• Shruti Duge

Doing Things Because They Matter

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

How intrinsic motivation helps derive happiness and drive a sense of accomplishment



Image : Van Gogh — Angler und Boote an der Pont de Clichy


Most people are familiar with the art savant ‘Vincent Van Gogh’ and his world-famous work. A few would also be aware of his life, full of difficulties and tragedy. He started painting professionally relatively late, at the age of 27, with little knowledge about the nuances of art and painting. He never got fame or recognition through his life, spending days without food and proper shelter, resulting in very poor health. Over his lifetime, in the absence of a mentor and his brother being the only patron of all his paintings, Vincent produced approximately 900 paintings and 1100 sketches in a career spanning approximately a decade.


Van Gogh’s life stands in stark contrast to the goings-on in this age of ‘instant gratification’, where effort is linked to a reward validation cycle and everyone is in pursuit of the best possible state of living. So, what made Van Gogh persist in his craft despite such hardship and suffering?




The answer has been beautifully enunciated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book ‘Flow: The psychology of optimal experience’.



‘Flow’ or ‘Zone’

In a book, he breaks down this concept as ‘Flow’ or ‘Zone, stating’—

“People are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.”

This is a state when people are so engrossed in the task they are doing that they forget their sense of space, time, ego or basic bodily needs like food.




The Flow Model

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model

When the challenge involved in the work is of ‘low’ level and skills of a person for the task at hand are

Low(Skill Level) : They experience Apathy


Medium (Skill Level): They experience Boredom

High (Skill Level): They experience Relaxation



When the challenge involved in the work is of ‘medium’ level and skills of a person for the task at hand are

Low (Skill Level): They experience Worry

High(Skill Level):They experience Control


When the challenge involved in the work is of ‘High’ level and skills of a person for the task at hand are

Low(Skill Level) : They experience Anxiety

Medium (Skill Level): They experience Arousal

High (Skill Level): They experience Flow


This flow is an experiential process that stems from a high functioning individual’s ‘autotelic mindset’. Expounding on the concept of ‘autotelic’, a mindset necessary for high functioning individuals to not fall into a state of mental disarray, the term can be explained as a state where they -


Focus on the “Activity” rather than focusing on “Consequences” or “Outcomes”

The word “Autotelic” is a combination of two Greek words: auto (self) + telos (goal).



Autotelism describes a self-contained activity, that is done with a purpose in mind, without worrying about any rewards or outcomes.

Immersing in the flow of an activity itself gives the individual a massive sense of delight, happiness, satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, thus rendering external factors like praise, awards and power immaterial. Such individuals can therefore not be easily manipulated with the threats or rewards, either existential or external.

The first criteria for self-improvement, fairly evident from the above, is the concept of motivation. Let us delve into understanding its typical classification:



Concept of Motivation : Extrinsic vs Intrinsic


‘Intrinsic’ describes people who are internally driven, and exhibit a sense of purpose, curiosity and autonomy. Conversely, externally driven people give importance to things such as comfort, money, fame or power. Clearly, the intrinsically driven person is the autotelic individual, deriving bliss and self actualization from the activity itself instead of its outcomes.

Now, stepping away from philosophy and the life of inspirational people, let us examine how this psychology of intrinsic motivation has been implemented by current-day businesses to get maximum employee productivity.


Shift In Organisational Policies: The changing notion of motivation

In this Ted Video the puzzle of motivation, Dan Pink analyses the dynamics of motivation. He states that new operating system of businesses is based on the following pillars:

Autonomy: Taking charge of life and decisions

Mastery: Getting better at things we do

Purpose: The yearning to do something for a cause bigger than ourselves



He adds that the old school carrot and stick approach in organizations is being replaced gradually by an intrinsically motivated work culture. While implementing the 20% time policy at Google, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stated that:


“ We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”

Other companies like Atlassian started ‘FedEx Days’, which gives employees the freedom to work on their passion project by quickly ideating, prototyping and presenting in the span of 24 hours, giving them an opportunity to create ideas they can truly stand behind.

These initiatives drive employees to push their own boundaries towards a more aspirational and mutually beneficial work ethic. They are creative, intrinsic motivation tools, which have lead to astounding results.


Some of Google’s prime products like Gmail, Adsense, Google Talk and News were conceived under this directive. Over at Atlassian, the company was able to ship 550 projects and 47 features/products to its customers in the span of 18 FedEx Days.Such successes are not few and far between. Most forward-thinking major organizations like Apple, Facebook or Linkedin have similar initiatives in place and report similar innovative and favorable outcomes in their overall framework.


Zooming out to look at the larger picture, one thing is clearly evident- whether self-driven or aspirationally motivated, aiming to be ‘Autotelic’ leads towards a better, more fulfilling future, both for individual and organizations.



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