Are You Motivated by the Right Things for Optimal Creativity?

Filed in Boost Creativity by on February 6, 2017 • views: 1755

MotivationWhat motivates a person to want to climb Mount Everest?

The task is difficult, near brutal, and several people have died doing it. I wondered why someone would spend all the money and time it takes to risk it, so I did some research on it.

Turns out that motivation differs from person to person. For some, it’s all about achieving recognition. For others, it’s about testing one’s mettle. Still others say they that cresting the peak would fulfill a lifetime dream.

Look again at all these different motivators, and you can see that they apply equally well to writers. Some writers are motivated by achievement, for example, others by the challenge, and still others by an inexplicable desire to write. One might think that the motivation doesn’t really matter, as long we get the work done.

That’s not necessarily true, though. What motivates you might make a difference, particularly in how creative you are. Scientists have discovered that there are certain types of motivation that encourage creativity more than others.

Are you motivated by the types of things that will increase your creativity?

Work HarderDifferent Types of Motivation

Motivation is a critical thing to any writer or creative person, because it’s the fuel for the fire. Without motivation, we don’t get very far. Motivation is the reason we write, or take any positive action for our writing careers. It’s what compels us to sit down and work, rather than watch television or play a video game. It’s the magic that keeps us going even through the difficult times, and what we rely on when the chips are down.

Experts agree that there are many types of motivation. As mentioned above, different things drive different people. One may want the recognition that comes from having a bestselling novel, while another may crave belonging to the esteemed circle of “authors.” One may desire simple artistic expression, while another may seek out the reward of being admired by his friends.

In general, though, psychologists divide motivation into two types:

  1. Intrinsic (internal) motivation
  2. Extrinsic (external) motivation

Some studies have found that one of these is more effective than the other at inspiring creativity.

Never a FailureIntrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Let’s look at some basic definitions for these two types of motivation.

Intrinsic motivation comes from inside. You have a desire within to perform this task, for whatever reason. Going after the goal satisfies some sort of longing in you, and has nothing to do with any outside forces or influences.

An example of intrinsic motivation may be the mountaineer who wants to climb Mount Everest simply because the desire is within him, or because he wants to challenge himself and see if he can do it. Another example would be the person who becomes a doctor simply because of the joy that healing brings her.

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite. It’s a type of motivation that is inspired by external factors. You wan t to perform a task for the reward that you stand to gain.

An example of extrinsic motivation may be the person who climbs Mount Everest to have this “pinnacle of achievements” on his resume, or to impress his friends. Another example would be the woman who becomes a doctor for the prestige and the paycheck.

How might these two types of motivation show up in writers?

Dream BigIntrinsically or Extrinsically Oriented Writers

Most writers are inspired by both types of motivation at one point or another, but usually one or the other is the stronger force behind their accomplishments.

An intrinsically motivated writer may say to herself:

  • It will feel so great to finish this novel. I just really believe in this story.
  • It’s okay if my novel doesn’t sell a lot of copies. I just feel great having it published.
  • I have tried to quit, but I can’t not It’s like a compulsion I can’t resist.
  • I love working on this book, because I’m learning so much!
  • This novel is the best I’ve ever written. I’m just so proud of it, even if it never gets published.
  • Poetry fulfills me inside.
  • I love escaping into the lives of my characters.
  • This memoir has such personal significance for me.

On the other hand, an extrinsically motivated writer may say to herself:

  • I can’t disappoint my fans—I’ve got to finish this novel.
  • I’m thrilled that my novel is selling so well.
  • My friends will be so impressed when they see I’ve published a novel.
  • Look, there’s my byline on a major website! My boss is going to freak.
  • Once I have this book published, people will take me seriously.
  • I just landed a major New York agent—surely I’ll get large advance on my book now.
  • I love the fact that I can earn a full-time living on my writing. That paycheck in the mail is the best!
  • I really hope I win an award for this short story.
  • My client paid me to write this book so I’d better do a good job.

work for itWhich Type of Motivation Is Best for Creativity?

How do you know which type of motivation most drives you? After looking at the lists above, you may already have an idea. If you’re still unsure, answer this one question:

Starting today, if you are never published again, and for some reason you can’t self-publish your work either, would you still write?

If the answer is “yes,” you are probably most driven by intrinsic motivation. If it’s “hmm, maybe not” or “no,” you’re probably mostly driven by extrinsic motivation.

Which is best for creativity? There is no definitive answer on this, but some studies have suggested that intrinsic motivation may be more conducive to creative thought.

In 1985, researcher Teresa M. Amabile of Brandeis University in Massachusetts chose 72 students who identified themselves as being involved in creative writing, and had them participate in two sessions where they were asked to write two brief poems.

  1. In the first session, the participants were simply asked to write a poem.
  2. In the second session, some of the participants answered a questionnaire that focused on intrinsic motivations for writing, and then wrote their poems. Other participants answered a questionnaire that focused on extrinsic motivations for writing, and then wrote their poems.
  3. A third control group answered no questionnaire before writing their second poem.

The intrinsic motivation questionnaire had statements such as “you get a lot of pleasure out of reading something you’ve written,” and “you achieve new insights through your writing,” and “you like to play with words,” that participants could rank in order of preference.

The extrinsic motivation questionnaire had statements like, “you enjoy public recognition for your work,” and “you have heard of cases where one bestselling novel or collection of poems has made the author financially secure,” and “you realize that, with the introduction of dozens of magazines every year, the market for freelance writing is constantly expanding.”

Once the poems were completed, 12 published poets evaluated the poems. They found no differences in the first poems written (when no questionnaires were answered), but they did find differences in the second poems written (the ones that followed the questionnaires).

“Poems written under an extrinsic orientation were significantly less creative than those written in the other two conditions,” the researchers wrote.

Other studies have found similar results. In one study of 29 professional artists who each submitted 10 commissioned works and 10 non-commissioned works, art experts consistently rated the non-commissioned works as more creative.

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

Why would this be? Scientists aren’t sure, but they theorize that the promise of an outside reward causes people to focus on the reward, and takes away some of that spontaneity that’s so critical for creativity.

In other words, if we’re thinking about getting some reward for the project, it tends to take away the playfulness or experimentation with which we may approach it if we were doing it just for ourselves.

The idea of “pressure” is also an important one, as studies have found that stress and pressure can kill creativity. Imagine your own work—how that story you did because you got absorbed in the idea compares to the one you had to write because your publisher gave you a deadline.

This is good news for those of you who found you were most driven by intrinsic rewards. Yes, you can feel superior for a few minutes.

Okay, stop dancing. That’s enough, because it turns out that most of us probably need a combination of both motivation types to manage the long haul that is a writing career.

Dreams MotivationCreative Artists Need a Balance of Both

The studies above show that creativity under the gun suffers, but they measured only the creative result of one particular exercise. They didn’t look at an artist’s entire career, for example, and see what types of motivation resulted in success in terms of overall career satisfaction.

Researchers have done this with athletics, though. Authors Costas I. Karageorghis and Peter C. Terry wrote a book called Inside Sport Psychology. In it, they address this whole idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as it relates to overall success:

“Our own research has shown that athletes who have the best motivational outcomes, such as persistence, a positive attitude, and unflinching concentration, tend to be both extrinsically and intrinsically motivated. Athletes who are predominantly extrinsically motivated tend to become discouraged when they do not perform to expectations and can experience a downturn in form. Conversely, athletes who are predominantly intrinsically motivated often do not have the competitive drive to become champions. This is because they tend to enjoy mastering the tasks that comprise their chosen discipline, but they lack a strong competitive streak in their personalities.”

I think the same could apply to writers: if you’re doing this just for fun, then by all means focus solely on that intrinsic motivation. But if you want to make a living at writing, or achieve some sort of professional status, or even just have your work read by readers, you need a little of both types of motivation to give you the drive you need to succeed.

Extrinsic motivation, for example, can inspire you to keep submitting to publishers, or to contests, or to journals, to get some recognition for your work. If you aren’t motivated to do that, your stories will likely remain in your drawer, unseen. Extrinsic motivation can also drive you to self-publish, start your own freelance writing business, or embark on other ways to earn money from your writing.

Meanwhile, your intrinsic motivation is what keeps you going when none of your external rewards come true. As Karageorghis and Terry state:

“In the long run, extrinsic motivation is only effective when intrinsic motivation is high. Being driven solely by extrinsic motives is not psychologically healthy because the lack of intrinsic rewards can lead you to quit or seriously question your involvement. Having intrinsic motivation helps you get through dry patches in your career and keeps the emphasis on having fun.”

What should you do if you’re primarily motivated by external rewards? You may not need to do anything if it’s working for you. Some writers do just fine with it, as they regularly achieve their external rewards, which motivates them to keep going.

If you don’t get those rewards, however, and you get discouraged, you can do one of two things:

  • Quit and find another way to earn your external rewards.
  • Find ways to tap into your intrinsic motivation.

Either choice is a valid one, and it depends entirely on you and what your goals and dreams are. For either type, it’s important to remember that extrinsic motivation drives you to achieve, while intrinsic motivation helps you get over the rough spots.

Be Better7 Ways Writers Can Boost Motivation

Since both types of motivation are important for a long-term writing career, we need to know how to boost one or the other, depending on what we need. To help you bring up that intrinsic motivation and find the internal rewards of your creativity, try these seven tips:

  1. Immerse yourself in your work. Go somewhere you won’t be disturbed, use music if you like, and sink into your imagination. Remember what it feels like to write just for the joy of it.
  2. Develop your skills. Attend a writer’s conference or workshop, or take an online class for no other reason than to get better at writing.
  3. Brainstorm a new project. Most writers get motivated by a shiny new idea. Try coming up with a few, and pursue those that excited you.
  4. Get together with other writers. Sharing your stories with others, including your triumphs and disappointments, helps you feel a sense of belonging, and can remind you why you’re doing this in the first place.
  5. Re-read something you’ve written. When you’re down on yourself, often re-reading your work helps you feel better. It’s like reconnecting to your creative self.
  6. Focus on how writing enhances your life. Write down all the ways writing has contributed to your life, and to your growth as a person. Maybe you’ve worked harder than you thought you could. Maybe you’ve stretched yourself in ways you never would have if you didn’t write. Maybe you’ve met people, or gone places that only your writing could take you.
  7. Take back ownership of your writing. Remember that your writing is yours alone. Only you can write what you write, and how you write. Remind yourself that this is your expression, a sign of your unique being. Reclaim yourself through your writing.

To help you bring up that extrinsic motivation and increase your outward creative drive, try these seven tips:

  1. Enter your writing in more contests. Try the large and the very small. Work to get your writing some sort of recognition.
  2. Set up your own rewards. Find ways to reward yourself. If you have a plan to finish a chapter a week, for example, set up rewards for meeting your deadlines.
  3. Share your work. Brainstorm new ways to share your work. You could start a new website or blog, share a story with a local group of some kind, self-publish, or contribute to other sites that will readily publish your stories.
  4. Participate in some sort of competition. Maybe you can get some writing friends to compete with you on a writing challenge. Who can finish their short story by the end of the month? Participate in National Novel Writing Month, or find one of your writing heroes that regularly posts their word count online and try to keep up with them.
  5. Find a way to earn money with your writing. Submit to websites that pay, sell your story to a magazine or journal, or get creative and find a way to sell your work on Etsy or Ebay.
  6. Figure out a way to increase sales. If you already have a book out there, don’t neglect it. Find a new way to increase sales, something you haven’t tried before. Make the task fun, and set yourself a goal—to sell 10 books, for example.
  7. Write for someone else. Even if you’re not a freelance writer, you can still find ways to write for others, and to enjoy the outside feedback that you get. Write for your local paper, for example, or offer to help a family member write an important letter or create a website. Write a story for a family gift, or try your hand at creating your own greeting cards.

Are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, or do you find yourself motivated by both types?

Teresa M. Amabile, “Motivation and Creativity: Effects of Motivation Orientation on Creative Writers,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1985: 48(2):393-399,

Robert Eisenberger, Linda Shanock, “Rewards, Intrinsic Motivation, and Creativity: A Case Study of Conceptual and Methodological Isolation,” Creativity Research Journal, 2003; 15(2-3):121-130,

“What motivation does to your creativity,” The Creative Pathfinder,

Costas I. Karageorghis and Peter C. Terry, “Balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for success,” Human Kinetics,

“Everest 2014: Why Climb Everest?”, February 5, 2014,

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Comments (6)

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  1. Beth L Olson says:

    I don’t think I would write if no one was reading. Though writing thoughts out can be helpful for processing, I prefer to talk my thoughts through with someone rather than write them out in a journal. Talking with people inspires me, and going for long walks where I can let my thoughts wander does as well. Thanks for sharing this post! It was very thought provoking.

    • Colleen says:

      I like talking through ideas too, Beth. And walks are always the best–looking forward to warmer weather for those. :O)

  2. Alessandro Tinchini says:

    Well, this is so crucial! Good you put this in the spotlight, Colleen. I feel fuelled by both types of motivation, with one taking center stage just to switch parts with the other not long after. They share moments; when one ignites, the other recharges batteries.
    It is quite subjective, in the end, that’s the fun of being what we are, isn’t it?

  3. So interesting that you wrote about this. Just this morning I was thinking about how, in the early stages of my freelance life, I realized I was relying on fear to motivate myself: fear of blowing a deadline and never getting another assignment from that publication, fear of not meeting an editor’s expectations and never getting another assignment from that editor. As a result I was always anxious. I resolved to focus instead on the satisfaction I got from writing well and completing assignments on time. From then on, I was performing exactly the same, but with less anxiety and more joy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivations that made the difference. I’m still motivated by both — I thrive on recognition — but I’m trying not to care so much about extrinsic rewards that I lose sight of intrinsic rewards.