When Leonardo Da Vinci, my favorite polymath, wasn’t inventing gargantuan trebuchets or caricaturing curly-haired 12 year-old Venetian boys, he had to figure out how to make money and put food on the table. Most artists during the time were hired, or “commissioned”, by wealthy patrons to create architectural designs for churches or nude sculptures for royal palaces. In exchange for guaranteed work they would get fame, fortune, and usually more work in the future.

Leonardo took on commissioned works, too, although notably less than a lot of his peers, who in turn often enjoyed more fame and fortune (Leo got a lot more famous after he died). In fact, Leo never completed most of his paintings, and once famously said “art is never finished, only abandoned.” We don’t know exactly what was going on in his head, but we do know that he spent a lot of time sketching. Rather than describing him as a prolific painter, he was more prolific at taking notes, detailing ideas, and doing drawings in his notebook, of which we have preserved thousands of pages.


He was self-motivated to create, or in psychology-speak, he was intrinsically motivated, and cared less about the monetary rewards or being praised for commissioned work, aka extrinsic rewards, as evidenced by his lifelong devotion to the arts. If you asked author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is a great recipe for getting into the wonderful state of “flow,” a term he coined. Flow is the feeling you get when you become completely focused and immersed in an activity, often losing track of space and time — being in the zone. We can easily imagine Da Vinci on a church scaffold with paintbrush in hand, entrenched in his creation for hours at a time.

To achieve this flow-state of present awareness is different than achieving mindfulness, which means you’re fully aware of all of your moment-to-moment activities. Mindfulness stems from Buddhist teachings, and interestingly, the Chinese characters for mindfulness is ‘present’ and ‘heart,’ and the Japanese word for mindfulness/focus (mushin) means absence of heart/mind. These two concepts are compatible, albeit not exactly the same. You can see mindfulness as an approach to being more present in all parts of life, which can lead to greater self-awareness. Whereas flow is a state you achieve when you are fully involved and concentrated on just one specific activity that you enjoying doing for the sake of it.

Fast forward to the present day, and the science of motivation has come a long way. One study on artists over a 20-year period found that those artists who were less motivated by money during their art school years were more likely to earn more throughout their career, compared to those who pursued their art purely expecting big rewards. If the more successful artists weren’t motivated by money, then why did they do it? For artists, it was the act of creating something of their own, being immersed in their work, and the path towards mastering their own craft that propelled them forward.  

Of course, it’s not just artists who have intrinsic motivators — it’s all of us. For scientists, it’s insatiable curiosity and discovering something new. For sales people, it’s seeing a business grow and providing a great service. For a chef, it’s baking the perfect croissant. For a CEO, it’s seeing the positive impact their business has on the world.


In the book Drive, author and psychologist Daniel Pink largely debunks the myth that we’re motivated by extrinsic rewards, like all-paid-for holidays or extra cash bonuses.

“When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity. Rewards can deliver a short term boost — just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off — and worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.”

It reminds me of a particular instance in my previous recruitment/sales job. We had a ‘2 day island getaway vacation’ prize for hitting a certain sales target, but the employee that won didn’t even want to go on the (free!) trip because he didn’t want to leave his dog at home (I’m sure he could have found a pet-sitter). He wasn’t doing the job for silly prizes — he couldn’t care less. He was doing the job because he legitimately enjoyed it.

This affects the workplace in a few ways. First, it’s been shown that focusing on one extrinsic motivator like money narrows our focus and can lead to cutting corners, encouraging unethical behavior. It reminded me of some greedy merchants in Thailand who would inject extra water into watermelons to increase their weight, whereby they could charge more. Or maybe it’s the company that overcharges and under delivers so that they can make an extra buck, or the sales guy who decides to sacrifice quality so he can make a bigger bonus.

Second, when a manager gives a reward, he or she is basically signaling that the activity is not desirable and that they have to essentially pay you to do this “extra thing” (your job!). The employee will then expect the reward in the future — so it better be there. The bigger problem here is that once the goal is achieved and the reward achieved, what motivation does the employee have for exceeding their goal? Not much. Indeed, great customer service rarely comes from huge cash incentives, but through genuine empathy and attention to quality.  

Of course, not all rewards are bad, and can actually help boost productivity in very repetitive jobs or short-term activities. The idea is that there is little intrinsic motivation to start out with, so you can’t really take it away. For example, if you have to print and fold 1,000 letters — clearly a repetitive task —  you’d probably get a good jolt of motivation from some cash reward. Arguably, you can also develop intrinsic motivation for menial tasks without extrinsic rewards, depending on your state of mind. How? Check out my my article about the pleasure of doing the dishes.

Nowadays, though, most of our jobs aren’t about repetitively doing the same task every day — they require some creativity and collaboration. A McKinsey report found that 3 out of 10 Americans are disengaged in their jobs. The funny part about the study was they also found managers overestimated how engaged their employees were, whereas employees had a much less positive view. Those at the top of the hierarchy looking down see sunshine and rainbows, where in reality their employees see fire and brimstone. Sound familiar? The above research on motivation has been replicated several times and is compelling…but it’s still taking some time for companies to catch up. Many still use the ‘carrot-stick’ approach to management, which can hurt both employer and employee.

So what can you do about it?

For managers:

-I would read the book Drive and then question what rewards I’m putting into place, being careful about throwing around monetary rewards just because I can. But when you do decide to give a reward/prize, one tip is to not announce the reward until after the person has finished the task, that way it’s a pleasant surprise and doesn’t become a habitual expectation (which will demotivate in the long run).

-It’s worth assessing the current KPI’s and metrics that are being used in the organization to see if they are necessary. Vanity metricsare numbers like pageviews or new customers which don’t always correlate to revenue and profit, even though they look pretty on a powerpoint. In other words, make sure you’re spending time focusing on the right numbers!

-In the words of Daniel Pink, give employees three key opportunities to boost motivation. Autonomy — a sense of driving their own work and decision making. 2) Mastery — allow employees to learn and work on something (even a side project) to become smarter/better in a certain topic. 3) Purpose — understand what motivates the employee and make sure you can connect them to the company goals/purpose.

-Beyond these three mentioned by Pink, you should find the interface between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation systems. This really depends on the existence or development of a workplace setting that is built on models of openness, connection, empathy and mentorship (as one would expect from any organization that strives to be progressive, innovative and cutting-edge). You want a good relationship to exist between employees at all levels. Don’t abandon material rewards entirely (because these have their place), but attempt to shift the emphasis on using the employee-manager relationship in order to leverage-increased intrinsic motivation.

Ultimately, everyone has different motivators that will also change throughout their lives and careers. Perhaps a recently married employee will value job security more than a recently graduated bachelor, who is more keen to take on overseas assignments. Some might value individual work more than team collaboration, a point you should take into consideration during team structuring. It’s your job to find out what these motivators are.

For employees:

As an employee, though, it can be trickier to detach yourself from an environment where parts of your work are tied to money, even though you know they’re not particularly motivating. The solution is one I stumbled upon in my previous job: simply ignore the metrics, or whatever those short-term goals are in your job. I found that when I focused on hitting certain daily or weekly targets, my stress levels would increase and my performance would sputter. But when I took my eyes off the speedometer and looked at the road in front of me, I could drive much faster and see where I was going, without the distraction of worrying about the speed limit. In other words, just focusing on doing whatever I felt would help me arrive at my final goal was more productive and motivating than worrying about KPI’s and numbers on a spreadsheet for my boss to check.

It’s very likely that this was because I had an intrinsic motivation to do my work (helping businesses grow and consulting people on their careers). I had also already developed good working habits and was able to manage my stress levels, so it was easier to stay focused. That said, ignoring the metrics and short-term goals won’t always work for everybody and likely comes with some experience with the job (indeed, there are certain times when you should say yes and no at work).

When you find yourself in a rut, here are some other techniques to stay motivated at work.

  • Maintain a good work-rest-play balance. Burnout is real and sustaining intrinsic motivation depends on personal balance.
  • Do whatever you can do ensure that your work is sufficiently challenging. (If you’re coasting, set yourself higher goals)
  • Understand the difference between setting goals and developing habits.
  • Find a mentor. They can help get you on track and plan for your career — like gaining expertise in two or more areas.
  • Practice mindfulness at work, especially when it comes to the more mundane aspects.
  • Think deeply about whether you are in the right role, or whether a job or role change might be necessary. One way to boost self-reflection is by keeping a daily journal.
  • Make sure you are not confusing physical health for career motivation. Some of my most productive, and motivated weeks came from exercising more and abstaining from alcohol. It did wonders, and those low moments of demotivation faded quickly.

There’s a lot more to motivation than what’s listed above — after all, we’re talking about human behavior in all its varied forms. That said, the science is moving quickly. Motivating and engaging employees (and ourselves) is an issue that affects most all of us, so it’s in our best interest to stay up-to-date with the science, try new techniques, and most of all get away from the pure money-reward system. The actual motivators themselves haven’t changed since Da Vinci’s time, but our understanding and thus possibility for harnessing our own potential has increased exponentially.

“…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


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