Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation
(1995), an educational self-help book by Edward L. Deci (with Richard Flaste), considers why we’re motivated to do the things we do, and how to foster someone’s sense of autonomy and commitment. The book is generally popular with readers of personal development books for its original insights and thought-provoking questions. Deci is the Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in Social Sciences at the University of Rochester. He is the co-founder of the self-determination theory explored in this book.Why We Do What We Do
asks a basic question—what is the best way to motivate someone to accomplish a task? Deci argues that, traditionally, we tell people that they must do things in order to get rewards, such as leisure time. They are only interested in the reward, and if the reward isn’t there, they won’t complete the task on their own initiative.
Deci considers, then, if motivating other people is really the best way to get things done. It may be better to encourage people to motivate themselves. This is where the self-determination theory, or SDT, comes into play. Self-determination means teaching people to become more autonomous. It means relying on internal motivators instead of external motivators to make us do things.
Deci gives an example from a controlled experiment. He asks two groups to complete visual puzzles. He offers one group money if they complete the task; he doesn’t offer the other group anything. When he leaves the room, the group working for money stops to take a break. The group working for fun, however, keeps going. This shows that one group was self-motivated. Deci suggests that internal motivation, then, is superior to external influences.
We may wonder why motivation is important. Deci attempts to answer this conundrum, explaining that intrinsically motivated people not only enjoy what they do, but they’re also motivated to find more creative solutions to problems, and they’re open to learning new things. Being intrinsically motivated is better for our mental health, because we feel more in control, and we understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. We don’t lose our sense of purpose when an external motivator or reward is taken away.
Deci enriches Why We Do What We Do
using many other examples to support his position. He takes communist Romania as another example. In Romania, people can leave their workplace at any time to go and do what they feel like. However, they don’t have any choice as to what jobs they do. They’re not intrinsically motivated, because they’re stuck in jobs they didn’t choose.
Compare this to a capitalist economy where people work many hours to buy what they want. In these economies, people worry that, if they don’t work hard enough, they’ll lose their job, even if they have more freedom to find another. These people are just as trapped, and suffer as little intrinsic motivation, as their communist counterparts. Neither way of working is desirable.
Desi wonders, then, how the average person can be truly free. He accepts that there will always be some form of external motivator—whether it’s the need for money to live or a roof over our heads—but that we must find what motivates us personally. Understanding what passions drive us, and what makes us happy, allows us to feel more fulfilled at work and in life.
Deci considers that there is one interest we all have in common—the world at large. By fostering our curiosity, our interest in one another, and our talents, we can bring out the best in each other. We can help people feel more engaged in their environment, and less focused on external rewards that they don’t really care about. We each work more effectively when we’re driven, and we’re less effective when we’re pressured and forced into doing something for the activity’s sake.
Deci identifies steps we must take to drive ourselves. Most importantly, we must feel in control. Our actions must feel like our own, even if we are simply choosing to go along with external controls. Going along with something purely because someone tells us that we must is the opposite of controlling our own lives. Deci urges parents to recognize this when they are motivating their children to complete tasks.
Furthermore, we must get over our egos. Ego makes us do things to achieve external rewards, such as status and wealth. It doesn’t motivate us to do well when those external rewards are taken away—for example, if we’re fired. If we allow our worth to be determined by our external success, we will always be unmotivated and unhappy.
Essentially, Deci explains that people must feel more engaged in their own lives if they are to become more successful. Children must be taught to set their own limits and decide what makes them happy. They should be motivated to better themselves and develop passions. Teaching children to want to improve themselves for personal development’s sake, and their inner fulfillment is one of the most important lessons we can give them.