To Succeed, Intrinsic Rewards Must Dominate Extrinsic Rewards


If you want to succeed long-term, make sure you are working mostly for intrinsic rewards not extrinsic rewards.

I believe the right balance for success is to have >70% intrinsic motivation and <30% extrinsic motivation. If most of the reason why you are doing something is due to extrinsic motivation, you will likely burn out and fail.

The goals of this post are to:

  • Help you keep going even if you want to quit
  • Identify what will help you succeed
  • Share the difficulties and insecurities of being a creator
  • Highlight how maintaining a good relationship takes constant work and empathy
  • Share the pressures parents face

The Desire For Too Much Extrinsic Reward

The other day I got upset with my wife for a selfish reason. I had spent four hours taking both kids to the beach, then to dinner, then to the playground so she could have some alone time to do her own thing. She needed time to pack for our big move and also unwind.

When I returned, she said “Thank you for taking the kids out,” which I appreciated. But she didn’t acknowledge the latest podcast episode (Apple, Spotify) I had released that morning. I had spent about two hours prepping and recording the episode. So I was bummed when it seemed apparent she hadn’t even listened to it yet after being away all day.

Ever since I learned how to interview people using new software, I’ve been more excited about podcasting. The range of people I can speak to is unlimited. My intrinsic reward is getting to speak to fascinating people about their lives. Spending a fun time at the beach with kiddos should be reward enough. However, my extrinsic reward of gaining recognition from my wife and gaining more positive reviews drags me down.

To succeed, your intrinsic motivation must be at least two times greater than your extrinsic motivation - Taking daughter to beach on a Tuesday afternoon

The next day, a Friday, I took the kids out to the playground for a couple of hours in the morning before leaving them with mommy to watch a tennis tournament. I figured, after having published a new post that morning before taking the kids out, I had earned the privilege of spending time with my friend at the tournament.

As a stay-at-home father, I feel bad when I’m not taking care of the kids when they are out of school. However, this tournament happens only once a year and it is my favorite event. While some dads golf or fly to New York City for the U.S. Open, I drive 35 minutes north to Tiburon for four hours.

Asking One More Time

When I returned from the tournament, my wife was visibly tired. Our kids are a handful. Both kids have screamed and cried multiple times every day for their entire lives. Her nerves were fried.

Instead of being thankful she took care of the kiddos all afternoon while I watched tennis, the first thing I asked her was whether she had read my post from that morning. She had not. Once again, I was bummed.

But then I realized something important after writing this post. The reason why I hadn’t asked about her well-being first was because I was trying to overcome my guilt for leaving her with the kids.

By asking her whether she had read my article, I was trying to justify to her that I had already contributed to our family. And by being disappointed, I could gain further credit the next time I wanted to decrease my childcare duties.

From this experience, I also realized that in order to succeed long-term, you need to be willing to do the work without any recognition, praise, or accolades. In other words, to achieve your goals, you must put the desire for extrinsic rewards aside.

Make Sure You Are Working For The Right Reasons

Every artist wants people to see their work. Every podcaster wants people to listen to their episodes. And every writer wants people to read their articles and books.

Creators often put so much effort and heart into their work while exposing themselves to ridicule, that receiving some positive affirmation goes a long way toward helping us keep going.

In the beginning, I used to mainly write for myself because I was afraid of losing all my financial gains during the 2008 global financial crisis. Over time, I evolved into writing mostly to help others solve their financial problems. Then once my wife left her job and our children were born, I began to write to earn more money to support my family.

But that’s the problem. Extrinsic rewards don’t hold up for long. If I mainly wrote on Financial Samurai to make more money, I would have quit a long time ago!

Examples Of Extrinsic Rewards That Start Feeling Empty

Besides money, other examples of extrinsic rewards include prizes, awards, grades, and promotions.

How many times were we thrilled to have gotten a promotion at work only to feel nothing several months later? How many times have you achieved something great after years of work only to experience a trough of sorrow after?

These letdowns occur because extrinsic motivators were greater than 50% of the reason why you were doing something. Dial it back in order to minimize your disappointments.

Writing to partially support my family creates an expectation that my family should appreciate my work. It also creates an unnecessary burden on my wife to always keep up. Given I’m a prolific writer, sometimes it’s hard to read and listen to everything I do. Parenting a 3.5 and 6.5-year-old all day is exhausting when there’s no school.

Writing helps journal history, which I think my family will really appreciate when they are older. This has been a key intrinsic motivator of mine to write so consistently since 2009.

However, they didn’t ask for me to chronicle history. I am the one who decided to take on this active income opportunity and nobody else. Hence, I should expect extrinsic rewards to keep me motivated.

Intrinsic Motivation Is The Key To Long-Term Success

You can achieve short-term success by seeking extrinsic motivators such as fame, money, status, and power. But unless you’ve got self-esteem issues, it’s hard to keep the momentum going long-term.

Since starting Financial Samurai in 2009 I have surpassed my writing goals.

I could not have succeeded without intrinsic motivation. I write mainly because I enjoy the process. Writing helps me understand myself and it helps solve financial and life problems many of us experience. Writing also creates a nice community of interesting people on Financial Samurai who share their perspectives.

But now I have a new long-term goal: publish at least two posts a week until the year 2042, when both kids graduate college. Just thinking about 19 years of consistently writing every week sounds exhausting! All the more reason why I need to focus on the joy of writing, not the money, not the search engine rankings, and not the accolades.

I also need to stop expecting my family and friends to read and support my work. If I do, I know I’ll inevitably be disappointed because everybody has their own busy lives to lead. And when I feel disappointed, the chances of me quitting go way up.

Status, Fame, Power, Money Are OK Motivators

Extrinsic motivators like status and power drive people to succeed. Just be careful not to make these motivators much greater than 30% of the reason why you are doing what you’re doing.

If you do, you might eventually experience an emptiness inside, like I experienced after publishing my book, Buy This Not That. After working hard for two years and the book landing on the WSJ bestseller list, I felt a huge letdown a week later.

Based on my expectations, the accolade of getting on a national bestseller list was not worth it based on my expectations. Luckily, I had enough intrinsic motivation to complete the book because I’m always up for a good challenge.

After publishing my book and doing so many video and podcast interviews to market the book, I happily reverted back to my private life as a stay at home dad. The extrinsic motivators of fame and fortune dissipated.

Onto The Second Book

I’m in the process of writing my second book about building wealth. This time, I’m doing my best to remove all expectations of making it a national bestseller.

Instead, I’m mainly writing a second book because I have more to say to help others achieve financial independence sooner. I learned a lot from writing the first book, which I’ll incorporate in my second book.

The second reason why I’m writing another book is because I want to set a good academic example for my kids. I figure if they see me writing and ultimately publishing a book, they’ll take their reading and writing more seriously as well.

The book advance, an extrinsic motivator, is another positive no doubt. It’ll help pay for college and health insurance. However, goodness knows there are easier ways to make money than by writing books!

With artificial intelligence stealing writers’ content by not providing any attribution or traffic, writing for a living is getting harder. I feel fortunate to just have a publisher offer me a book deal.

To Succeed, Fight The Urge To Be Recognized

We all want to be recognized for the work that we do. However, if we expect too much recognition, disappointment will surely follow. Therefore, it’s best to not expect any type of recognition from anybody.

If you need support, then join a group that shares your exact same passion. Relying on your friends and family who do not share your same enthusiasm will inevitably lead to disappointment.

In conclusion, it’s worth asking yourself these two questions:

If you never get paid or promoted for the work you do, will you still do it?

If you never get an award for your creativity, will you still create?

You’ve found your ikigai if you answered yes! And for those of you who answered no, then continue searching for your reason for being. It’s out there. You just have to keep searching until you find it.


Reader Questions And Suggestions

How do you differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Do you think you can achieve and sustain long-term goals with mostly extrinsic motivators? How can we better support our loved ones if we don’t share the same interests? How do you succeed without accolades?

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