Career advice to "follow your passion" or "do what you love" has fallen out of favor in recent times and is often dismissed as hackneyed and unrealistic. But a new study suggests that finding one's vocation, or a special calling to do a certain occupation, will always be an invaluable way to motivate yourself to overcome academic and career challenges.
And, in contrast, motivation based on the influence or monetary rewards of a profession -- especially for difficult and elite jobs like military leadership -- makes you more likely to perform poorly and quit earlier than if you are motivated by passion for the work itself. In fact, the negative impact of motivation based on power or money is so strong, it can lead to less success among those who both love their work and the prestige that comes with it.
Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor at the Yale School of Management, and Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, surveyed 11,320 cadets across nine classes at West Point and followed alumni careers for up to 14 years in an effort to determine the relative career impact of different motivation types. They found that the most successful West Point graduates wanted to become Army officers because they loved the job responsibilities -- what the researchers called an "internal" motivation.
Their study, published recently in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first of its kind to examine different types of motivation over the long term, with real-life outcomes, as opposed to controlled, short-term lab experiments.
"We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers," wrote the researchers in a New York Times op-ed about their study. "Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service..."
This conclusion seems simple, but in fact reasons for attending the elite military academy are complex. Some cadets, for instance, reported chiefly "instrumental" motives for attending the school; things like benefitting from the school's reputation, getting a good job and earning more money after graduation. Those cadets didn't do as well academically or in their careers as officers as those who mostly reported strong "internal" motivation.
The negative effects of instrumental motivation were so strong, they overpowered the benefits of internal motivation for cadets who had high levels of both. This group of candidates were less likely to be considered for early promotion or stay in the military once their mandatory time period was up, said the researchers.
"It seems obvious and incontrovertible that if people have two reasons to do something they will be more likely to do it, and will do it better, than if they have only one," wrote the researchers in their study. "Our results demonstrate that instrumental motives can weaken the positive effects of internal motives in real-world contexts and that this effect can persist across educational and career transitions over periods spanning up to 14 [years]."
Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, who was not involved with the study, praised it for demonstrating that valuing the work activity itself is critical to staying committed and engaged, despite adversity. He also said the study is in line with past research that shows offering too many instrumental rewards can actually erode internal motivation -- something that has been shown in schools, sports, arts and other fields.
"The main points of convergence seem clear," said Ryan in an email to HuffPost. "A true vocation is one in which you value and find satisfaction in the work itself."
What this means for America's most elite military leaders, wrote the researchers in the Times, is that enticing potential recruits with "instrumental" rewards like money for college, career training or "seeing the world" might result in more sign-ups, but worse soldiers in the long term. The effects haven't been tested yet, but Wrzesniewski thinks such a study would be both achievable and illuminating for the military.
"Any organization that offers these kinds of incentives has the potential to test their effect," wrote Wrzesniewski in an email to HuffPost. "[Are] the people who were under these incentivized conditions as likely to perform well, persist, and meet objectives, or not?"
More broadly, however, the study suggests that while instrumental motivations may initially help you clear a lot of major hurdles (say, West Point's steep admission requirements), it can only get you so far. Internal motivations, on the other hand, can actually give you the endurance to see your goals through all the way to the very end.
Of course, that brings many of us back to square one: How do we identify and develop that vocation in the first place? How do we motivate people under our charge, like children and students, to do what's in their best interests?
"No magic formula here," wrote Schwartz in an email to HuffPost. "Every parent and teacher struggles to find the answer to this question."