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.

Outsiders Within Our Own Minds

How good are you at introspection? How much do you know about yourself and how much do other people know about you that you don’t actually know? I try to ask myself these types of questions and reflect on how much I don’t actually recognize or know about myself, but it is really difficult. I much prefer to look at what I do with the most generous interpretation of myself and my actions and decisions, but I know that somewhere out there someplace is someone who looks at me with the least generous interpretations of me and my actions, in much the same way I look at a person smoking or a person with a political bumper sticker that I dislike and instantly want to ascribe a whole set of negative qualities to them. Beyond simply the idea of looking at ourselves honestly, looking at ourselves from the least favorable position is extremely uncomfortable, and reveals a bunch of things about who we are that we would rather ignore.

 

Luckily for us, our brains protect us from this discomfort by simply failing to be aware of our true actions and motives in any given point in time. The brain ascribes high-minded reasons for our behaviors, and hands us a script with the best interpretation of what we do. When it comes to the brain, we feel like we know what is going on within it, but the reality is that our own minds are mysteries to ourselves.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about this in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “In other words, even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds. We think we’re pretty good at introspection, but that’s largely an illusion. In a way we’re almost like outsiders within our own minds.”

 

We tell ourselves that what we do makes sense, is logical, and is the best possible outcome for everyone in a given situation. The reality is that we are likely more focused on our own gain than anything else. We don’t want to admit this to anyone (even ourselves) and so we sugar coat it and hide  our motivations behind altruistic reasons. Piercing through this with self-reflection is challenging because we are so good at deflecting and deceiving our own thought processes. It is comforting to believe that we are on the right side of a moral issue (especially if we get benefits from the side we are on) and uncomfortable with no clear path forward if we look inward and discover that we may have been wrong the whole time (especially if it seems that our social group has been wrong the whole time). Increasingly in my life I find it imperative that I consider that my brain doesn’t see things clearly and that my brain is likely wrong and short sighted about many issues. Remembering this helps me avoid becoming too certain of my beliefs, and keeps me open to the ways that other people see the world. It helps me recognize when people are acting out of their own self-interest, and helps me pull back in situations where my ego wants to run wild and declare that I am clearly right and those other people are obviously violating good moral ethics.

Undertaking Your Pursuit

I spend a lot of time thinking about what is important in my life, what I want to work toward, and why I want to work toward those things. Its not always an easy and enjoyable task, and I find that if I get away from it for a little while, unimportant things slip back in. In order to stay on top of things and focus on the important, I find that it is helpful to think about the deep why behind my actions, habits, and daily routines. The most important questions I ask myself focus on whether I am doing something because I am trying to make the world a better place, or whether I am doing something out of my own self-interest. I know I will never detach self-interest from what I do, but at least I can try to align my self-interest with things that help improve the world as opposed to things that simply show off how awesome I think I am.

 

“Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.” Colin Wright ends one of the chapters in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be with that quote. It is advice we hear a lot but that I don’t think we always actually follow. Part of the reason we don’t always follow that advice is because it is usually packaged as “follow your passion” or “if you do what you love you will never really work a day in your life.” This line of advice giving isn’t too helpful and puts pressure on us to have the perfect job we love or else we feel that we are doing it all wrong. Better advice for us is to look inside and try to understand our motivations, ask ourselves what it is that drives us toward our goals, ask if that is reasonable and in the best interest of society, and adjust so that we are operating in a way that is designed to make the world a better place instead of only operating in a way to maximize the pleasure we find in the world.

 

I truly believe that better understanding our motivations and being honest with ourselves about the forces that drive us will help us realign our lives in a more positive direction. When we truly examine ourselves we will not want to find that we are working hard, hitting the gym at 5 a.m., and doing everything we do just to show off to others or just to buy new things that will impress others. We will find that we are more fulfilled when we align our days around pursuits and goals focused on building communities, helping other people, creating meaningful relationships, and trying to solve problems for other people. This may not immediately change every aspect of our life, but it will allow us to slowly build habits and ways of thinking that help us make better choices that minimize our selfishness and propel us toward meaningful goals.

Whats the Real Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem. When we go to meetings, chat with someone during a lunch break, or are working in a group on a project, it can become very easy to start complaining about whatever thing happens to be annoying us at that moment. Whatever issue we just had to deal with can be a bit overwhelming and can come to dominate our thoughts. However, the issue we just dealt with may not actually be the big thing at the heart of our problems. We might be annoyed by the way a particular form is being completed by another person or by a team’s inability to come together to finalize a draft of a new project, but the real challenge may be something deeper and more significant. If we don’t access that deeper level, then we are not actually doing anything that will help us or our organization improve when we complain at a surface level about some annoyance.

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier has a recommendation for us to get to this deeper level. Throughout his entire book he encourages us to be better listeners and to ask the right questions to get our conversations moving in the right direction. His advice to get to the big issue is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Whether we ask this to ourselves or to someone we are coaching, the result is a more deep consideration of the situation that is leading to frustration or bad outcomes. Bungay Stanier describes the question this way, “This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Bungay Stanier explains that we will always have multiple problems to deal with, but that not all problems are created equal. Some will be more pressing then others and some will stem from larger more structural problems. Asking what the real challenge is can help develop thoughts on the larger issues at the core. Adding the “for you” part of the question dials in on the specific details that are in the individual’s (or your own) control, as opposed to details that are too vague and general to be something we can address directly. It also helps the question be more personal and aim toward individual growth and opportunity.

The Coaching Habit helps us get beyond simple venting and complaining to have more constructive and thoughtful discussions. Learning to listen and understanding how questions can help shape the direction of our conversations is crucial for successful coaching and even for successful introspection. Understanding our real challenge and then helping others dial in on their real challenges can drive new growth and productivity.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.”  This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, and giving advice. Bungay Stanier turns the role of the coach around and suggests that coaches should let other do the talking and advice giving. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask questions to help the other person in a process of self-discovery.

 

Asking more questions does not translate into constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe their challenges more completely and to help them visualize improved opportunities and strategies for success. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted.

 

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to our selves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations (at least part of the time), then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know or receive the actual answer that describes someone’s behavior. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their hidden agendas and better understand and acknowledge what is happening internally. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help them acknowledge it in their own mind.

 

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person become more introspective. Giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person, helping them find the answer themselves and helping them become more self-aware.

Asking Questions While Coaching

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier helps us see what makes a good coach. The key lesson that he shares with us is that a good coach does more listening than talking, something that seems to cut against our ideas of coaching in the United States. Good coaches don’t hog all of the speaking time and our vision of a good coach who has an anecdote for every situation with instructions and life lessons is not the kind of coach that we actually want or that will help us grow and improve. If we want to be good coaches, we need to learn that listening rather than advice and direction giving can be the most powerful tool in a coaches box.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “when you’re asking questions you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. that’s called “empowering”). Put like that it doesn’t sound like a good offer.” I know for myself, whether I think about a sports coach, a business coach, or even a life coach, I picture some wise person who can tell me what to think and tell me what to look out for, but when I think about Bungay Stanier’s ideas of what a coach is (particularly a life or professional coach) I see the ways that my ideal vision falls short. A strong coach helps you discover solutions and approaches to challenges that work for you. They help you grow and develop by helping you learn,  become more self aware, and solidify your often tangled and jumbled thoughts.

 

Good coaches ask questions because it forces the person they are working with to think deeply and try to find their own answers. Giving advice is good and providing direction is helpful, but Bungay Stanier would argue that nudging an individual and asking them questions helps them grow in ways that simply telling them something does not. When we respond to questions we think more deeply about our past, our goals, and what has or has not worked for us. We think about ways we could approach things differently or try new solutions. Telling someone something directly just gives them one point of view, and not necessarily the point of view that will help them the most based on their own history and experience. What listening and asking questions does is empower the other person to solve their own problems and learn more about themselves and the options at hand.