A Fish Story

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivators appear to be contradictory of one another. Extrinsic motivators are tangible, controlled by a third party, and are not directly connected to the work itself. On the other hand, intrinsic motivators are intangible, originate from within a person, and are directly connected to the work. But is it possible that one person would complete an action based entirely upon extrinsic motivators while another completes the same action based entirely upon intrinsic motivators? If so, why does it matter?

Let me share a story illustrating how the same action can be driven by an entirely extrinsic or intrinsic reward. First, let’s all be adults here and recognize that every one of us probably did something “unwise” in our childhood. If you don’t believe me, check out the hilarious Twitter hashtag #wheniwas16 to find a plethora of examples of adolescent foolishness.

When I was 16, my best friend Jerome and I were hanging out in the brush near our high school (probably looking for rattlesnakes). Jerome also happens to be my business partner today.  For reasons that are still unclear to me we had in our possession a bag containing several live goldfish. It didn’t take long until Jerome said,

“I dare you to swallow one of these goldfish.”

I was relatively immune to peer pressure and this sounded like a very stupid idea, so I declined.

Then he offered me the use of his brand new 50cc Yamaha scooter for an entire MONTH. As a car-less pedestrian this was an extremely attractive proposition. I evaluated the cost versus the benefit — and quickly swallowed one of the fish. Obviously, this is a pure example of an extrinsic reward. If he hadn’t offered me the scooter, I never would have swallowed the fish.

At this point a funny, and somewhat predictable, thing happened. Jerome was so impressed by my fearless act that he became envious. I had done something daring and he had not. Jerome asked what I would give him if he swallowed one too.

“Nothing, Jerome. I don’t care if you swallow a fish,” I replied.

This greatly irritated him because I would stand alone in this legendary feat that would certainly be shared with all our friends. There was only one thing he could do, he swallowed one too.

It was very important to Jerome that he was the kind of person who would be willing to swallow a goldfish just to say he did it. My motivation was strictly economic, his was personal. His self-image was a strong intrinsic reward that motivated him every bit as much as the scooter motivated me. Same act, very different motivations.

At this point we will observe a moment of respectful silence in honor of the affected fish. 

This story illustrates, not only a ridiculous high school incident, but an important truth in the business world. People may be motivated very differently.  For some, extrinsic motivators are the key driver for action. For others, intrinsic motivators are the force at work.  The secret is to offer a combination of motivational triggers, both extrinsic and intrinsic.

Seth Preus
Seth Preus

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”