Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

The Wonder of Intrinsic Motivation

March 25, 2020

During my days in graduate school, where I studied theoretical linguistics (of all things), I happened to have a conversation with a young man outside my normal circle that went something like this:

“So, what do you do?”

“I am a linguistics graduate student.”

“Oh? What is linguistics?”

“Well, …,” I very briefly explained that linguistics is the science that studies human language as a natural phenomenon and how much it fascinated me.

“Is it, um, something you can make a lot of money doing?” he asked.

“Hmmm, I’ve never thought about it. I suppose not.”

“Why would you do something that takes so much work if you can’t make a lot of money? And why would you not think about it?”

Why indeed? Nothing I said from that point on made the least sense to him. What he said made sense to me, but had a twisted logic to it, and the conversation quickly devolved into mutual bewilderment. For me, after all, this was human language we were talking about. Where was this guy’s sense of wonder?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the two of us were talking from opposite sides of a chasm, a deep gash through the middle of our culture with profound implications for human psychological and spiritual well-being, for the very direction of people’s lives, for the structure of our economy, and for the way children are brought up and educated. This guy represented what seems to be the dominant, utilitarian view in our culture, one that speaks of maturity, rationality and purpose. Mine was the more foolhardy, silly view that something can be worth doing for its own sake. I consider myself fortunate to have since lived a life of “silliness,” which, many years later as a rather elderly, scholarly Buddhist monk, I continue to live to this day.

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