How to Build Intrinsic Motivation

There are many factors that drive people to do the things that we do and, at points in our lives, we don’t even realize what is driving us. We can live life in a haze, being told what to do, being driven by someone else’s will or by our most base impulses. If you’ve felt lost in your life or if you simply want to gain more self-motivation, then keep reading. Gaining an understanding of how to motivate ourselves can be life changing.

For William Ernest Henley, an English poet and editor, his beliefs about his own control over his life seem to have been critical to his life’s successes. In his 1875 poem “Invictus,” he wrote:

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.”

I recommend reading the whole poem, if you’ve never read it.

What is surprising about his feelings of determination and conviction is that he wrote this during a time when he was undergoing a lot of misfortune. Early in his life, he was diagnosed with a disease that led to the amputation of one of his legs below the knee. He later underwent another surgery to save his second leg and wrote “Invictus” during the subsequent 20 month hospital stay. After his recovery, he had a successful career in editing and publishing.

How could a person undergoing such terrible experiences feel that he is “the master of his fate?” Was he outright mad? Genetically predisposed to a positive attitude? Maybe. We can’t say with certainty, but I think the key to his personal self-motivation came from his beliefs – the stories that he told himself on a day-to-day basis. Believing he was in control of his life enabled his own continued efforts and pursuits of his passions.

Carol Dweck, Stanford Professor of Psychology and author, has devoted her career to studying why people succeed and how to foster success. She is probably most widely known for her study on the impact of praise on the performance of children. The study went something like this:


Looking at this study, the lesson isn’t just about praise; it’s about the subsequent beliefs that a child adopts as a result of how they are praised.

Being praised for intellect or any innate, built in quality can result in a person believing that he/she has set abilities that they had at birth and will have for the rest of their life. This is what Carol Dweck calls “fixed mindset.” Having a fixed mindset – believing that our talents and abilities are set in stone- can stifle our motivation to take any action whatever. Why should I do my math problems, if I’m just not good at math? I’ll never be good at this.

On the other end, the students praised for their hard work were more likely to believe that the harder they tried at a problem the better they would do – “growth mindset.” They worked longer and were more willing to accept challenges and take risks. The key difference is believing that your efforts will impact your outcomes; not that who you are or what your current talents are will dictate your outcomes.

This is why I don’t care that being a Scorpio makes you combative (Joking… But serious at the same time). Believing that the stars dictate your emotional tendencies, can lead you to embrace and pursue who you think you ought to be and lead you to stop trying to change your behavior to be the person that you choose to be… That’s an immobilizing belief, if you ask me.

So you do you use this idea but to boost your level of personal self-motivation?

1. Listen to how you talk to yourself and talk to yourself in a productive way.

You can’t control how people praise you or talk to you, but you can control how you talk to yourself and how you react to the people and events in your life. Actually listen to your mental self talk. When you failure (because we all will fail at something), what do you tell yourself? Do you tell yourself that you lack the innate qualities to succeed or that you’ll never have what it takes? Or do you tell yourself that with effort, time, and more practice, you can succeed?

2. Reinforce your own growth mindset by encouraging others based on their effort.

When you see others around doing well praise them for their diligence. Ask them about how they achieved what they did and the process they used. I’m not saying to give everyone a trophy. When your kid’s team loses at football, try saying something like this: “I know you worked hard, but the other team worked harder. If you and your team keep deliberately practicing, I know you’ll beat them next time.” Is that harsh? Yeah, probably a little, but sometimes we need to hear that. We can’t go through life blaming our loses on poor circumstances and then claim that our victories resulted from our greatness (or our tiger blood).

3. Practice.

Show yourself that you can improve at something you are interested in. Actually devote time to learning a new skill or honing one you already have. By practically applying yourself to developing a skill you will literally embody the product of a growth mindset. Pick up that dusty guitar. Isn’t it time that you start working your way up to playing it like Slash and Jimi Hendrix?

Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts, disputes, and criticisms in the comments section. All feedback is welcome.

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