‘Doing What You Love’: The Battle of Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Growing up, I loved fashion. I would rip out editorials from Vogue, dreaming of what it would be like to develop a concept for a photoshoot, write about new fashion collections, or maybe, just maybe, step in front of the camera myself. Unfortunately, I lived in a small town, knew next to nothing about creative industries, did not fit the stereotypical “model” archetype, and wasn’t too convinced I had an eye for style. I figured this was just a passion I’d nurture privately, for fun, and for free.

Early into my adulthood, I found myself working as a creative director and eventually signing with a modeling agent. It felt surreal that something I’d assumed was far-fetched as a girl was now an everyday norm. I loved the challenges of writing and conceptualizing ideas for fashion and lifestyle brands. It was always exciting to delve into generating a vision for a photoshoot. Working on set as a model felt like a dream, often leaving me dumbfounded that I was getting paid to wear beautiful clothes and spend my days in gorgeous locations. 

I felt I was in the flow of harmonious passion, an internal drive resulting in life satisfaction, positive emotions, and healthy relationships. But, little did I know, I was in the throes of obsessive passion, a precursor to burnout that features an enmeshing of one’s identity with their work and a drive fueled by external rewards.

From Dream to Dread

Something changed a couple of years into my work. I was no longer excited. Instead, my work felt like a job and one that I wasn’t particularly interested in anymore. The gratification had long worn off, and I began yearning for a career where I could help others. I knew I had a knack for the artistic experience, but something wasn’t being fully satisfied.

In what seemed like a surprising shift to many, I began using my time to volunteer at a transitional housing center on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and eventually applied to graduate school to become a therapist. Though I was excited and sure about this decision, I secretly wondered if I was destined to hit the same wall again. I worried it wasn’t possible to have a career centered around my passions. 

The Head vs. The Heart: Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

The battle between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a peculiar one. The old adage, "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life," proves to be quite complicated. It seems that the idea of doing what you love can turn what was once a sacred passion into a job you do to pay the bills.

This predicament connects to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when we do a task because we know we will receive some external reward for it—for example, receiving a paycheck, promotion, or bonus for the work completed. We can think of extrinsic motivation as a direct link to obsessive passion because they both depend upon external rewards and can ultimately lead to negative feelings about one's work.

Intrinsic motivation refers to the motivation to do an activity simply because we love it. Perhaps it is painting just for fun instead of painting to sell your work. Maybe it is going for a walk to enjoy the scenery rather than burn calories. Intrinsic motivation offers different benefits, like increased learning capabilities, higher levels of creativity, and psychological wellness. Intrinsic motivation aligns with harmonious passion—they both function from an internalized desire for one's chosen activity.

When we shift from being intrinsically motivated, for example, I read Vogue as a teenager because I loved fashion, to extrinsically motivated, which occurred when I began reading Vogue to stay up-to-date on trends for my job, a mindset shift takes place. My precious hours spent pouring over fashion magazines weren't fun anymore. Instead, it became tedious research.

This phenomenon is well-documented in psychological research. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett conducted one of the earliest experiments on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In this experiment, researchers rewarded children for an activity they already enjoyed, while other kids weren't rewarded for doing that same activity.

When the rewarded children were invited to do this activity again, they were uninterested. However, the kids who the researchers hadn't rewarded continued to engage in and enjoy the activity at hand. Interestingly enough, this experiment feels relatable for many of us who began receiving rewards for work we love. Suddenly, the work can feel stale and mundane after money or recognition. 

Can We Truly Do What We Love As A Career?

Uninterested in solely my own experience, I reached out to Los Angeles-based photographer and artist Magdalena Wosinska. “When I do projects where I don’t make money, I almost always feel more passionate about it,” she stated. She explained that creating with no incentive other than purely expressing how she feels ignites her passion. This isn’t to say that her commercial work is void of enthusiasm.

“When it comes to working and getting paid? That just blows my mind because I am so honored I can make money doing something I love to do,” she explains. Magdalena began to shoot photos 25 years ago, proving it is possible to pursue your passion as your career and sustain that excitement for the long haul. 

Magdalena’s experience speaks to how deeply personal the art of doing what you love is. I contacted Kim Bielak, an associate marriage and family therapist and former career coach, to discuss how variable the experience of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is. Bielak first validated how unique one’s ability to remain motivated when doing what they love is.

Magdalena Wosinska, photographer and artist

When it comes to working and getting paid? That just blows my mind because I am so honored I can make money doing something I love to do.

— Magdalena Wosinska, photographer and artist

“Are there studies that show when you pay people to play video games, the intrinsic sense of enjoyment they get from doing so decreases? Absolutely. Are there also many studies that tell us that meaning, purpose, and using our strengths at work have a hugely positive impact on our experience with it? Also, yes,” she explained. She expressed how it can be tempting to oversimplify what is and isn’t possible when pursuing a passion, but a career spanning 30 years or longer is much more complex. 

How to Make Your Passion Work

Magdalena’s story is one brimming with hope, one that many passion-driven folks may look to as a shining example of what is possible when pursuing their joy as their career. I asked Bielak how folks can sustain their well-being while following what they love.

“Boundaries! One of the most common challenges that come with pursuing a passion as a career is that very same fire, when left unchecked, will easily burn us out,” she explained. 

An example of a boundary to hold is setting aside time to return to your chosen outlet simply for yourself, without any external reward attached. You also may want to consider exploring this outlet alone as a boundary.

Kim Bielak, AMFT

Boundaries! One of the most common challenges that come with pursuing a passion as a career is that very same fire, when left unchecked, will easily burn us out.

— Kim Bielak, AMFT

“When making your own artwork, collaborations are sometimes difficult. You have to be okay letting go of some of that creative freedom to collaborate with another,” Magdalena explained. In committing to a solo experience, you may find yourself in the throes of the uninterrupted excitement you’ve yearned for. 

How Employers Can Help Sustain Intrinsic Motivation

Working in an environment where folks collaborate to execute meaningful work requires a different type of consideration.

“If we want to expand our ability to do work that matters, we’re going to have to start giving the well-being of our people equal weight,” explains Bielak. This starts with employers setting boundaries, whether that is saying no to more clients when your team is already overburdened or adding extra hands on deck to help during busy seasons. Such boundaries may feel like a tall order to some.

“I find this can be particularly hard in service-based workplaces like schools and nonprofits because these limits impact who and how much you can help,” Bielak continues. But, lacking these boundaries can deter incredible talent from engaging in purpose-driven roles. “Employee well-being is largely a systemic issue. We have to name that there is an inherent power dynamic in this situation,” Bielak concludes.

If you’re an employer or manager who finds that setting these types of boundaries for the greater good sounds daunting, seeking some support from mentors, colleagues, or even a licensed mental health professional can be of great help. 

You Can Do What You Love and Love What You Do

I'm now deep into my work as a writer and psychotherapist. I write about mental health and my lived experiences to inspire change in others. My clinical practice focuses on supporting creatives of color healing from anxiety, depression, and trauma. Once again, I am doing what I love for a living, but I'm applying a lot more boundaries this time. When working as a creative director and model, I lacked boundaries, worked long hours most days of the week, and surrounded myself exclusively with friends I worked with. What initially felt like a dream became draining because it was all-encompassing. 

Today, I can only work a certain number of hours a day for a limited number of days a week. I frequently take breaks, whether that is a long break during the middle of my day or a couple of weeks out of the office for travel.

I have a colorful collective of people around me, many of whom I worked with in the past, some who are also therapists, and plenty who lead lives completely different from mine. My work isn't my identity, no matter how great my passion grows. And, best of all, I get to use my battle as a purpose-driven creative doing what she loves to help other artists sustain their passion in work for the long haul.

It turns out, the best of both worlds does exist. Sometimes, it just takes a little trial and error. 

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lavigne GL, Forest J, Crevier-Braud L. Passion at work and burnout: A two-study test of the mediating role of flow experiences. Eur. J. Work. Organ. Psychol. 2012;21(4):518-546. doi: 10.1080/1359432X.2011.578390.

  2. Neural differences between intrinsic reasons for doing versus extrinsic reasons for doing: An fMRI study. Neurosci. Res. 2012;73(1):68-72. doi: 10.1016/j.neures.2012.02.010

  3. Di Domenico SI, Ryan RM. The emerging neuroscience of intrinsic motivation: a new frontier in self-determination research. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;0. Doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145

  4. Lepper MR, Greene D, Nisbett RE. Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1973;28(1):129-137. doi:10.1037/h003551

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.