#21 What Motivation Does
to Your Creativity

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Blue sky being closed in by dollar bills

When we think of creativity, we think of creative thinking. But if you ask me, motivation is at least as important as any creative thinking technique, if not more. Here’s why.

Psychologist Theresa Amabile conducted a research study in which she invited some recognised art experts to assess the work of 29 professional artists. Unknown to the experts was the fact that each artist had been asked to submit 10 commissioned works and 10 non-commissioned works. Overwhelmingly, the experts rated the non-commissioned works as being more creative than the commissioned pieces.

The results of this study, described in Gordon Torr’s book Managing Creative People, are consistent with many other research projects, in demonstrating a very strong link between intrinsic motivation — i.e. doing something for its own sake — and creativity. The higher the creator’s intrinsic motivation, the more creative and original she will be. Conversely, the more she is focused on extrinsic motivation — rewards or punishments for doing well or badly — the less creative she will be.

The research findings have led Amabile to formulate ‘the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity’:

people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself — not by external pressures.

(Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’)

These external pressures (extrinsic motivations) even include ‘positive’ incentives such as money, since as Amabile points out, “a cash reward can’t magically prompt people to find their work interesting if in their hearts they feel it is dull”.

You knew this already. Think of a time when you did some of your best work — chances are you were totally absorbed in what you were doing, to the exclusion of everything else. You were completely focused on the work itself, and hardly noticed the passing of time, or thought about how much money, praise or fame the work was likely to bring you.

Now think of a time when you felt under pressure to perform. Maybe it was an examination, or an audition for a big opportunity. Maybe it was a commission for an important client, or maybe your boss had told you “there’s a lot riding on this”. Maybe you had just screwed something up, and this was your only chance to redeem yourself. Or maybe your last project had been a spectacular success, and you felt under pressure to repeat the feat.

Notice the difference? In the first memory, you were driven by intrinsic motivation, which made it relatively easy, even enjoyable, to be highly creative. In the second memory however, extrinsic motivation was breathing down your neck, distracting you by whispering about the rewards for success and the horrible consequences of failure – and making it hard to focus on the task in hand.

So intrinsic motivation = high creativity. Extrinsic motivation = low creativity. In an ideal world, every time you started work on a creative challenge, you’d be exclusively focused on the intrinsic motivations that will help you create something amazing.

Do you see the problem?

In the real world, who has the luxury of being able to forget all about rewards and punishments as they create? Maybe a child at play, sketching for his own amusement. Or an amateur, who writes or plays music for a hobby. But for a creative professional, extrinsic motivations are always in the picture. They are part of what makes you a professional. You don’t just create for fun, you do it for a living.

Even if you’re a poet like me, with little prospect of earning a living by selling your poems, you still aspire to create work to a professional standard — which means there are plenty of extrinsic motivations to distract you, such as critical reputation and the respect (or otherwise) of your peers.

And if you’re working in a field where people pay a lot of money for creative work — e.g. the movies or fine arts — then it’s all very well being focused on intrinsic motivation when you’re on camera or in the studio, but when you’re sat at the negotiating table you’d better be very focused on extrinsic motivations!

So the challenge for any creative professional is to place your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations into the right mental compartments. When it’s time to create, you open the mental box labelled intrinsic motivation, and keep the other one firmly closed. But when it’s time to negotiate a deal or make a decision about the right career path to take, you’ll need to take a look in both boxes.

The worksheet will give you some help in doing this. The rest of the lesson will help to clarify what I mean by intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, by listing some examples of each, from my e-book How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself). (Which is free you to download and share, by the way.)

Types of Intrinsic Motivation

Challenge

One day in the late 1970s, Sony co-founder Akio Morita called a meeting of his chief engineers. On the table in front of him he placed a very small block of wood. He told them that their task was to make a hi-fi no bigger than the block. At the time this was an outrageous challenge — but one that fired the imagination of his engineers and led to the release of the Walkman in 1979. Creative people like nothing more than a challenge — the more difficult, the better.

Interest

Creatives have a very low boredom threshold. One of the most common complaints among junior creatives is that the senior people take all the interesting work and leave them with the routine stuff. And they’re usually right. In some companies, the opportunity to work on complex, interesting briefs is seen as a right that has to be earned. Inevitably, a certain amount of fairly routine work needs to be done in any company; a common way of persuading people to do is to promise them something more interesting ‘next time’.

Learning

Challenge and interest fuel the learning process. A large part of the satisfaction of creative work comes from discovering something you didn’t know before and developing new skills in the process.

Meaning

In Seth Godin’s book Tribes, he tells the story of being on holiday in Jamaica, unable to sleep and getting up at 4am to check his e-mail in the hotel lobby. As he’s sat there quietly minding his own business, a couple of partygoers roll in from a nightclub. One of them gives him a withering look and hisses ‘in a harsh whisper little quieter than a yell’:

isn’t it sad? That guy comes here on vacation and he’s stuck checking his e-mail. He can’t even enjoy his two weeks off.

And the funny thing is, says Seth, “Other than sleeping, there was nothing I’d rather have been doing at that moment — because I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to make change happen”.

When the partygoers looked at Seth Godin in the hotel lobby, they only saw a geek checking his e-mail. They didn’t realise that those e-mails connect Seth with a global audience of hundreds of thousands. They had no idea that for Seth, writing e-mails, blog posts, books and presentations means he is helping to change the world. They only saw the superficial activity, not the meaning, and missed the attraction.

Purpose

Work becomes more attractive when we feel it is achieving something important. There’s a world of difference between photocopying an expense claim and photocopying inspiring source material for your novel. It can be fun to design a website, but if it’s the website of your favourite band or a charity in the business of saving people’s lives, the task goes beyond fun and becomes compelling.

Because it involves external results, you might be tempted to consider purpose as an extensive reward — but I’m not talking about a personal reward you receive for having done the work, but an effect that is integral to the work itself, usually affecting people or situations beyond your usual sphere of influence. So does purpose = completely selfless action? Absolutely not. This sense of purpose is the reward.

Creative flow

Creative flow is the state of intense absorption and pleasure that for many of us is the main motivation for doing creative work. The cause of creative flow is usually a combination of the intrinsic motivations I’ve just listed, particularly a balance between the challenge in front of you and your levels of skill. The result is what happens when all the different elements resolve themselves into a highly focused state, experienced as sheer joy.

Types of Extrinsic Motivation

Money

Money isn’t necessarily the most powerful motivation for creative work. Great creators set themselves very high standards anyway. But money can be a huge motivation for a creative career, especially if you’re as poverty stricken as the young Chaplin, who by his own admission went into the movie business “for money”, as a way of escaping the dire poverty he and his brother experienced as children. Like Chaplin, money could well motivate you to put in the hours necessary for success. Which is fine, as long as the work itself is your focus within those hours.

Money is also a clearly defined way of ‘keeping score’, measuring how highly regarded you are by your employer or your audience. You may be very happy with your salary, until you learn that the guy at the next desk is earning twice as much as you — especially if you fancy yourself as better than him. (We’ll be saying more about this when we look at peer motivation later in this series.) And violinist Nigel Kennedy writes in his autobiography “I think if you’re playing music or doing art you can in some way measure the amount of communication you are achieving by how much money it is bringing in for you and for those around you”.

Fame and recognition

There’s a bit of a showoff in most creators. Even if you don’t yearn to see your name in lights, you’re probably not averse to a bit of public recognition for your efforts. Your ‘public’ may be your team, a select group of your peers, the industry critics, a subculture of devoted fans, or the public itself.

Fame and recognition can serve as a kind of currency even in fields devoid of monetary rewards. The term ‘egoboo’ is used within the open source programming community, referring to the ‘ego boost’ you receive from being publicly credited for good work. So even though there’s no money involved, it’s not strictly true to say that open source programmers work ‘for nothing’.

Awards

Creators love a good awards ceremony — as long as they or their favourites are on the shortlist. Every year, there are plenty of commentators ready to deride awards ceremonies as tacky, elitist or simply irrelevant to ‘hard’ measures of business success. And every year, they are ignored in the feverish speculations, celebrations and recriminations before during and after the ceremonies. In some organisations a mere rumour that a certain project ‘might be up for an award’ can prompt outsiders to flock to the project and insiders to redouble their efforts. Where the rumours begin, and how hard management works to quell them, is often hard to establish.

Praise and appreciation

What fame and awards are to the public sphere, praise and appreciation are to the private. You may be perfectly happy to shun the limelight, while treasuring praise from people you respect — such as your peers, your boss or your mentor. And while a difficult task may be worth your while, a thankless task is not. Katie Konrath left a heartfelt comment to this effect when I first wrote about this subject on my Wishful Thinking blog:

When I started, I threw my heart into that job. I really wanted to help the company succeed, and I was willing to work as much as it took. But I became really discouraged working for a manager who never took the time to acknowledge my efforts (or even notice them!)

Had my manager even bothered to say “thank you so much for helping us get through this crisis successfully” on a regular basis, I would probably still be there working my fingers to the bone for them. But she didn’t and it drove me away.

Status and privilege

In Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy has nothing but admiration for his former boss’s habit of rubbing his nose in it:

We cooks were badly paid, but M. Pitard made so much from the commissions which supplies paid him that he could afford to live in a chateau. Far from concealing his wealth from the rest of us, he drove to work in a taxi, carried a cane with a gold head, and dressed, when off duty, like an international banker. This flaunting of privilege stimulated our ambition to follow in his footsteps.

It’s not always so blatant, but look around any office or studio and you’ll see signs of status and privilege in people’s behaviour. At meetings, the intern is unlikely to sit at the head of the table. The creative director probably doesn’t do the morning ‘bun run’. As long as status is clearly linked to achievement, and achievement is seen to be fairly assessed, striving for seniority can be a powerful ingredient in the motivational mix.

Opportunities

Why are so many people prepared to work for little or nothing, making tea, running errands, ordering taxis and doing the photocopying, on film sets, in ad agencies, in TV and fashion studios? Because it gives them a foot in the door, an opportunity to be in the right place when more exciting positions become available. Ogilvy didn’t choose the life of a brigade chef for its own sake — he had his eye on M. Pitard’s gold cane.

Obligations and deadlines

As soon as you sign a contract or make a promise to someone else, you have an obligation to fulfil. Sometimes this can be just the push you need to get you through the wall of resistance that would otherwise lead to procrastination. I occasionally have coaching clients who say to me “I know exactly what I need to do, but I’m more likely to do it if I’ve promised you do it by a certain date”. The funny thing is, the work is usually quite enjoyable when you get going and intrinsic motivation takes over. But to get you going in the first place place, you sometimes need the extrinsic motivation of ‘deadline magic’.

Bribes

According to legend, Dylan Thomas was so unreliable at fulfilling contracts to write radio plays for the BBC that his producer used to literally lock him in a room with nothing but a typewriter and telephone. When Thomas had finished an act, he was allowed to use the telephone to ring the producer — who would then reward him with a tot of whisky, and the promise of another when he’d written the next act. This kind of thing probably isn’t a viable long-term strategy, but if you know your team’s foibles and desires, then dangling the carrot of an (ethical) bribe could get you out of the occasional tight spot.

Threats

As with bribes, we need to watch our ethical footing here. We also need to be mindful of effectiveness — it won’t be news to you that managing by threats and coercion leads to pretty poor performance. But you can’t let people get away with murder either. Sometimes you need to challenge people’s behaviour, and make it very clear that Bad Things Will Happen if they don’t change their ways. Some of us are more comfortable than others are doing this. If you’re not a confrontational type, then you can often get a surprising amount of leverage by highlighting consequences in a chain of events, rather than making personal threats. For example:

I know you think it doesn’t matter what time you come in as long as you get the job done. But the MD disagrees and it’s his company. He’s asked me why the rule should be different for you than for everyone else in the office, and I’m struggling to come up with a good reason. Can you help me with that?

Sometimes that works. Other times people respond better to a good kick up the backside. (Metaphorical, of course.)

Resources

Icon - GlobeWritten by me, unless otherwise stated

How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) — my free e-book, which looks at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in depth, as well as two other complementary types of motivation: personal and interpersonal.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink. An excellent survey of the research on motivation, and the importance of intrinsic motivation for creativity.

Animated Video: Drive – animated version of Dan Pink’s RSA lecture, good summary of the book.

An Interview with Dan Pink

The Secret of Johnny Depp’s Success

What Motivates Us to Do Great Work? by Jocelyn K. Glei

Tune in Next Week …

… When we’ll look at how to stay motivated in the face of criticism and rejection.

About The 21st Century Creative

Mark McGuinnessThis lesson is part of The 21st Century Creative Foundation Course, an in-depth free course about how to succeed as a creative professional. If you landed on this page from elsewhere, you can learn more about the course and sign up here.

The 21st Century Creative is taught by Mark McGuinnesspoet, creative coach, and the author of Productivity for Creative People Motivation for Creative People and Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.