Extrinsic Traps and How to Avoid Them
I was fourteen years old and devastated on having missed out. What did I miss out on? On being one of the captains of my year group at school. Two of my good friends got it instead, and I came third.
Well, I decided that I was not going to come third next year. I wanted to be a grade captain, and knew I’d be a good one.
So I decided for next year I would leave nothing to chance
I began a habit. I would go around the playground to as many people as possible every day, smile at them, talk to them, and become genuinely interested in them. It started from wanting to get something for me, but to do it I genuinely opened up the doors to more open friendships and relationships.
I tried to be the leader and do things for people in the lead-up to next year’s elections. It didn’t feel forced or manipulated – it felt genuine, and I enjoyed it.
And next year, I became captain.
And all was well for young Joe.
Fast forward to my final years at school.
In my final years of school I was determined to soak up as many opportunities as possible to get the highest return-on-investment out of my schooling experience.
I participated in as many co-curricular activities as I possibly could, from drama to debating, from sport to community service, all while maintaining a large spread of friends.
I did it for the love of doing all these things. I did it, in essence, for an ‘Audience-of-None’. A performance where the only applause I listened out for in the end was my own.
But then something happened
All my friends started pumping my tires. They told me I’d be getting the big prestigious awards at the end of graduation in grade twelve.
These awards were given to students who showed great character and integrity, who immersed themselves wholly in the life of the college. They would get a speech read about them as they stood in front of the whole school, listing their achievements, accolades, and contributions.
Now that people were saying I was in the running for these accolades, I started picturing myself getting them.
I couldn’t help it.
It’s as if their words automatically triggered brainwaves, conjuring images in my mind without my permission, and these images seduced me.
I saw myself standing in front of the school, looking down at my shoes in fake modesty, then shaking the Headmaster’s hand as I received a standing ovation.
In all honesty, I had not begun my year motivated by these things, but in the end, big awards were all I craved. Funnily enough, I was given a very prestigious award but it didn’t get me a speech in front of the whole school, and it wasn’t the biggest of them all.
So I spent my last day of school feeling bitter.
How sad is that? Instead of being genuinely happy for my friends or reflecting on my time at the place where I’d grown from a frightened boy to an emerging man, I was feeling bitter, hard-done-by, and sorry for myself.
The bitterness and disappointment evolved.
I kept feeling bitter and disappointed, but the muse of this disappointment changed. It shifted from outward bitterness, to inward bitterness.
That’s right – I became upset with myself after being upset for myself. I’d become the very thing I’d hated – someone who did things for rewards, and not for their Audience-of-None. Someone who needed recognition for the things they did even though these actions were done in dedication to others.
It’s very ironic to give people extrinsic rewards for things like good character or ‘being a good person’ – rewards like the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, people who really want to win these rewards probably don’t deserve them.
So by wanting more and better accolades, I ironically became the sort of person who didn’t deserve one. How’s that for a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Getting hooked on a drug: The sneakiness of Extrinsic Traps
These phenomena are something I refer to as Extrinsic Traps. Previously we talked about the difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation. We used the metaphor where you were the composer, with a stage full of musicians and an audience who each asked for different music.
Do you remember? If you listen to the audience, the chaotic crowd, you can’t make music, you can only make noise. Because everyone in the audience wants something different. You can only make music when you look within yourself, when you find your intrinsic drives.
The ‘Extrinsic Trap’ snatches you in the same way someone might spike your drink. You’re drinking because you want to drink, but suddenly someone else laces your drink with an addictive substance without you noticing.
Though you started out just wanting to drink, you start to become hooked on the drug, and all of a sudden you need it.
Like the younger version of me, you might build up tolerance. I don’t want just any prestigious award… I want the best one.
The relationship between the intrinsic and extrinsic, the internal and external reasons for doing things, is complicated
As you saw in my high school experience, the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators is complicated.
When I was fourteen, the extrinsic motivator of being grade captain actually sparked in me a very genuine mission to serve and connect with more people in my grade. It gave me an ideal to live up to, but it wasn’t a problem because what I needed to do aligned with the people I sought to serve perfectly.
But later on, the sort of person I sought to be for internal, intrinsic and genuine reasons got hooked on extrinsic drugs when it came to focusing on big awards.
How to Avoid Extrinsic Traps
It’s very difficult.
We should use extrinsic motivators like prescription drugs. We should allocate a very precise dose that does not get us addicted, but just enough to spark an intrinsic motivation.
That’s like fourteen-year-old-Joe, starting to become more friendly to more people – first by inspired by the appeal of being a captain, he found himself genuinely wanting to become a better friend, connector and leader. He came to enjoy it without praise, he came to enjoy doing this before he actually became captain.
But when there is already an intrinsic motivation present, that is when we are already healthy, we should not risk the use of drugs. There is no need to give a prescription to someone who is healthy.
So in my later years of school, when I was already doing what I loved for the sake of it, the inception of wanting awards in my brain derailed me, for no good reason.
The Slingshot of all this.
My friend told me a story once. His father was attending his thirty year reunion from school – so he must have been forty-eight-years-old. And, as the story goes, he got talking to a former peer who was still upset and complaining about having missed out on a leadership position when he was at school.
When I heard the story, I thought it was downright ridiculous. Grow-up and move on! This sort of self-centredness and entitlement betrays leadership.
So the Slingshot of this experience when I was a teenager was that, if I had gotten all the awards under the sun I’d craved, I wouldn’t have learnt this important lesson as early in life.
I’m still not immune to extrinsic traps
It’s all well and good to talk about a much younger version of myself, one I’ve grown distant from with years. If you’re getting unseated by Extrinsic Traps today please know you’re not alone. I still get snared by them.
After we ran our first Doohat Labs Project Retreat, a very internally satisfying experience, I was blown away and touched by the positive feedback from participants, who talked about how powerful the experience was for them.
And the strangest thing happened… my ego got stimulated. I got caught in an Extrinsic Trap again.
That week, I grew irritable about all sorts of things, like not having more money or having 1,000,000 blog subscribers, all things which I don’t care about at all on a daily basis.
It took a moment to catch myself, wind down, and realise just how devious extrinsic traps are, and how they don’t reflect who you really are. They work on us so effectively because of Astro the Dog, the dog who is running most of our brain and our lives. Because we are programmed to respond to these motivators.
They don’t reflect us.
You can’t stop the effects of a drug after you’ve taken it. But the solution doesn’t lie in more extrinsic drugs – the way humans work is that the effects will eventually wear off, and we will return to equilibrium. To normal.
Money, status and gold medals are obvious extrinsic motivators. But don’t forget that praise from others is an extrinsic motivator, and is the most deceptive of them all.
You do not play music for the audience’s applause – applause will not provide ongoing fulfillment. You play music for the experience of music with the audience.
The most beautiful sound an audience can make is silence.