2014 july 7 motivation small

A recent scientific study has shown that students who follow their passion in school are much more likely to be successful in their chosen careers than those who begin their studies thinking only about a career.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz explain how they looked at the motives of over eleven thousand students beginning their studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

They compared the success rate, years later, of students who had an ‘internal’ motive with those who had an ‘instrumental’ motive for beginning their studies.

They explain that

“there are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent.”

They discovered, unsurpringly, that the students who entered West Point for internal motives had far more successful military careers than those who entered for instrumental motives. However, they also found a surprising exception to this tendency.

Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.”

Wrzesniewski and Schwartz point out that we need to distinguish between instrumental motives and instrumental consequences. A student whose motive for a medical career is internal, for example the love of medicine and the desire to help people, will still gain the instrumental consquence of a high-paying job, but will be much more likely to enjoy their career and do well in it than a medical student who acts solely or primarily out of the instrumental motive of a high-paying job.

As a Humanities professor, I see this all the time. My students study things like literature, history, and philosophy because they love these subjects, and so the connection between studying and the rewards that motivate them are very strong. Every time they spend hours wrestling with a great book, discuss ideas with friends, or spend effort on a term paper, they find it inherently rewarding.

If they were studying primarily for the prospect of a career later in life, but didn’t really enjoy what they studied, the connection between their studies and the reward that motivates them would be much weaker. They would have to wait a much longer time for their reward, with no guarantee that they would ever reach it, and with the suspicion that there are easier routes to a lucrative job than all this hard work.

So the internal motive that comes from studying what they love makes my students work hard, and leads to success in their studies. But because they work hard, this means that their decision to follow their passion most often leads to success in their future careers. But this is a consequence of their studies, not a motive.

The bottom line? You should spend your life doing what you love. If you love studying, study what you love. Not only will you enjoy yourself more, you will be more successful that way.

Prof. Gregory MacIsaac
Associate Professor of Humanities