Learn the Basics of Intrinsic Motivation From Stefan Falk


The film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club delivered a biting critique of modern society. Its most iconic lines come from Brad Pitt‘s character Tyler Durden, including his observation that we’re trapped in jobs we hate, chasing material possessions that ultimately leave us empty. The movie spoke to those disillusioned with spending the next 40 years motivated by annual raises and competing for a corner office. Gallop’s recent report that 66 percent of Americans are unhappy with work indicates that little has changed since the movie was released 25 years ago.

As children, we learn that the world runs on external incentives—a good grade, a parent’s approval, a paycheck—making it difficult to see that there are far more effective motivators than the proverbial carrot-and-stick. Topping the list is intrinsic motivation, the invisible inner force that fuels our passion, curiosity, and persistence. It’s essential to human nature and is the key to unlocking a life of impact and purpose.

This article explores how intrinsic motivation can unleash your full potential and help you live a more fulfilling life. Drawing on the expertise of Stefan Falk, the renowned executive performance coach who recently joined us on the podcast, we examine the science behind motivation and unravel the powerful enigma that is inner drive.

Master of Motivation

Born in picturesque Orebro, Sweden, Falk’s early interest in conceptual science matured into his passion for procedural science. This led him to the University of Gothenburg, where he studied the theory of science and research.

Falk built his reputation as an authority in the research and application of motivational processes. Since earning his degree, he’s helped top athletes, C-suite executives, and elite military teams reach peak performance in high-stress environments.

But what sets him apart is his unique ability to make complex psychological concepts accessible to everyone. Nowhere is this more evident than in his recent book, Intrinsic Motivation: Learn to Love Your Work and Succeed as Never Before.

His innovative strategies have been adopted by businesses, schools, and non-profits, yielding impressive results in productivity, creativity, and overall satisfaction. By emphasizing autonomy, mastery, and purpose, he offers readers a comprehensive roadmap to success.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation is the response to stimuli that drives us toward a specific goal. While an in-depth study would paint a far more nuanced portrait, we’ll examine the two primary motivation types: extrinsic and intrinsic.

As the name suggests, extrinsic motivation relies on external factors to drive behavior. Achievements may be reward-based, such as a child performing well in school for a good grade, or driven by a desire to avoid consequences, such as doing well in school to avoid punishment at home. The downside of this approach is that the person becomes hyper-focused on the reward/punishment and ignores the process.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation stems from internal factors such as enjoyment, interest, and personal growth. This includes the child who performs well in a particular class because of their genuine interest in the subject. Intrinsically motivated individuals engage in activities because they find them deeply satisfying and meaningful. Studies have shown that this type of motivation is associated with increased creativity and improved outcomes. “During moments of intrinsic motivation, you perform at your very best,” says Falk. “You lose yourself in what you’re doing and become one with the task.”

Reliance on extrinsic motivation may work in the short term, but it’s inconsistent, unpredictable, and unreliable. However, intrinsic motivation is autonomous, long-lasting, and often aligns with our values, interests, and purpose. As legendary football coach Homer Rice noted, “You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation.”

Challenge Your Brain

Achieving intrinsic motivation can be an arduous task, particularly in the workplace. But according to Falk, the key is understanding how your brain operates. Your brain releases a burst of dopamine each time you engage in behavior it wants you to repeat. 

“Our brain rewards us for learning and developing new skills, but it also rewards us for conserving energy,” explains Falk. Our species developed this survival mechanism when resources were scarce, and energy allocation was a matter of survival. Life has changed, but our brains still conserve energy whenever possible.

A great example is when we engage in mundane tasks at home or work; our brain provides less power for the abilities it deems unnecessary, like problem-solving. Over time, the cumulative effect can have a lasting impact on these functions. To avoid this, Falk recommends a simple exercise he calls creating “exciting outcomes.”

“Let’s say you have a boring task that typically takes two hours to complete,” says Falk. “Set a goal of finishing it in 45 minutes with the same or better results. Now, it’s no longer about the activity but your plan to accomplish it.”

By challenging ourselves to achieve something beyond our current abilities, we activate our brain’s reward center, resulting in a more profound sense of satisfaction and engagement. Understanding what our brain is doing and why puts the goal of intrinsic motivation well within reach.

Cultivating Intrinsic Motivation

Some people are intrinsically motivated by nature, while others develop it over time. Here are seven tips for cultivating and nurturing intrinsic motivation:

  1. Discover your passion: Finding what excites you is crucial to harnessing the power of intrinsic motivation. While this may require introspection and experimentation, the rewards are immeasurable. Engaging in activities that bring you joy will leave you deeply satisfied.
  2. Set meaningful goals: Establish challenging yet achievable goals that align with your values and passions. A clear sense of purpose and direction will help you stay motivated and focused.
  3. Focus on the process: Rather than fixating on the outcome, focus on learning and growing. Enjoy the journey and embrace the idea that obstacles and failure are opportunities to improve.
  4. Practice autonomy: When you control your choices, decisions, and actions, you’re more likely to remain engaged. Seek opportunities to exercise control over your environment, such as choosing projects, setting deadlines, or designing routines.
  5. Celebrate progress: Recognizing your progress will instill a sense of pride and satisfaction. Rome wasn’t built in a day but eventually became the center of one of the world’s most remarkable civilizations.
  6. Build positive relationships: Surround yourself with encouraging and inspiring individuals. A network of like-minded, motivated people can enhance your confidence and provide valuable feedback and guidance.
  7. Cultivate curiosity: Curiosity is a powerful intrinsic motivator. You’re more likely to explore, experiment, and learn when curious about something. Ask questions, seek new experiences, and be open to different perspectives.

Rediscover and Reclaim

In the quarter-century since Fight Club exposed our misguided reliance on extrinsic rewards, little has changed. But as Stefan Falk’s pioneering work reveals, there is another way. By tapping into our intrinsic motivation, we can rekindle the innate human drive for growth, mastery, and purpose. It’s a path that leads to more than just fleeting satisfaction; it can help us find our passions and unlock the potential that lies within each of us. 

Perhaps it’s time to break free from our reliance on these empty incentives and heed Tyler Durden’s advice: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” By cultivating a renewed sense of intrinsic motivation, we can rediscover and reclaim the life of purpose we long ago traded for a path lined with external rewards.


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