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The SECRET to Motivation lies in the Difference between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation


I’ve recently been listening to the Internet Business Mastery podcast with Jeremy Frandsen and Jason Van Orden because they focus on the types of things that can help make anyone successful in an online business:

  1. Motivation
  2. Habits

Actually, these are the same two things that can make anyone successful at anything. And they are most relevant for second-language learners. Today, we’ll take a closer look at motivation and how we can use it to our advantage to become better second-language students in order to learn the language faster and with more personal satisfaction. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at habits and how you can build those into your life in order to perform tasks efficiently without overthinking them.


Motivation drives you. It’s what makes you want to stay up late working on something or get up bright and early the next morning to continue working on it. Motivation gives you the little extra push for excellence when you could get by with simply “good.” Jeremy and Jason often discuss two different kinds of motivation and the implications of each on our productivity.

  1. Extrinsic Motivation
  2. Intrinsic Motivation

Dan Pink has also written an excellent book on motivation called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation is “external” motivation that comes from outside an individual. These are usually rewards like money, grades, or praise. What’s interesting to note is that in many studies, scientists have found that greater extrinsic motivation DOES NOT lead to greater results.

  1. In one study, children were promised a gold star and ribbon for a good drawing actually spent less time playing with the drawing tools than children who were given no such incentive. (Wikipedia)
  2. In another experiment in rural India, workers in three groups were offered (1) 2 weeks salary, (2) 1 month’s salary, (3) 2 month’s salary for some cognitive work. Both groups 1 and 2 performed at the same level, BUT group 3 significantly under-performed them both. (Dan Pink on the truth about what motivates us (YouTube))

As second-language learners, extrinsic motivation would look like:

  • The ability to get a higher score on a language test.
  • The ability to talk with your in-laws (or others) in their native tongue.
  • The promise of advancement in position or salary at work for learning the language.

Any external motivation to learn a second-language is “extrinsic motivation.” This kind of motivation drives you to say things like:

I really SHOULD learn the language because…

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation is “internal” motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself. People who are intrinsically motivated do extra work or study in the absence of reward. They do it simply because it gives them joy and a sense of fulfillment. There are actually 3 factors that drive intrinsic motivation:

  1. You have control of your own progress (aka “Autonomy”).
  2. You believe you have the ability to perform at a high level and interest in doing so (aka “Purpose”).
  3. You are interested in not just doing the task well, but mastering it (aka “Mastery”).

For second-language learners, intrinsic motivation would drive a student to:

  • Turn off the TV and avoid movies and video games at home to study.
  • Intentionally seek out TV, movies, and video games in the second language and prefer them to those in their first language.
  • Study slang and idioms (not on any language test) with the intension of putting them to use.
  • Delve deeply into unexplored and interesting regions of the language just for fun (like Hanja, celebrity news, or indie bands).

This kind of internal, fulfillment-driven motivation leads you to say things like:

Wow! I think … is super interesting! It makes me WANT to get in and study the language more and more!

Get Motivated!

Now the big question is:

What if I’m not motivated, but want to be?

This was actually my biggest question at the start of this blog (it’s one of the main reasons I started blogging regularly). I said:

My life is going nowhere! I’m totally unmotivated to study Korean! I hate Korean! I know I SHOULD study Korean… I COULD talk to my in-laws… *sigh*… I COULD possibly get a different job in a Korean company… But I have absolutely no motivation to practice anything or crack open any book. It’s painful in my brain just thinking about it.

I wanted to be motivated because I wanted to change my life – but the idea of studying Korean with that purpose (to change my life) – was absolutely un-motivating.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself: How often in my life am I absolutely un-motivated to change my life?

You know, life-change is a really exciting thing! Getting married, having kids, changing jobs, moving to a new city, traveling to a new country, making new friends, forming new habits, getting healthy, losing weight, quitting smoking, and so on are all new and exciting things! (See my post on Novelty) So then, why is it occasionally un-motivating to even think about those things?

Ask yourself this question: How much do those new and exciting life-changing situations intrinsically motivate me? 

The Problem is your Focus on Extrinsic Rewards. This drives Extrinsic Motivation.

See, the problem for me learning Korean (and the problem for most of us when we’re trying to get motivated to do anything *New Year’s Resolutions ahem*) is that there was too much extrinsically motivating me and not enough intrinsically motivating.

  • When we focus on the rewards of our work, motivation plummets.
  • BUT when we focus on the experience itself and our enjoyment of that experience, motivation skyrockets.

What you want is Engagement, Challenge, and Mastery.

Contrast these two statements:

  1. “If you do something really cool, I’ll reward you handsomely.”
  2. “I bet you want to do something really cool. So, let me just get out of your way and see what you can do.”

The first statement is extrinsically motivating and actually largely demotivating. Now the pressure is on. If you want a reward, you have to do something cool; you have to be creative; you have to think “outside the box.” But how can you do that with so much pressure of “reward or no reward” floating over your head?

The second statement appeals to your own intrinsic motivation. It tempts you with “I bet you want to do something cool…” and then it flings the door open wide for your own brain to explore and enjoy your work in your own way, in your own abilities.

The secret to motivation

Do you want to be motivated to learn Korean or do anything else? Then figure out some aspect of that thing you want to do that you can do purely for the enjoyment of it and start doing it. There’s no greater motivation than your own personal discovery, enjoyment, and mastery of something. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn the guitar!

What extrinsic motivation do you need to get rid of and replace with intrinsic motivation?

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