Brad Feld

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Intrinsic Motivation

Oct 11, 2010

At a talk I gave recently to a room full of first year graduate business school students, I was asked “what motivates me.”  Before I answered, I felt compelled to explain what intrinsic motivation is and used the following example to describe it.

“Tonight, I’ll spend about 90 minutes talking to y’all.  I’m doing it because I enjoy it and I learn from it.  While I hope it is useful to you, that’s not the reason I’m doing it.  While I hope you have fun, learn something, and enjoy our time together, I won’t feel better or worse if you do.  In fact, since my goal is to learn from everything I do, I’d much rather you give me feedback about things you think could have improved our 90 minutes together.”

I then went on to explain that I’m motivated by learning.  I’ve decided to spend my entire professional life learning about entrepreneurship and have decided that my laboratory is “creating and helping build software and Internet companies.”  I derive enormous personal pleasure from the act of working with entrepreneurs, helping create companies, and learning from the successes and failures.

Over time, I’ve expanded the range of things that contribute to my learning.  During the past four years I’ve spent a lot of time with first time entrepreneurs through the creation and development of TechStars program.  As part of that, I decided to try to codify some of what I’d learned.  That led to me writing Do More Faster with David Cohen, which led to another opportunity to learn, this time about the process of creating, publishing, and promoting a book.

In each of these cases, I’m intrinsically motivated.  I hope that TechStars is a success.  I hope that every company that goes through TechStars benefits from it.  I hope that the book that David and I have written is good.  I hope that it is well received.  I hope that people learn from it.  But none of these are why I spent enormous amounts of time and energy on each activity.

I spent the time and energy because I continuously learned from my experiences.  And I deeply enjoyed the activities I was involved in. Sure – I had plenty of difficult moments (or days), lots of things that didn’t work, and plenty of things that I felt I didn’t do nearly as well as I could have.  But I learned from each of them.

I recently was in a conversation with someone who was clearly extrinsically motivated. He approached me as though I was extrinsically motivated.  He kept thanking me for what I was doing for him and then asking me what he could do for me.  I finally stopped him and explained the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  I told him that I had no expectation that he’d do anything for me – that I was spending time with him because I hoped to learn something from every interaction I had.

While I’ve presented this as an absolute (e.g. you are either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated), I know that it’s a spectrum for almost everyone (including me).  But I think it’s important, and very useful, to understand which end of the spectrum someone is on.  Don’t assume everyone is like you!