In early spring every year, not long after the crocus bloom, I get out my bicycle. It’s silver in color with large, narrow wheels, a black bag above the rear wheel and with several water bottle holders. It’s ten years old and has some well-earned rust spots. It’s a joy to ride. Riding it is like connecting with an old friend. My goal each summer is to ride about a thousand miles—long enough to get me into good cardiovascular shape and far enough to see much of the local countryside. This year, I started recording my rides with a new app on my smartphone. This app automatically tracks speed, elevation, and distance. It also identifies key segments of the ride and compares how fast I ride each segment versus every other user of this app who has ridden that segment.
About halfway through this summer, however, I noticed that my riding mileage was way down. Instead of having ridden about 500 miles, like I normally have at this time of year, I had logged only about 260. I was puzzled as to why. Maybe the summer had been too busy, though as an academic that was unlikely. Or maybe it’s because I am getting old, though I know older riders who ride many more miles.
I didn’t figure out what had happened until I happened to read about research on internal vs. external motivation. One well-known Internal motivation west point cadetstracked West Point cadets for fourteen years. The cadets who launched their careers with internal motivations—such as serving one’s country—had much more successful careers than those careers were based on external motivations—such as making money or attaining a high rank. Likewise, other studies have found that motivating people with external rewards usually reduces their performance.
That was what was happening to me. Using the new app had moved me from internal to external motivation. Previously, I would go for a ride just because it made my body feel good, and it cleared my mind (which is always needed). With the app, however, I started thinking about how my riding compared with other people, and a good ride was when I would set a personal record and pass other rider’s scores. Ultimately, this made for a less enjoyable ride, and I started finding reasons not to get on my bike. When I turned off the app, my rides got longer, more frequent, and more satisfying. (Note: This was my experience with this type of app. Others people may have entirely different experiences).
On a recent ride, I started wondering about how internal vs. external motivation plays out in the context of Christianity. An obvious issue would be Christian leadership. Ministry positions don’t pay that well, so I assume that most Christian leaders don’t do it for the money. (Or, if they do, they’re not too smart about money). However, ministry can pay a lot of another external reward—approval and affirmation from other people. When a pastor or Christian leader does well, people notice. Attendance increases. Compliments are given. Warm words are spoken. Reputations rise. This approval can become a motivation for ministry.
Years ago a friend of mine witnessed this firsthand. He had joined a group of people in his town who were planting a new church. The pastor of that church had big, exciting plans for both the church and the surrounding community. You couldn’t talk to this pastor for more than a few minutes without hearing the great things that would happen: More people reached; more people served; more people connected. Wonderful things, all of them. His message of bigger and better drew many people into the church. After a couple of years, however, a pattern emerged. The pastor would launch a new program or other initiative with great enthusiasm and fanfare. But after not long after, he would lose interest in it and launch another one, and the first one would slowly fading away. The pastor was fueled by external rewards. Launching a new program is exciting. People notice and applaud and sometimes even give more money. After some years of this pattern, that church imploded amidst difficult circumstances. The focus on external rewards made it a church built on sand.
Relying on external rewards has several limitations.
1) External rewards won’t sustain us every day. External rewards are from others and thus the timing of them is controlled by others. A boss may give us a bonus, or they may not. A friend may appreciate our good deed, or they may not. A loved one may return our affection, or they may not. External rewards are intermittent and capricious. Sometimes they happen, and sometimes they don’t. In contrast, our lives are happen every hour of every day. They are continuous and ongoing. If we rely on external rewards for motivation, we will often run of motivation.
2) External rewards take us out of flow and external rewards. When we’re in the psychological state of flow, we are completely absorbed in what we’re doing. The activity is rewarding in and of itself, and we’re doing it because we enjoy it. Flow happens in situations that challenge us—stretching but not overwhelming us. In flow, we concentrate intensely on what we’re doing and we get lost in the moment. Flow produces optimal experiences—both pleasurable and high performance. Think of a painter lost in a canvas or a rock climber aware of only the rock face. External rewards pull us out of flow. We start thinking of other people and other things not of the moment. It is like a competitive swimmer lifting their head completely out of the water during a race to check their time and to look around at their competition. If we rely on external rewards, we lose the joy and performance that happens in flow.
3) External rewards can move us in the wrong direction. When we pursue external rewards, we are naturally pulled in the direction that will get us the most rewards. That means that the person or group or organization that dispenses the rewards strongly influences what we do. It is like training a dog—give them a treat when the do a desired behavior, and eventually the dog does the behavior on the trainer’s demand. If we rely on external rewards, we give other people choose what we should do.
As Christians, we have deep, powerful internal motivations in living out Christian values and following a calling. These motivations, far more than money or approval or whatever else others have to give, will get us to what is best in life.
Photo by Pesis/FLIKR