Internal vs. External Motivation

June 29, 2017

When it comes to living a creative life, there are two types of motivation you can use in order to find meaning in your work. These forces can drive you toward success or madness, depending on which one you choose.

The first is external motivation. There are many types of external motivation, like the desire for fame, glory, money, or some sort of validation outside of yourself which will make your work meaningful.

Most people I encounter begin their creative life focused on these external motivations. They want to be actors because of a desire to walk the red carpet and make lots of money. They want to paint so they can be hung in the Met or the Louvre. They want to work for Marvel because millions of people will see their work and recognize them.

People motivated by external factors, however, quickly fade out. Almost nobody will ever be hung at a prestigious gallery, or work for Marvel, or achieve any sort of fame. That realization hits people like a ton of bricks and they run away without ever looking back.

Even if somebody does achieve some measure of success, that success may not exist in three years, three months, or even three days. People that achieve great fame and success often talk about the crippling depression that comes right along with it.

That’s because relying on external motivations to validate your life is a hollow pursuit. The only true way to succeed and be fulfilled is to be internally motivated by the love of creating something. This is the second type of motivation; internal motivation.

Being internally motivated means your validation comes from the creation of something, not from somebody appreciating it. It means you can motivate yourself instead of relying on other people to do it for you. The appreciation of your work by others is a bonus, but the true validation comes from making it in the first place.

Additionally, internal motivations create better art because you are no longer hamstrung by what society wants you to create. You are no longer looking for the right thing to make. You are making something that is unique to you. Ironically, by making something unique to you it becomes easier to find an audience for your work.

I’m not saying that external validation isn’t wonderful. There is nothing like selling something you’ve made. However, the sale of the product should be a bonus on top of the creation of something great.

I’m also not saying you should create without ever worrying about something’s salability. This is a book about making a career as a creative after all, not about creating weird and unsaleable material. However, the first step in creating great content is to actually make stuff for the sake of making it.

At the beginning of your creative pursuits, nothing you make is going to be saleable. Until you can hit that stride of making consistently great work, it’s important to create for the sake of creating and let that be its own reward.

Then, when you get to the level where you can create saleable material you can hold true to that internal motivation as a rudder while you look for ways to sell your work to a mass audience.

A perfect example of this is Laika. They are a stop motion animation house in a world full of computer-generated animation. Yet they have still been able to find an audience and put out Coraline, The Box Trolls, Paranorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings. That’s an amazing testament to internal motivation.

By developing that internal motivation, you will never be devastated when a product doesn’t catch on because the true value was in the creation of it. By being able to validate yourself, you can always keep going even in the face of tremendous adversity.


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