How I Managed Conflicting Motivations as a Freelancer

And what researchers say about it

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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

“… Our marketing team will take care of the rest.”

I didn’t even blink before saying yes.

A few years ago, I was called for a corporate event photography job:

“Just come to the venue, you don’t need to bring anything. Use our cameras, cover the whole event, return the cameras to Amanda and she’ll pay you before you go.”

I didn’t feel like a photographer that day. I felt like a cameraman for hire. My identity was irrelevant.

During my early years in freelance photography I’ve had clients who rudely handed me crumpled cash, wanted to pay half because they “won’t need all the pictures”, and stood me up and texted “Let’s reschedule. Something came up.”

I encountered many bad days as a beginner in a profession that eventually paid off wonderfully, but my creative spirit lived past those bad days mostly because my motivations were timely managed.

What do I mean by that?

Let’s walk this concept together. Hopefully by the end I’ll leave you with some takeaways for protecting your creative spirit while marketing your craft.

How are Motivations Classified?

When we do something for the mere joy of doing it, it’s called intrinsic motivation. It’s the pleasure people get from the process of creation itself — be it writing, photography, painting or coding.

When we are driven by factors outside “the joy of doing”, it’s called extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation can also extend to the satisfaction from self-expression, exchange of ideas, and self-discovery. It’s what you feel when you look at your finished work and find fulfillment and subjective value in it.

Money, on the other hand, is a source of extrinsic motivation. The same is true for likes, comments, follows and the whole family of metrics that provides measurable value to our craft. Even the concern that nobody wants what you have to offer is extrinsic motivation — an external influence.

In a study that assessed how extrinsic motivation affects students and employees, Nobel Prize winning economist Jean Tirole (MIT) and Roland Bénabou (Princeton) concluded —

“Incentives are […] only weak reinforcers in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run.” (Tirole and Bénabou, 2003)

These concepts have been thoroughly studied by Deci and Ryan (2000). Popular Duke University Professor Dan Ariely also explored this (and related concepts) in his bestseller Predictably Irrational, if you fancy further reads.

Motivations under the entrepreneurial light

“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”

—Marc Anthony

Everybody wants to do what they love, but very few actually succeed. A lot of people quit soon after starting a business, counting mere pennies after months of effort.

Or worse, they change their craft so much to align with market demand, they began to identify less and less with their product until they reach an inevitable failure.

Does that make extrinsic motivation inherently bad?

Monetary incentives guide strategies to develop successful enterprise out of acquired skills and drive people to acquire crucial business knowledge in product development, marketing and scaling.

Commercially successful creatives maintain a fine balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations — a practice that keeps them grounded, organized and infinitely motivated.

They churn out great bodies of work that collectively satisfy both their creative itches and needs of the market.

At the opposite end, many creatives want money but remain unwilling (or untrained) to make their craft market-ready. Yet safer than the group that invites outside incentives too early and it overpowers, or worse, crushes their intrinsic motivation.

Is then extrinsic motivation to blame? Or is how and when we allow it into our system that determines the end result?

“The real question concerning nonintrinsically motivated practices is how individuals acquire the motivation to carry them out and how this motivation affects ongoing persistence, behavioral quality, and well-being.” — Deci and Ryan (2000)

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Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Timing is Everything

Remember I mentioned timely managed motivations? That’s where the secrets of entrepreneurial success or failure lie for many creatives.

Let’s return to my corporate photo gig story for demonstration. The reason both my relationship with photography and the business survived moments of unfulfillment like those is pretty simple —

I spent many years operating exclusively on intrinsic motivation. I didn’t let money enter the picture.

Photography began as a hobby for me. Even after years of participating in several exhibitions I avoided the option to turn my passion into a profession.

I insisted to work for free even when I was offered payment.

Maybe according to some people I was foolish to decline money, but by protecting myself from a path that would cause me to measure the worth of my work money-wise led to a distraction-free environment where I could experiment, learn and develop an original style.

It was after 10 years of running around with the camera that I very slowly opened doors to business, with incremental exposure to money and other motivations.

I started with clients who gave me complete creative freedom, so I only had to worry about making sure they like my work. Then, I proceeded to people who appreciate my style and want something specific.

Eventually, I allowed myself to hand over total creative control to my clients, working in themes and styles I would never do for myself — resulting in work that didn’t look like it had anything to do with me.

This slow progress towards external factors helped me take signals from the market and expand my clientele without sacrificing originality.

Maybe I played it too safe, but I am comforted knowing in the long-term I don’t risk losing my personal style or hit a burnout if I go on a client catering spree.

I knew the value of what I was protecting.

When is the right time to allow outside incentives?

Extrinsic motivation is best welcomed in an environment where intrinsic motivation has already grown deep roots — where stress, discomfort and tweaking will not have lasting effects on the mere joy of doing.

It’s not that all doors to extrinsic motivation should be terminally closed as a rule, but one is better off when mindful about it’s introduction to a space where intrinsic motivation is very sensitive and plays a big role.

In some cases intrinsic motivation can even be secondary, and extrinsic motivation alone can catalyze great success, if extrinsic comes first.

When I just finished high school, my mother borderline coerced me into privately tutoring high school students for pocket cash.

At that time, I newly started to play the electric guitar, subscribed to high-speed internet, and picked up the habit of buying a lot of DVDs to binge watch films and TV shows (good old early 2000s). So my mother pushed me to earn the money I spend — a lesson all teens should receive.

I started teaching solely out of extrinsic motivation. I took no joy in helping students when I first began, but in weeks I was hooked to the feeling of organizing coursework and simplifying difficult concepts for struggling students.

Intrinsic motivation came later, and it almost took the front row seat unbothered by money matters. Money kept coming, but I kept teaching largely for the joy of teaching itself and till this date continue to do so.

Moral of the story: — Since I didn’t have a lot of intrinsic motivation to begin with, monetary incentives led me to improve as a teacher without affecting the joy I later found in it.

Takeaway: Tread Lightly and Time Wisely

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

― Steve Jobs

Quality and originality are two things that markets value greatly but their development can be threatened by the pressure of earning.

I admit, not everyone enjoys circumstances that allow putting money on the back burner and running on sheer passion for a long time. But doing that as long as possible ascertains long-term survival of one’s creative capacity.

When you capitalize on the joy of creation, your experiments will help you discover which of your work you best identify with. You will sharpen your skills for the sheer satisfaction of watching yourself do greater things.

That’s how you can grow into a well-grounded creative capable of offering value to the market while balancing artistic and entrepreneurial incentives.

Until then, maybe your craft is better off letting money come by surprise rather than enterprise.

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“Sugarcoats are not in fashion” • Economist, teacher, photographer • Stockholm, Sweden • All posts:

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