The Difference Between Internal and External Motivation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Gap and The Gain" by Benjamin Hardy and Dan Sullivan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the primary source of your motivation? Is your reference point yourself or others?

The book The Gap and The Gain lays out the difference between Gap- and Gain- thinking, which are two ways to measure your progress and success in life. One feature that distinguishes these two mindsets is the source of your motivation. Gap-thinking is associated with external motivation (relying on standards set by others), while Gain-thinking involves internal motivation (relying on standards set by you).

Continue reading to understand the difference between internal and external motivation and what impact they each have on your happiness.

Internal vs. External Motivation

One factor that differentiates Gap- and Gain-thinking is the source of motivation, whether it’s internal or external. Let’s explore the difference between internal and external motivation.

When you fall into Gap-thinking, external factors motivate you. Your reference point—the standard against which you compare yourself—is an idealized version of yourself based on external standards set by other people. According to the authors, this removes any control you may have over defining what success means, which can leave you feeling helpless and unmotivated.

(Shortform note: The authors argue that, to feel successful, you must believe you can control your success. This includes not only your reference point but also your inherent ability to improve your life situation at all. In The Happiness Advantage, researcher Shawn Achor notes that when you relinquish this control and blame external factors for your lot in life, you eliminate any incentive to try to improve your situation. You may think, “Nothing I do will change anything, so why bother?” Lacking control also means that you don’t take credit for your accomplishments, depriving you of the positive emotions that reinforce success.)

The authors contend that social media exists to create and encourage these external reference points. It’s nearly impossible to scroll through your social media feed without comparing your life to the happy moments and attractive pictures that others choose to share with the world. Since the objects of comparison are almost always people you perceive to be “better” than you, this type of comparison will automatically put you in the Gap mentality.

(Shortform note: As previously mentioned, social comparison can be motivating when you examine the similarities between yourself and someone successful. However, people only present small fragments of the best parts of their lives on social media. These fragments distort our perception of their happiness: We tend to forget that they can struggle just like everyone else, which makes it difficult to relate to them. For this reason, social comparison in the context of social media is almost always detrimental to your mood and self-esteem.)

On the other hand, when you are in the Gain mindset, you are intrinsically motivated, assert the authors. You use your past self as an internal reference point. You are in complete control of what progress looks like because your past self sets the standard of success. According to the self-determination theory of psychology, having this control is crucial to feeling motivated and accomplished. Because Gain-thinking gives you control over how you define success, it helps you become more successful.

(Shortform note: Aside from control, there are two other psychological needs listed in the self-determination theory that play an important role in motivation: competence and connectedness. Gain-thinking can fulfill both needs. For example, thinking about the gains you’ve made in learning a skill can make you feel more competent. And as we’ll discuss in the next section, Gain-thinking is fundamentally optimistic, and optimism has a positive correlation with social support and reciprocity. This can allow you to feel connected with others.) 

The Difference Between Internal and External Motivation

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Benjamin Hardy and Dan Sullivan's "The Gap and The Gain" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Gap and The Gain summary:

  • Why you must compare who you are now to who you used to be
  • Why you should focus on your past rather than your future
  • How Gain-Thinking can improve your happiness, self-esteem, and physical health

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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