When it comes to finding motivation at work, it’s not always straightforward. Not everyone is able to “follow their passions,” but we all do have access to certain sources of motivation we might not even be aware of.

In short, motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic, or external motivation is prompted by outside factors, like getting some kind of reward (like a certain salary) or avoiding something that’s unpleasant. For example, say you work in sales, and have to reach a minimum quota in order to keep your job, but are incentivized by a bonus if you sell over and above what is expected. In this case, you are extrinsically motivated to sell so you keep your job, but also have the chance at a reward.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is engaging in behavior that is in itself the reward. The goal or benefit is what you get from actually doing something, rather than the drive coming from your desire to achieve an external reward. An example of intrinsic motivation at work would be taking on a project — like being an organization’s archivist, for instance — that doesn’t come with a monetary incentive or potential for job growth, but is simply something you enjoy doing.

So how will understanding the different types of motivation help you at work? Glad you asked. The better we understand why we work towards achieving certain goals, the better we’ll get at pinpointing these sources of motivation and harnessing their power to make us happier, more successful, and more productive. Here are there unexpected sources of motivation that anyone can tap into:


Humans are, by our very nature, curious beings. This is something we’ve known for a long time — in fact, Aristotle opens Metaphysics by writing, “All men by nature desire to know.” The problem is, if we get in a rut — especially at work — it can be hard to spark our curiosity. The good news is that there are ways around that. For example, try starting your day by doing one small thing that sparks joy or curiosity — whether that’s meditating, talking to a loved one, or reading a chapter from an enlightening book. As Zander Lurie, the CEO of SurveyMonkey wrote in the Harvard Business Review, the keys to triggering our curiosity — and in turn, motivation — are asking good questions, listening deeply, being open-minded, valuing new experiences, and staying keenly aware that no one has all the answers.


Like many words, “autonomy” has its roots in Greek, with autos meaning “self” and nomos meaning “rule.” Though originally applied to nations (as in autonomous, self-governing regions), when we’re talking about motivation, the autonomy in question belongs to an individual. Starting at a very young age, we strive to have some control over our lives — whether it’s a toddler learning the word “no” or selecting a crayon in their favorite color. This is all to say that being able to exert control over our own lives — including at work — is a major motivator. Perhaps we decide to work harder to prove that we don’t need as much supervision. Or, for example, we may demonstrate that we can get just as much work done remotely as we can in the office in order in an attempt to gain more flexibility.

Other people

As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as entirely independent people, in reality, we do actually care what other people think — and it’s perfectly fine to use that as motivation. As health economist Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D., an associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, explains in an article in Psychology Today, we are driven by our desire to earn the respect of others. “People prefer achievements that are validated, recognized, and valued by other people,” he writes. It’s completely natural to want to be liked and respected, and so even if you aren’t the most enthusiastic about the daily ins and outs of your job, you may be motivated by how valued you are by your colleagues. And that’s fine, too.

Follow us here and subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.


  • Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.

    Bioethicist and writer

    Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. Previously she was the health and sex editor at SheKnows. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneSalon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.