Searching for my reasons

Off the Beat

Alex Zhao

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More times than I can recall, I’ve started a class eager to learn about some fascinating topic. But as the semester progresses and piles on exams and homework, the course grows less and less interesting. The desire to perform well in the course starts to replace my original curiosity, until I’m not sure why I took the class at all.

Recently, I’ve strived to stay aware of why I care about my activities. I pride myself on being a prolific reader. For instance, I keep a notebook where I write down memorable quotes from books, articles and places in my daily life. This little archive of authors is only for me, and I reread the quotes for inspiration every once in a while.

Our motivation for taking up new tasks can usually be categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is driven by factors from outside of us — earning money, improving social status and avoiding punishments. Intrinsic motivation is driven by our personal interests — the sort of things that you enjoy because of “who you are.” Flipping pancakes with my family, I enjoy the intrinsic joy of sharing carbs. But if I post a #ProudChef video to TikTok, the extrinsic starts to creep in.

The line between these two types of motivation is blurry because our personalities can determine what extrinsic rewards are more appealing.

Yet a distinguishing feature of intrinsic motivation is that it is radically personal. Our interests operate in a private realm where they need no justification beyond our own beliefs. Based on our memories and place in the world, we each hold individual preferences about art, careers, relationships and really just about anything.

In every activity, people are motivated by extrinsic rewards, intrinsic drive or some balance of the two. Frequently, we have no choice in the matter — the circumstances of life get in the way. Perhaps we need to work a job to pay off the bills or take a class toward the larger goal of graduating. Other times, we must make a conscious trade-off between the two. We sacrifice personal interest for a greater return in the long run, or choose a personal favorite over what might seem more practical.

As an evolving, indecisive college student entering my senior year, I find myself reflecting on the interplay between my personal motivations and the external goals I set. My private world of interests and desires is in constant flux, vulnerable to the chaos of daily public life.

Sometimes, the extrinsic and intrinsic seem to line up for me. I truly enjoy writing stories for The Daily Californian; it has also given me access to opportunities for after I graduate.

But if either type of motivation is missing, I will create a reason to rationalize whatever activity I have committed to. I have interests in classics and literature that fall far outside the scope of my major. Rather than just basking in ancient Rome or reading James Joyce, I catch myself brainstorming reasons why they are useful for some professional reason or another. If I feel that I don’t particularly enjoy an internship, I start justifying why I actually enjoy the work — after all, it can’t only be for the money.

In economics, it is widely accepted that extrinsic motivation can crowd out intrinsic motivation. For instance, a study of parents at a day care center found that imposing a fine on parents who picked their kids up late actually increased the rate of tardy parents. The parents didn’t suddenly lose affection for their children — rather, like my economics midterm, the fine framed an act of love as a practical transaction. Though we have our own passions, they can be displaced by the calculating logic of rewards and punishments.

The realm of the personal is skittish, so the economists say.

As my college career draws to a close, I still know that I am indecisive to a fault. I have never been the person with a clear-cut goal. As an underclassman, I felt surrounded by a culture that exalted jobs in Silicon Valley and prioritized useful technical skills over learning in the humanities. As much as I told myself that I didn’t share those goals, it was impossible to remain completely unmoved by the definition of success on campus.

My intrinsic motivation is personally affected by the incentives and people I surround myself with. In this stage in my life, I want to develop interests that I can be proud of, without my judgment clouded by the need for status or prestige.

After college, I will face new incentive systems that will alter my preferences and beliefs. I aim to remind myself that my motivations sometimes need no justification other than my own beliefs. At the same time, I don’t fear the idea of changing who I am.

My “growing up” has been about discovering the interplay between my extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Returning to the adage to be “who you are,” perhaps a more appropriate rephrasing would be to “do something so that you will be happy with the person you become.” I can’t control who I become over the course of a journey, but I can remain aware that I am changing in a way that makes me happy.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.