intrinsic and extrinsic goals

Chove en Santiago by Luar na Lubre on Grooveshark

a beautiful song for a beautiful poem («Madrigal á cibdá de Santiago» – Federico García Lorca)

i’ve been having lots of free time. one of the consequences of free time, at least for me, is that i picked up a bunch of new hobbies. but recently i decided to have a good look at what i was getting from them, versus not doing them at all.

intrinsic and extrinsic are usually used in terms of the subject (me). but instead, i’ll be addressing these in terms of the activity, which is already extrinsic, but to do this i will consider intrinsic and extrinsic as referring to within the activity and outside the activity, regardless of the person doing the activity.

when diving into a new activity, frequently we feel that things we learn while doing it extend to our lives elsewhere. i add this type of consequence to an extrinsic goal that comes from that activity. identically, if we feel compelled to do things in that activity that do not exist elsewhere, then we are following goals intrinsic to that activity.

when i moved here and realized i had all this free time, i decided to finally take up something i had always wanted to do, martial arts. it is perhaps the clearest way of looking at the big divide between the two. right on this topic, here’s a podcast episode about it.

some martial arts have ranks, say, Xth Kyu, Xth Dan and so on. these are intrinsic to the activity, in that they mean nothing to the outside world, and they don’t translate directly into every day things that we can use. on the other hand, mastering a particular move or skill instead, is an actual extrinsic goal. it doesn’t matter if you are an Xth Dan if you still can’t do a certain move that is needed to, say, survive a dangerous situation. being an Xth Dan might increase the odds that you do, but that is just because the intrinsic (Xth Dan) comes tied to the extrinsic (the new move).

i found, in my case, that the extrinsic effect of my activity was stunning. physically i felt better, i was more confident, my posture was much better, and i didn’t chicken out as much. i had chickened out frequently before in fight situations. but i also found that the intrinsic goals were tricking me into wanting to go up the ranks, not for the moves, but for the sake of it. being congratulated on going up ranks felt good, even though it was purely symbolic. all in all, if i balanced what leaked from this activity and what it sucked me in, it was a great net balance: a few hours a week had a tremendous effect on my everyday life. sure, i wouldn’t rise up the ranks as fast, but in the end that is my point: intrinsic goals sometimes distract us from what really matters.

another hobby, a slightly more embarrassing one, is card games. with my free time, disposable income and need to meet people, i joined a games shop and started playing competitive card games. again, i tried to look at it from an intrinsic vs. extrinsic perspective. the results, now, were different.

playing cards was, save learning how to be a good loser, had little to no extrinsic goals. all the popularity, success, progress, etc, came from following the intrinsic goals blindly. there was no other way. no quantifiable effect on outside life besides losing vast sums of money. great champions of the game still had no visible effect of the game in their lives (save a few rare exceptions). it seemed that in this case, this hobby had to go.

identifying extrinsic goals in an activity is important, in my opinion, because it allows us to choose between activities that complement (or don’t complement) our own intrinsic motivations in life. in my case, i’m highly motivated by personal improvement in terms of awareness and depth of knowledge, so martial arts and music are very compatible with this. on the other hand, the competitive nature of gaming, and its intrinsic “unlocked badges” and “experience points” do little to advance my personal goals, or at least that’s what i’ve found.

another casualty was couchsurfing. don’t get me wrong, i love it. but with time its effect on my life has become almost deleterious. it made me loathe meeting new people, and made me prejudiced against most people that i meet, assuming they are just like every other pampered backpacker. in this case, there is little in couchsurfing that is intrinsic (ok, maybe number of friends), but on the other hand, the extrinsic goals made my life better, then worse. over time, i went from eagerly learning from new people to be bored and tired of them. i had changed, but the guests hadn’t, and in sydney they were only getting more stereotypical. so i moved on, and that hobby is gone, at least for now in sydney.

it’s interesting to see these things over time. i imagine more martial arts will make me steadily feel good about them, plus make me better at it, in a somewhat logarithmic fashion. gaming, on the other hand, seems like a decaying exponential in that the big things we get from them, the realizations and the insights, are available from the start, but as we dive in it will just tend to suck life out of us. and then activities like couchsurfing are unstable over time, because what they give us depends on how willing and open we are to them, and how much of it we have done.

i felt it was important to share this idea because a lot of the time we are dealing with intrinsic systemic goals that add nothing to our lives. being promoted sometimes means losing out on much more only to get that extra 5k a year, that we wouldn’t need anyway if we were satisfied with what we have. identically, getting the ideal fit body, or the ideal musical skills to be a pop star, sometimes feel like going up ladders that lead nowhere but to a bigger fall. in this sense, i’ve been more and more keen on using this as a yardstick. what is the activity i’m in giving me in terms of my own personal motivations? what is it baiting me in terms of its intrinsic goals? how much am i being drawn to one or the other? this has become key for me, since it seems we live more and more in a forest of intrinsic goal-trees and the broad spectrum goal-horizon has become harder and harder to see.