party. Workers of the world, Unite!)
  • People who are not pursuing career goals are lazy(*) and lack ambition. (At least they are not suffering from careerism)
  • Responsible adults work. Having pointless fun is for children.

(*) It is interesting to note that laziness or sloth wasn’t always a sin. The worst sin used to be reserved for unhappiness, because unhappiness made it impossible to properly relate to the divine.

Intrinsic motivation likely has a lot to do with your sense of self. I find that those who are intrinsically motivated often have a strong sense of self. Conversely, extrinsically motivated people seems to have a weaker sense of self. This is not necessarily natural—it is likely just an evolved characteristic.
Those who have a weak “feeling of self” believes they are what others think. If you are a producer, you become your product. If you are in the service industry, you become a brand. If you are a consumer, you become what you own. The person behind no longer matters.

In fact, the modern human’s lack of self or the desire to negate the self to be part of something greater seems to be a required but not sufficient ingredient for fascism to take hold. Modern humans are in a very real way preconditioned to provide support for such states. They like to be governed by a strong leader. They are suspicious of individualism and they are happy to give up individual rights in support of the whole. Anyway, I digress …

In our consumer culture we have a really hard time figuring out who we are. We often confuse who we are with what we do. We often think of others and ourselves according to what they or we buy. If someone accuses you of being unhappy (the original deadly sin), your first inclination is to show your stuff: “See, I got a fancy car. I’m not unhappy”.

In that regard, it is interesting to note that there are two kinds of “normal”. The first “normal” may refer to how well the person is adapted to the beliefs of others, that is, how well that person fits into society. The second “normal” may refer to how well the person is adapted to the person’s own beliefs, that is, how the person behaves according to his own nature. The professional opinion of “normal” tends to follow the first definition, unfortunately. Indeed, lots of prescription drugs are designed to make people complacent and reduce their spirit to make them fit in better. On a psychological level, people who have given up their sense of self and identifies fully with the group, their company, or their vocation are considered better adjusted compared to someone who retained some form of individuality and internal motivation. This is troublesome.

It is easy to tell someone to regain their self, but that’s probably not going to work if indeed intrinsic motivation is the primary cause of “self”. The key is to do something for its own sake.

Doing things for their own sake makes for a successful “early retirement”. Failing to do so makes for a failed early retirement. Once you start doing things for their own sake, even boring things become meaningful. Perhaps more accurately: They turn into play. Play does not have to be spontaneous. It can be heavily organized like the Japanese tea ceremony. What is important is that it is done for its own sake, even if that means doing the dishes.

Originally posted 2010-07-04 19:52:29.