The most successful creative people are the ones who put in the time and effort. They have the grit to work and practice for years, in order to build up the skills to produce highly creative work.

However, investing this amount of time and effort over many years requires the motivation to keep going. The motivation to do each task over time will determine how much you will want to do it. If you have very low motivation, you are unlikely to make a habit of doing the tasks.

So especially when working with children at the beginning of their creative journey, how can we encourage their motivation to keep them wanting to invest in their creative journey, even when things get tough?

And for people who are a bit older, what types of creative activities can boost your motivation to keep going?

Research has shown that there are essentially two different types of motivation:

  • Extrinsic motivation: If you perform a task, someone or something external to you (like another person or society) will either reward you for doing it well, or punish you for doing it badly or when you should not have. Examples are: trophies for sports success, praise from your parents for practicing an instrument or getting a good grade, the salary or bonus for doing your job, the perks of being famous or rich, or going to prison punishing you for breaking the law
  • Intrinsic motivation: This is when the act of performing the task itself and feeling your own progression is a rewarding feeling. Examples are: the feeling of Flow when doing a task makes time melt away, overcoming hurdles which previously challenged you, feeling pride in how your skills improve, or feeling your body become healthier and having more energy from exercise

And when it comes to which of these two types of motivation has the bigger impact on someone’s creative performance, research has shown a very clear winner.

Researcher Teresa Amabile, who also found the Progress Principle, started researching the impact of type of motivation on the creativity of what participants later produced. In experiments from 1983 and 1985, she showed a clear link between people who were intrinsically motivated (they enjoyed the work, such as writing a poem) and the creativity of the resulting poem when judged by an expert.

Interestingly, her research also showed that when the same people were told that they would be rewarded for their creative output before they did it, the resulting works were judged to be less creative than when people did it for intrinsic pleasure.

Since then, the results have been backed up by further research in 1998, 2008, and 2019. In fact, a meta-analysis of 96 research studies looking into a link between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and creativity found that:

  • Expected rewards for doing creative work reduce intrinsic interest in performing the activity
    • However, unexpected rewards given after the activity is done do not reduce intrinsic interest
  • Expected rewards that are given but are contingent on the quality of what is produced actually increased intrinsic motivation

It is now widely supported by creativity researchers that intrinsic motivation is a much stronger driver of creative output, as well as the desire to stick with developing your creative skills over many years.

But why might this be the case?

Neuroscience research from 2020 has shown that when people have a moment of insight, where a creative answer comes to them, it actually triggers the feeling of reward in the brain. The researchers found that these flashes of insight triggered signals in a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, a region associated with reward learning and hedonically pleasurable experiences such as food, positive social experiences, addictive drugs, and orgasm.

So have a creative insight almost feels as good as chocolate, drugs & sex!

Interestingly, people did not feel the same reward when they solved creative challenges more incrementally, such as by going through all possible solutions in an analytical manner.

Building intrinsic motivation in children

A large amount of research has gone into how we therefore encourage intrinsic motivation in our children. After all, we want them to develop a growth mindset where they can enjoy approaching new challenges, and intrinsic motivation can be a powerful aspect of that.

Well, here teachers need to be careful of how they talk about, model and reward creative behaviours.

After all, unfortunately research has shown that teachers actually usually dislike creative beahviours, and unknowingly show children that more conformist behaviour will be rewarded and keep them out of trouble. This can teach the children that creativity is a bad thing to be avoided, especially as they become more conscious of fitting into peer groups.

Other research has shown that if teachers place too much emphasis on the rewards which children will get for doing creative work like drawing or writing, such as by giving out gold stars, stickers or treats, this can actually harm the child’s intrinsic motivation since the reward is an extrinsic motivator.

Instead, teachers should model the joy you get by performing creative tasks, pushing yourself with deliberate practice to develop creative skills, and treating challenges as a positive thing instead of fearing judgement and failure.

So if you are trying to raise a creative child, or even just encouraging creativity in yourself or your team, stress the importance of finding an activity where they or you feel intrinsically motivated. It will make it much more likely you stick with it and succeed in the long term.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.