Intrinsic Motivation

What can you as an event professional learn from a professional musician? Perhaps not a whole lot at first glance. But when you learn that it takes 10,000 hours to properly master an instrument then the answer is quite simple. Intrinsic motivation.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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What can you as an event professional learn from a professional musician? Perhaps not a whole lot at first glance. But when you learn that it takes 10,000 hours to properly master an instrument then the answer is quite simple. Intrinsic motivation.


That’s beautiful.




We don’t start every day with a piece of music like this.


No especially not with this instrument. Because this is called the viola da gamba, which is a sort of a cross between a guitar actually and a violin. Which plays a very important part in Johan Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion. So that’s why I’m playing this little piece which is a solo from that very important thing.


It’s wonderful. It’s also not every day that we have a musician in the studio. Today we’re going to talk about intrinsic motivation. But what is that about?


Yes, well I ended up studying both music and physics, so I’ve got a PhD in physics. And as a musician you were kind of lucky actually, because at a very early age you discover that there’s two kinds of motivation. First you have, and everybody knows that, the extrinsic motivation which is coming from the outside. Which is basically anything that has to do with, okay, if you do this for me, then I’ll give you that as a reward. And then the other things is, okay if you do that then you’ll get that, which is a punishment. So that’s the two things, that’s very extrinsic.It’s determined from the outside. And that works to some extent, but as a musician you discover very early on that that’s not enough. Because in order to play an instrument like this you need to practice maybe like 10 or 20,000 hours. You know, it takes that much dedication and that much sacrifice. I mean, it means that you’ll have to practice when somebody else is playing outside. Whatever, you have to be driven internally.Internally, intrinsically and to…


And that’s the why you do this?


Yes. And the beautiful thing is... There is this beautiful sentence in a very important article about this, by two American psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, and they write literally they say, okay, this intrinsic motivation is the ability of humans to be completely immersed in an activity for its own sake. Not because to getting money, or being, becoming famous but just because they just enjoy doing it. And that’s what they call - I’ll always love this sentence - they call it the most purely positive aspect of the humans’ psyche. I really love that sentence. It’s in a scientific article.I’ve highlighted it, it’s beautiful.


It’s above your bed.


Yes, it’s above the bed. Absolutely. Because somehow, I feel that I’ve somehow always been able to tap into that source. You know, what really drives me, what do I really want to do.


You already mentioned it, you are of course a musician.




But beside that, also a scientist?


Yes, a physicist, yes.


A physicist. Why those two?


Well, why? That’s a good question. It was sort of like, I always enjoyed doing both and then people start saying, okay, well Ralph, I’m sorry but you have choose, it’s either that or that.


Yeah that’s what society tells us.




You can only be good at one thing.


That’s what they tell you, yes. And then of course I was lucky enough to have sort of a mentor in my first year at University. Who said, okay well, why don’t you just try to do both, you know. And there happens to be a way to do both, because I really enjoyed playing music, and also really enjoyed doing physics. I remember the first time I read about quantum mechanics. I was thrilled. I can put that picture back in my mind right now. I see myself lying on a couch with this book and I was, wow, man quantum mechanics, this is great. And an hour later I would be playing an instrument.Doing the same thing. So somehow, I was able to follow through with that. And that was because some coach or mentor at the right moment in time said, okay, why don’t you try that because you’re right. Society extrinsically says, no, you have to do one thing, you cannot do both, come on are you crazy. And then I ended up playing with this instrument in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and winning an Edison Award with it and also doing the physics. So, it’s possible.


So intrinsic motivation isn’t limited to just one thing for one person?


No, no definitely not. Maybe for some people it is. Yes, it’s quite possible, I don’t know. Well I know some people they’ll have... they are completely focused on one thing and think that’s the only thing that matters. So, it’s possible, but it’s not necessarily so. But I do think it’s very important that people, sometimes, not every day, but sometimes reflect, okay, what is it that really drives me.


And how do you find out?


Well that’s a very good question, and that’s very difficult. Because you know we’re in a society where... it’s a cliché, but we’re constantly in contact with everybody. So that means that the world is always telling us what we should do, what we should like look. What we should eat, you know it’s always there.


Yeah, and we also have to gain money for our house and our food.


Absolutely. So it’s all there. But sometimes it’s just important to take one step back and say, okay, shut down all the electronics for now and just work for an hour or two hours, maybe a weekend, depending because I’m organizing all kinds of stuff with this. Okay, just take a step back and see what it is that you really like. And some amazing stuff can happen then. I was like, I wanted to do this advantage, which was only lasted 45 minutes. It was at the University of Nijmegen,and it was for PhD students. And it was 45 minutes and I did a bit of an introduction and then I said, okay, look at these questions which were about intrinsic motivation, and I said I’ll just play a piece while we’re doing that. And a front row guy, 27 years old, something like that, he almost burst into tears right there, right in front of me. And he said, oh my god, until yesterday I was completely focused on, okay next career move, I’ve got to make do that, I’ve got to do that. It felt very uncertain, very... there was a lot of fear, and he said, right now I realize that I want to do something with my hands, you know. I want to be a carpenter,I want to make beautiful furniture. And I don’t know whether he’s actually going to do that, but at least that was a real eye opener for him. And that’s a beautiful moment. Because then you see someone, maybe for the very first time come into contact with that intrinsic motivation. And, you know maybe he just does it maybe one day a week as a hobby, possible. But it’s also quite possible that in five years we will see him in all galleries with beautiful sculptured furniture, with new designs, whatever. You know it’s quite possible.


But how do you apply these principles in a company environment? Because I run a business, I have a team. If everybody discovers that he wants to be an artist, then all those people…


You’re right. But don’t forget, I also know intrinsically motivated, for example, accountants. People who like nothing better than the fact that when they have this entire sheet, spreadsheet of numbers… and they’re all exactly at the right spot. And they just get a kick out of it.


It’s hard for me to imagine.


For me too. But it is true. There are people who are completely obsessed by that. There are people who are completely obsessed by feet you know, want to make sure that they treat your nails or whatever, correctly. So, what I really believe, or I sincerely believe is that even if you have a company with different people, the most important thing you can do is make sure that you have the right people at the right place. Because there’s nothing worse, and I’ve seen that over and over again, that people... For example good scientists would suddenly become managers and then mess up completely. Because that’s not what they wanted to do. And so what I really believe is, if you work in a company and you’ll make sure that people move toward their right inclination... And there’s a couple of things they can do then, that’s very interesting. And it works with a class of children, it works with students, but it also works with grown-ups in a company. It’s like, there’s a couple of areas you can work on. And the first thing is, very important is the area of competence. So it means, the big C. So if you hand out assignments or tasks to people, make sure it’s not too easy. They should not be routine because that’s very demotivating. But it shouldn’t be too difficult either. You know, the example I always take, if somebody asks me to do a marathon tomorrow, then I’m not going to be motivated.


Yeah, because it’s just not possible.


No. I don’t have the training and it’s absolutely impossible to get that in one day. So, I’m not going to be... But if somebody says, okay Ralph,I want to challenge you to do a marathon in a year. Okay, I could start maybe with a kilometer, next week or whatever, and I could build it up, yeah, possible. And then the second thing is, that’s competence. Very important and very often neglected. Sometimes we’ll get much too easy or much too difficult tasks. The second thing is, autonomy. Because that says if you... Okay, let’s take the example of a class of children, right, 14-year olds, and they have to do electricity. I was a physicist and I had to teach children... okay. And they usually don’t like that. They’re like oh my god, it looks, oh terrible. But what you can do then is you can say, okay guys,we have to do electricity, I’m sorry about that. But we can do two things. First thing, I can just explain the stuff to you and then you’ll get to do the problems, and the rest you finish at home, or I put the entire classroom full of tiny experiments, and you just walk around and you do the experiments and I’ll be walking around giving you some tips or whatever, and you figure it out for yourself and then you do the problems. So, which one’s it going to be. And it’s not automatically so that children will prefer the second way, by the way. it’s also quite, a lot of children like the fact that you just explain everything, right. But at least there is a choice. And if they then choose then they sort of commit themselves, to this choice and that really helps. So competence, autonomy and then the third one which is by far the most difficult one is relatedness. Relatedness to people. I mean if I like you, I really like you, then I’m much more inclined, much more motivated to do stuff for you, with you. And that’s very hard because we all know the teachers from our high schools that we just hated.


But what makes it then that we like one teacher, and hate another?


Yeah that’s... if you had the answer, the real answer to that question,you’d have it made, because that’s a very difficult question. But it has something to do with... In my own experience, when I’m in a room and I’m listening to someone, there’s always one thing which is always in the back of my mind. Is this person, this woman or man, is she or he really believing in what he or she is saying? And if you look at a lot to politicians... okay, we don’t go into that.


They’re good actors.


But sometimes, every once in a while, you meet someone who is really, sincerely believing what he or she is telling you. And that’s the authenticity, and that’s why I think it’s so important.I know it’s almost a cliché. Everybody is talking about being authentic,but usually that’s not real authenticity. It’s usually like, okay, that’s society telling you how to be authentic. No, just find out what you really, really like and what you really like. And if you then in front of an audience and start talking about that, then you suddenly have an enormous power. Is my sincere belief.


Is it also why some of the world’s biggest leaders in companies like for example Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Tim Cook, or Steve Jobs at Apple, they were also very motivated about what they did, they do. And they in some way inspired the people in their companies?


Yeah, that’s very interesting you mentioned that, because it’s been proven scientifically. I just read the article a couple of months back, that, for example, in a classroom situation, if you have teachers that are intrinsically motivated, then the students are much more likely to be intrinsically motivated themselves. So, it’s like, it’s sort of contagious.


Yeah, it’s spreading.


Yeah, it’s spreading. So what I really believe is if you have a really intrinsically motivated top manager, like the initiators like you just mentioned, like Zuckerberg and Jobs,then it’s going to spread throughout the company. And you know that if this person leaves, very often the company is going down the drain. Very often...


Yeah, it’s what happened with Apple. Steve Jobs left, the company went down, he came back, and they become the most profitable company in the world.


Yes, I truly believe. Yes, it is about, the upper levels but I think it spreads. I would love to do the research on that for example in university or schools or companies. But I’m convinced that the evidence is tantalizing, that it just works like that. If you have an intrinsically motivated manager then his co-workers and or all the students, are also going to be much more intrinsically motivated. And that’s what drives me, and I love it, I love talking about this, I love doing workshops with this, retreats, whatever.


Okay Ralph. Thank you for the inspiration.


You’re welcome.


And you at home, thank you for watching our show, I hope to see you next week.