External Versus Internal Goals

External Versus Internal Goals

I don’t think about it as much any more, but several years ago I was nearly obsessed with the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I ran cross country in high school and at the time I was very motivated by winning medals, winning a state championship, and impressing my friends and family. After graduating and starting college, I was no longer on a team, but I was at the peak of my running and I was still motivated by shiny medals and bragging rights. For a long time, my motivation with running was extrinsic and I was focused more on external versus internal goals.

 

However, after I finished my undergrad and started working, got married, and eventually returned for more school, I had to re-think my motivation with running. I have asthma, so I was never quite able to be the best runner in any given race, but I was always competitive and if I got lucky I could win a race here or there. I could live up to the external goals that I set for myself. But once I started working 40 hour weeks and had to balance my time between work, a new wife, and eventually returning to school, I couldn’t run enough or be competitive enough to match those external goals. If I was going to keep running at all, my motivation had to be intrinsic, and I had to identify internal goals that could challenge me and keep me motivated. This is why a few years back my mind was constantly thinking about ideas of motivation.

 

The last few years, extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and external versus internal  goals haven’t been on my mind as much, but thoughts about motivation and goals came back to me while reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Risk Savvy. When discussing recent increases in rates of anxiety among young people today he writes:

 

“The best explanation can be found in what young people believe is important in life: in the distinction between internal and external goals. Internal goals include becoming a mature person by strengthening one’s skills, competences, and moral values, and living a meaningful life. External goals have to do with material rewards and other people’s opinions, including high income, social approval, and good looks. People’s goals have shifted steadily since the end of World War II toward more and more extrinsic goals. Annual polls of college freshman showed that recent generations judged being well off financially as more important than developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

 

I think that Gigerenzer’s message is a little overblown and has a little kids these days element to it, but I think the trend he identifies is generally correct, but possibly mischaracterized*. Studies have shown that our overall level of wealth or wellbeing doesn’t really mean much to us and isn’t predictive of happiness. Our expectations and a sense of improved wellbeing and opportunity is predictive of happiness. Today, young people are more connected to the world. They see more possibilities, see more ways to use and spend wealth, and have a much bigger world than children around the time of WWII. A child growing up in a small town around the 1950’s or 1960’s may have been impressed by the dentist’s house and new car, but today, a child growing up in a small town can see far more opulence than the dentist’s Mercedes. He can easily log into any social media platform and see LeBron’s mansion and Drake’s new Bugatti. It may not be that people’s goals have shifted between external or internal, but that the external goals have become far more conspicuous, expensive, and extravagant, making them all the more noteworthy and hard to reach.

 

Combine this increase in expectations of wealth and standards of living with a near constant consumer culture messaging in TV, radio, and social media advertisements, and it is not hard to imagine that external goals have become more important than internal goals as Gigerenzer notes. We are presented an image of a successful life that is full of material possessions, to the point of being unattainable. Having financial wealth, owning a large home, and having lots of toys is presented as more than just an image of success, it is in some ways presented as a morally correct way to live.

 

The problem, as I learned with running, of having external versus internal goals, is that you can’t always live up to external goals based on the ideas, skills, and thoughts of other people. No matter how hard I trained, I was simply never going to be the best runner in my city because I have asthma. On top of that, I have other constraints that are inherent to the life I live. By sticking to external goals, I would have been burnt out and defeated, likely giving up running completely. Much of the motivation and goals we set for ourselves in life are similar to the goals I had with running. We want a certain income level, a certain size house in a certain neighborhood, and a certain car to go with it all because all those things will impress other people. External goals create pressures that don’t need to exist, and can drive us to anxiety as we try to impress other people.

 

Internal goals are more realistic and can be more appropriately tailored to our actual interests, abilities, and limitations. For example, I have goals around running that are focused on health, avoiding injury, and feeling good about my physical shape. I can still have goals around running a certain mileage or a certain pace, but I try hard to calibrate those goals around my own abilities rather than the performance of my friends. Internal goals that are focused on growth and development rather than displays of wealth and social status are healthier and can actually help us achieve more than external goals that don’t align well with who we are and how we actually want to live. In the end, being able to recognize this and adjust our goals is important if we want to flourish and avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety.
*I wrote this post about a week ago, and since then have read a section of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now which further challenges Gigerenzer’s assertion that college students these days are different than college students of the post-war period. Pinker notes that studies like the ones that Gigerenzer highlights are unreliable because it is almost impossible to accurately compare different cohorts at different times. Far more people attend college today than they did during the post-war period. It is possible that even more people with intrinsic motivations for learning attend college today, but that they may be outnumbered in surveys by students with external motivations. It is possible that the increasing number of students just changed the mixture of responses, and doesn’t represent some overall change in human mindsets. Pinker presents additional challenges to these long-term comparisons which I will try to link to in a future post.

Ryan Holiday’s Anti-Ego Mantra

Ryan Holiday includes three sentences in his book Ego is the Enemy which he calls a mantra, “Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push  through failure with strength, not ego.” Holiday reads a lot, and this mantra that he has developed comes from the lessons he has learned from truly great men and women. He explains that everyone faces challenges and great difficulties in their lives, and that without checking ones ego, no one can rise to the top or become the best that they can be.

 

Aspiring and seeking out of ego is the drive to be better than others and the drive to be recognized for selfish reasons. There is a difference between being great at a what we do and pursuing greatness because we want to fully apply ourselves and bring the best version of ourselves to our lives versus trying to be great to show off. When we recognize that the praise of others is hollow and that our value as a person is based on more than what we accomplish and what awards other people give us, we can be more authentic, build a life based on relationships, and find more fulfillment.

 

For the ego, success is defined by what other people want and what other people think is impressive. The ego clamors for attention and status, constantly trying to one-up everyone else. The ego wants to be the best, to show off the best car, to show off the biggest house, and to flaunt what one has achieved. For the ego, what brings success is not as important as the attention and adulation that success brings. Achieving success without ego requires that we focus on solving problems in our lives and in the lives of others. We may become financially well off, but that is never the purpose and is not what defines our success. Great people find success by aligning themselves and their mission so that they can perform their best and make a meaningful impact wherever they are.

 

The ego fears failure because anything less than a perfect outcome takes away from the legitimacy of the ego. Any imperfection, flaw, or vulnerability is a potential crack in the shell of the ego, and as a result those who become successful with their ego will deflect all criticism and place the blame for failure elsewhere, so that it cannot damage the ego. If you do not bring ego with you on your journey, then you can embrace failure in a way that helps you learn, grow, and become stronger. The ego is fearful of mistakes and of being seen making mistakes, but when we push the ego aside we actually look closely to identify even our small mistakes to see opportunities where we can make improvements and grow.

 

Holiday’s mantra is a quick guide to finding a balanced pathway toward success. At each step the ego throws us off and opens us up to exploitation, fear, and distortion. We cannot aim toward a future driven by what we think will impress others, unless we want to live in a world where we never feel fulfilled. We cannot bring ego with us on our quest for success, or we will only find a finish line that continually moves back as we approach it and an appetite to show off that can never be satisfied. When we do fail, which we will at some point, our ego will deflect the failure from ourselves and undoubtedly damage relationships and the organizations we have been using as vessels for success. This is why recognizing and abandoning the ego (or at least trying to keep it from being our main driver) is important if we wish to have a fulfilling life that makes a difference in the world.

Working Together

Carolyn Chute wrote a letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which is a collection of letters from creative artists, independent film actors, and writers and poets. In her letter Chute writes about coming together and finding true value in everyone.  Chute writes, “Another nice thing to try is forgetting everything you learned in public school.  Especially the competition part — the “there are winners and losers” part.  try to think in terms of working together.  EVERYBODY has an A+.”  What she is explaining with this quote is that public schools get us in a mindset of constantly comparing ourselves to others and competing in certain situations to see who can have the best grades and prove themselves to be special.  The problem with this style of competition and proving our self worth through school work is that it excludes some students based on their personality or skills. Chute continues, “Everyone’s A+ isn’t visible or marketable or reflected in their possessions, appearance, or social graces.” What she is speaking of is true from grade school through college, into the business world, and all the way to parenting.
The school situation that Chute referenced is a reflection of how we judge people in our society, and how we chose to evaluate the successes and failures of others.  In society we tend to judge people based on their financial success, how big their home is, and what type of car they drive.  We assume that the greater they are in these areas, the happier they must be, and the more successful their relationships and health must also be.  The school system builds this in by putting us in situations where everyone hides their failures, and hangs their A+s above their desk for all to see.  And what is worse according to Chute, “School recognizes only those things you can WIN at. or at the things you can do quietly at a desk.”  In much the same way, society only judges people based on an individual’s financial “wins”.
Judging a student as successful based solely on their ability to complete their multiplication tables or score well on a vocabulary test misses out on what makes that student unique, and does not reveal the student’s personality, character, or interpersonal skills.  Judging them on a few categories that are easily visible and simple to compare against others does not give us a full understanding of the value of the student.  What Chute does in her brief paragraph is help us realize that we fall into the same pitfall in society when we judge others based on their financial status and material gains.  Comparing outward financial projections is an easy way to compare our value against others, but it certainly is not the right way, accurate way, or meaningful way to determine who has been successful or lived a valuable life.  What Chute explains is that we can not approach the world from such an individualistic perspective because we must all be connected in order to build a better planet and establish society together.  Each one of us has special skills and abilities, and we should all be working to highlight the strengths of others as opposed to working to make our own skills stand out.