• Richard van der Linde

The Key to Motivate Smart People… Intrinsically


About three years ago I became involved with learning and development. Naïve and unaware of the many learning theories available I intuitively adopted an inquiry-based approach. The result: above average levels of satisfaction, especially among smart people. Here’s my take on what you can do to make learning and development efforts pay off more.


The key to intrinsic motivation is within the learner


While you’ll easily find over fifty learning theories, they all seem to agree that intrinsic motivation is preferable over extrinsic motivation. But, intrinsic motivation is more difficult to invoke and therefore it may be that from an employer’s point of view that extrinsic motivation has a higher pay off.


While you’d ideally only engage in activities that you feel naturally inclined to do so, it may happen that you’re required to take a certain course, or that you feel no inspiration for any course or practice at all. What I found is that a change in perspective can make all the difference. All it requires is some ability for logical reasoning, to design an experiment that invokes your innate curiosity.


In academic terms this is called Inquiry-Based Learning (or “IBL”), so I learned later on. With a few simple steps you can wake up your dormant intrinsic motivation and have an engaging experience.


Starting with a personalized ‘why’


The idea of IBL is quite simple. We all operate from a set of beliefs. We hold beliefs about what would be desirable and about the mechanisms that would produce such an outcome. While some of those beliefs may turn out not to be true, they certainly feel true and it works much better to act in accordance with those beliefs than against them.

You could summarize the premise of IBL as:

By invoking a curiosity to test an expectation, you awaken an intrinsic motivation to perform such a test.


Simply by changing your perspective, you’ll uncover already existing aspects of your innate curiosity


The key to intrinsic motivation is to translate the content on offer into an hypothesis-test of your own beliefs. This resolves dormant desires as opposed to for example gamification of content, which creates new desires by suspending closure (like tv series).


Of course it makes sense to choose courses you expect to produce favorable outcomes, but even if a course is mandatory, you can still find intrinsic motivation for any learning experience if you personally apply the IBL approach.


No matter how unconventional your beliefs may be, just follow the following steps to find an angle that makes you curious to test your beliefs with the content on offer:

  1. Write down which favorable outcome you ultimately expect and by which mechanism this is to come about (E.g. I believe that completing this course in project management will make me more confident and able to enjoy my work)

  2. Write down which type of resistance you may experience during the process and define your commitment (E.g. I have a tendency to reject formalized methods, but I commit to completing the course and will decide afterwards to what extent I use the methodology in practice)

  3. Write down how you can test your hypothesis upon completion of the process (E.g. writing down about what aspects I sometimes feel lack of confidence and reviewing it upon completion and one month afterwards)


Shoot for the moon and (in any case) land among the stars


If you’re ambitious, your expectations (and beliefs) may often prove incorrect. Keep in mind that discovering a false belief and discarding it isn’t a failure. Like with any hypothesis-test, the outcome of the research does not indicate whether or not the test has been successful.

I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. - Thomas Edison

At the very least, IBL provides a stepping stone for further research if you evaluate the outcome and refine your model of beliefs. In case of the example above, you might find out that some of the lack of confidence is indeed resolved but part of it remained. This provides you input for your next hypothesis-test. And the next, until the matter has been resolved.


This inquisitive approach is how some of history’s greatest minds like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison approached life. Since I’ve seen how often IBL makes a difference for many professionals and students — including myself — I find it hard to imagine a better way to approach learning and development. After all: it’s merely the application of what you actually believe. What could make more sense than to act upon that?