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.

mediated by commerce

Casu = Asturian Air/Aires De Pontevedra/Muineira De Casu by Lúnasa on Grooveshark

some galician tunes on irish pipes

life in a big city has its frustrations, and one of mine is how i can be so hard to separate between genuine one-to-one interaction and a one-to-one interaction that favours a third party

consider talking to a stranger. at times it is hard but possible, and definitely some contexts help more than others. one of these is commerce. i’m reminded of a friend with a crush on the cute coffee shop attendant, too shy to ask them out. my friend would frequently shop there mostly because that interaction was possible, and hinted at the possibility of something more. except there was nothing more but commerce. many times commerce encourages the worker to be excessively friendly or sociable to bring sales up. we’re left with this strange feeling of not being able to tell apart whether someone is being friendly or just trying to get a bigger tip. sadly, it’s usually the bigger tip

while being street wise might help, i can’t help but think that somehow we’re heading towards a state of affairs where commodification permeates everything we do: should i friend this person on facebook? should i instagram this event? should i like this post? how will my reddit karma be affected if i express how i truly feel about this? basically gauging our interactions based on third-party metrics we have no control over

the prototype of this is what we already see and have seen for a long time: the salesman. a big smile, a taken-care-of appearance, perfectly tilted eyebrows to encourage trust. there’s a sense of unease when someone like that knocks on our door: it’s too obvious they’re there for something they will profit from. but when a cute bartender gives us a free drink and smiles, things are not as clear. there is a strong emotional response that is hard to disconnect from what it might be: not flirting, but probably a veiled promotion for that new drink. the reason why this keeps happening is because the vehicle for the interaction is itself commerce. inside a club, everything that happens that’s positive creates more business. on facebook, everything that happens and generates clicks means more business too. in a way, there is a panoply of third parties that benefit from the fusing of the commodified interaction and the uncommodifiable one and profit greatly if the two are indistinguishable

i grow weary of how this has quickly become ingrained in mindsets, to the point where one might hear “all friendships imply that each party has something to gain, so if a company gains something too there’s nothing wrong with that”. sure, relationships of mutual interest have always existed. what concerns me are these invisible structures that shape how we interact, exploiting our instincts, feelings of empathy or our sweet spot for smiles. third parties thrive on predictability, well behaved data, docile personalities. it is no surprise, then, that the social media intense world is a docile and non-confrontational one. netiquette, that has existed for as long as the internet has existed, expresses this bias clearly. it’s only a democracy while we all agree, so if you don’t, you will get downvoted to oblivion, unfriended by those that fear social repercussions, and so on

today, yet again, a beautiful fund-raiser approached me with smiles and warmness. who would i be smiling back to? the exploited underpaid worker that has had to smile all day without meaning it, or the CEOs and managers that are enjoying luxury thanks to the exploitation of human nature? these thoughts send shivers down my spine every time this happens. and yet, i can’t help but to smile back. it seems the profit someone makes out of our connection doesn’t outweigh how powerful it is in its simplicity. it’s almost as if the 21st century way of controlling us is with [soft cushions and comfy chairs](