Internal vs External Motivations

Ankur Rastogi Ankur, Viterbi Life 0 Comments

So, you’re going to college! You’re excited to take that next step, potentially move somewhere different, and meet new people. And somewhere in there, you’re going to be taking new classes, having conversations with incredible professors, and exploring your interests – academic or otherwise. But between all the new opportunities and incredible people, everyone eventually starts thinking about a few questions.

How should I be spending my time?

What should I be focusing on?

Why am I doing this things I do?

For a lot of students, these feelings are new, and the confusion and lack of direction is something that they didn’t experience in high school. When you know what classes you’re supposed to take, what clubs you’re supposed to participate in, and what your ultimate goal is, life is pretty straightforward. And for most people, high school was that part of life.

That changes a lot when you get to college. You suddenly have a lot more free time and a lot more flexibility in how you spend your time. Ultimately, I think it boils down to a question of internal vs external motivations. In high school and before, your life is mostly governed by external motivations. You’re trying to make your parents happy, your counselor happy, your teachers happy, and your friends happy. You’re driven by other people’s reactions to what you do, and the ultimate example of that is college admissions. You build up to this moment at the end of your senior year, and then everyone starts talking about which colleges sent them an acceptance letter.

But once you get to college, no one’s there to tell you what you should be doing. Virtually all of those external motivations go away. Sure, you have new friends, new professors, and new counselors, but your success, as well as how you measure that success, becomes much more your responsibility. And so, at that point, it becomes time to be introspective. You have to start thinking about what you care about, what you really want to work on, and who you want to spend your time with. And in asking yourself those questions, you begin focusing on internal motivations. What ideas get you excited? What projects seem like cool opportunities? What direction do you want to move in? For the most part, no one’s going to tell you what you’re doing is good or bad. It’s up to you to decide for yourself what the answers to these questions are, and starting moving in a direction that aligns with your own morals, values, beliefs, and interests.

With that said, once you decide what it is you care about and where you want ot spend your time, it becomes a lot easier to get motivated to work on your projects. Why? Because suddenly, you’re working on things because you want to, not because you have to. With that said, there will still be times where you’re doing work that isn’t the most interesting work you’ve ever done. But as long as it serves to move you towards a goal or in a direction that you are motivated to get to or achieve, then ultimately it’s worth it.


Motivation is great, and it’s important to success in college. With that said, it’s the internal motivation that keeps you going long after everyone else has stopped telling you what to and what not to do.



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