What do we do when extrinsic motivators lose their power? Where do we go when there's no obvious path ahead of us?
A theme I see in many of my clients and even more of my MBA students at Stanford (not to mention within myself) is a need for achievement that relies on extrinsic rewards and inevitably shapes our professional paths and personal destinies. We're driven to succeed, to reach for and grasp the brass ring in one form or another--good grades and academic awards, important positions with prestigious organizations, titles and promotions and other status badges.
And our success often--not always, but in many cases--leads us down a path in which each step seems to logically follow the previous one: Those good grades open the door to a budding career in which strong performance leads to graduate study, which opens the next door. This isn't to say that we simply glide along from one stage to the next--we're hard workers and usually our own toughest critics. But at each transition we consider our options and find our choices heavily influenced by extrinsic factors--so we choose the most selective school, the most glamorous industry, the most high-profile firm, the best-paying job, etc.
This process works just fine--until it doesn't. The value of those extrinsic rewards always has a shelf life; they never satisfy indefinitely. As Sonja Lyubomirsky writes in The How of Happiness, "Although we may achieve temporary boosts in well-being by moving to new parts of the country, securing raises, or changing our appearances, such boosts are unlikely to be long-lasting. The primary reason...is that people readily and rapidly adapt to positive circumstantial changes."
Sometimes we refuse to believe that the brass rings have lost their luster--we just need higher-quality rings! We'll get another degree at an even better school, and a more demanding job at an even more competitive firm with an even bigger compensation package! And sometimes this works, for a while. But never forever. At some point we realize that we may have amassed a truly impressive collection of brass rings, but A) we're making ourselves miserable in the process, and/or B) brass rings don't provide meaning or purpose or love, and/or C) we really are mortal, and at some point in the rapidly approaching future all the brass rings in the world won't be worth a goddamn thing.
And whenever this moment occurs in our lives, at that point the well-trodden path we've been following suddenly disappears. The tracks that have eased our progress toward a better future no longer reach to the horizon but bog down in a tangled thicket we can't even see through. We're on our own, and we're going to have to blaze a trail from here on out.
As stressful as that experience can be, I also believe it's an incredible opportunity. At that moment, whether we're 21 or 25 or 44 or 99, the challenge before us is to rely less upon extrinsic rewards for validation and instead put greater faith in our own intrinsic worth and validate ourselves.
For Amy, whose courage in finding her own path gave me the courage to find mine.