Intrinsic reward and careers – becoming more conscientious in our work by doing things for their own sake.

The dead-zone of time between Christmas and New Year. Family. Cheese.
Time to reflect. Time to set goals? Perhaps. Perhaps more cheese.

It’s a contemplative time, and one that I get immense value from – in diving in, exploring, connecting dots from a removed position and opening my mind to the possibilities to come. Whenever I do this, I inevitably arrive at the foundational question: why do I want to do this?

The answer, in the last few years of my personal and professional life, has been directing the compass of my ambition in the direction of the answer “to do it.”

I’m speaking about a focus on intrinsic reward – it’s something that has fuelled my career in the creative industry, something that is claimable by anyone in any industry, and that acts as a worthwhile motivator for your work and career.

It’s a powerful idea. So how can we harness such an idea to bring more value to our careers (and personal lives) through the next year, and many years to come? Let’s start with a definition.


What is intrinsic reward?

It’s a very simple concept: that the reward from doing something is found in the doing of the thing itself. It turns “I have to go for a run to keep fit” into “I want to go for a run, because I like running”. In other words – ‘you get out what you put in’. It focuses on the reward of input, rather than from an outcome.

On a professional level, the idea of intrinsic reward is easily comparable with the notion of “loving what you do”. It turns success from a set of milestones to a personal, everyday practise that transcends projects, roles and titles. It has the power to bring the focus of your work into the satisfaction of the actions you undertake towards your goals, not the fulfilment of the goals themselves.

So, it’s a hefty pitch, but with immense potential for value. Here are some of the reasons why it’s worth a reflective trial:


It creates an active state

“You wake up every morning and look forward to completing the necessary actions that the day demands, whatever they are, and aim to do them well. As you do them, you gain enjoyment from doing so.”

That, in a nutshell, is how I would define the active state of operating through intrinsic reward. The first trap, of course, is in believing that we should follow the things that are enjoyable to us and focus only on those. Here we need to differentiate ­– this idea is not an excuse to take easy roads because they feel so much better at the time.

If we do, we risk softening ourselves and not honouring our commitments, and what it takes to fulfil them. This is about falling in love with the necessary things we have to do on our journey and committing to action for actions sake – and there’s nothing passive about it.

Like many things, seeking intrinsic reward is a practise, and something you have to commit to giving your attention to – only now (hopefully) that commitment feels far more palatable because you’re experiencing the reward as you partake, instead of just at the end. Pretty neat.


It supports your goals, but isn’t contingent on them

The story so far has felt a little like it’s suggesting that we banish outcome dependency, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move towards your ambitions, desires or standards. Personally, I still believe that you should know what good looks like and act relentlessly until you’ve achieved that in your work. Doing so, with a focus on the input, will brace you and keep you balanced if you fall short of your own expectations.

And isn’t it hard to lose enthusiasm when the chance to get up and try again is abundantly likely to produce sensations that dwarf disappointment, just by doing them?


It’s self-fulfilling

Something else you might notice if you get into a good flow with intrinsic reward: It makes it incredibly hard to do bad work. When you’re paying attention, fuelled by a constant stream of energy, you’re likely to finish when you are satisfied – not just when convenient, or when your working day technically ends.

It’s about being the input and taking responsibility for making the things happen that bring you the joy you want to experience. It’s not about finding something to use as a crutch to keep you motivated. It’s about the rewards you get coming from focusing deeply on what you have to give, not what you get at the end from doing so. I guess we could call this “taking pride in your work/yourself”.

Not only does this keep you in a constant state of empowerment and reward, but it actually makes your goals and ambitions far more likely to happen.


It’s non-exclusive

Is it possible to achieve the state of intrinsic reward in a profession that doesn’t stimulate you naturally? I think it is.

For me, there is massive intrinsic reward in the art of being conscientious for the sake of doing everything you do well. When you’re aligned with your ability to do this, it can make the most mundane tasks enjoyable because your reward centre has switched to be identity focused.

Your reward is now the reflection you have of yourself as you endeavour to approach all situations with positivity, vigour, and diligence. And a crafty little side bonus? It’s impossible for your self-esteem and self-respect not to rise as you witness yourself doing this.


In summary

Reflecting on all of the ways that I personally operate using this philosophy really opens my eyes to the fact that the most valuable achievements and experiences I’ve had in my career so far have come when I’ve been paying attention to what I’m doing and putting in, not what I’m getting in return. The result? I’m always satisfied, prideful in my work and motivated to undertake the next endeavour, regardless of the associated outcomes.

I would urge anyone reflecting on their goals for this year to get in touch with this thought.

How much more effective would you be?

How much more motivated would you be?

And most importantly, how much richer would your career experience feel?