Why Making Music Your Career Can Destroy Your Motivation (And What to Do About It)
I was eighteen the first time I lost all motivation to make music.
I had just moved to Los Angeles, and the city felt full of promise. My music classes at university were packed with talented young musicians. I had teachers with decades of experience in the industry and, seemingly, greater chances than ever at success.
Yet at the same time, things felt off as soon as I got to campus. I’d spent the last four years writing and recording and experimenting with music because I loved the art, but now I started to make music for the approval of my teachers, or as part of a class project, or because I was being paid to write for another artist.
I was motivated by external pressure, not the simple love for music that had motivated my writing before — when music was a hobby. But now I was making music to build a career, and that changed everything.
I didn’t get my motivation back.
Despite spending hours each day among talented peers and attentive teachers, I didn’t write any music outside of class my freshman year of college. And by my sophomore year, I’d dropped out of the music program altogether. I didn’t write music again for nearly three years.
I want to share this topic because almost every musician I know has lost their motivation to make music temporarily — and sometimes permanently — for the same reasons that I did.
Why do we lose motivation when we start making music as part of our careers, not just as a hobby? Why is it that signing a record deal can make it impossible to write the album that was so effortless before the ink dried?
Can we do anything about it?
What Makes Motivation
Before we get to why we lose motivation so easily when music becomes a career, let’s look at what makes us motivated in the first place.
Daniel Pink is a researcher and writer who has dedicated his career to understanding what motivates people in their work. Most of his research has focused on traditional career paths, but the lessons he shared in his bestselling book Drive and in his popular TED talk on motivation apply to music and the arts, too.
What makes us motivated? Pink and others have distilled the secret into three parts:
Your sense of purpose is the belief that what you are doing is worthwhile. This can manifest in all sorts of ways. The simple enjoyment of creating music can make the pursuit worthwhile, or the feeling you get when you share that music with a crowd through a performance. Perhaps it’s when people comment on your videos and share how your music touched their lives that you find meaning in what you do.
If you read our article about becoming exceptional through deliberate practice, then you know about the narrow band between boring activities you can do easily and the way-too-difficult activities that are overwhelming. That narrow band is where your greatest improvement comes from, and it’s also by far the most motivating. You can feel yourself stretching to improve. You feel competent enough to do the work, but challenged enough to stay interested.
Autonomy is your need to be in control of your life. When you write a new song just because you felt like it, then you did it, that’s often a profoundly satisfying experience. While you work on the song, there’s a sense of flow, of enjoyment. Humans have an intense repulsion to being controlled or pressured; when we sense our autonomy has been lost, we immediately lose our motivation. This is how reverse psychology works, too. As soon as our producer tells us not to trash the studio, all of a sudden, we desire nothing more than to do exactly that.
When you stop making music as a hobby and choose to make music your career, two of Pink’s elements of motivation come under fire.
The first is your sense of purpose, the belief that what you are doing is worthwhile. You can lose this sense of purpose when you write songs for class, or when you’re paid to write a jingle for a commercial, or you’re otherwise making music that you don’t particularly believe in. But most of us can make the occasional throwaway song and get back to the music we love.
When your motivation shifts from intrinsic to extrinsic, motivated by external rewards, quite often your intrinsic motivation can be permanently lost. It doesn’t come back even when the external motivation is removed.
The bigger problem, the one that can cripple and maim, is your sense of autonomy. After all, the definition of a job is basically that you make something that other people want, and they pay you for it. In almost all professional settings, within or beyond music, you are working because someone needs what you can provide and is willing to pay you for it.
How can you reconcile this with autonomy? When you write music because you think it will be popular, or because your label has contracted you for an album, or because you signed on to write a jingle, or because you’re taking a songwriting class, or because your fans expect a new album this year, then it’s nearly impossible to ignore that you have external pressure motivating you to make music.
But why does this happen? Why do we lose motivation when our drive moves from internal to external pressures? If we can answer this question — beyond the simple explanation of autonomy — then we can start to answer what we can do about it.
It turns out there’s a theory in psychology that deals with exactly this. It’s called the over-justification effect.
The Over-Justification Effect
The over-justification effect occurs when you add a reward to a previously-unrewarded activity. That shifts motivation from inner motivation to outer motivation, which then undermines the inner motivation.
Mattias Johanssen, in a fantastic video about programmers losing motivation, describes a scenario in which you go over to dinner at a friend’s house and have a wonderful dinner. At the end of the dinner, you say, “Thank you for such a wonderful dinner! To show my appreciation, I would like to give you $100.”
Of course, this immediately makes you a weird person, and even though you are offering more than your previous thanks, it somehow cheapens the dinner.
Something similar happens in the over-justification effect. When money (or another external motivator) enters the picture, the internal motivation that compelled you to make the dinner or write the song in the first place gets undermined.
But that’s not the worst part of the over-justification effect. When your motivation shifts from intrinsic to extrinsic, motivated by external rewards, quite often your intrinsic motivation can be permanently lost. It doesn’t come back even when the external motivation is removed. This gives external motivators the possibility for violent and extraordinary effects on your ability to create. Sometimes, you don’t recover.
Of course, theories and experiments are limited in psychology because you can only test things in the most restrictive of circumstances. But there is one experiment that vividly illustrates the over-justification effect, and the results are a bit disturbing.
In 1973, Mark Lepper, Daniel Greene and Richard Nisbett performed an experiment with a group of schoolchildren that demonstrated how easily intrinsic motivation can be lost. They took a group of children and allowed them to play with a variety of toys, including drawing with crayons. When kids did elect to draw, simply because they were interested in doing so, the researchers selected them and divided them into three groups. The first group told they’d be awarded with glittery, colorful awards if they drew in the next playtime. The second group was spontaneously given the award after freely choosing to draw. And the third group was not told of or given an award at all. Over a period of a few days, this process repeated, and then the scientists disappeared for two weeks.
Humans have an intense repulsion to being controlled or pressured; when we sense our autonomy has been lost, we immediately lose our motivation.
When they came back, the first group of kids had entirely lost their desire to draw. They spent significantly less time drawing vs. the other kids, and they showed a lot less interest in the activity when prompted. They just didn’t care anymore. The activity had been perverted by the reward.
The over-justification effect is powerful, but it cannot be the whole story because it’s not always true. There are times when you write music that you love, and you’re paid well to do it, and being paid for that music doesn’t affect your motivation at all. And it’s not like the kids in group B, who were spontaneously awarded — you may know well in advance that you are going to be paid for the work, or you might already have been paid.
Why does this happen? When does external motivation kill your desire, and when does it not? How can we get external rewards and still desire to create?
The answer is described by a second theory: cognitive evaluation theory.
Cognitive Evaluation Theory
Cognitive evaluation theory explains when outer motivation destroys inner motivation and when it does not. The theory says there are two factors that determine how an outer motivation will affect you. First, our need to feel competent, and second, our need to feel in control.
This is similar to the elements of motivation as described by Daniel Pink.
Let’s look at competence. This is your feeling that you are capable of doing the task. Sometimes external motivations will help this a lot! You are making music, and a Publisher comes to you and signs you to a writing deal, paying you $60,000 a year plus royalties to write music. This might make you feel more competent because people recognize your talent and are willing to pay you for it. The same might happen if you sell out a venue.
However, if external rewards are too low, this might cause the reverse effect and reduce your motivation. You get up in front of a crowd and play, and they boo and leave — this is more of a punishment than anything else. I think this is part of why so many musicians find themselves making a lot less money than they thought and quitting. It’s not about the money, per se — it’s the idea that people believe your music is only worth a fraction of a penny to stream.
But most likely, it’s not the effect of external rewards on your feelings of competence and value that are what causes you to lose your desire to create. More likely is the effect on your feeling of autonomy.
Humans hate to feel controlled. How many times have you heard of artists going ballistic when someone tries to control the music they make? Or sacrificing a label deal because they want to go their own way? Sometimes the increase in competence does not help because you feel controlled. It feels like the money and attention are used to control you, or to pressure you to do something.
You are now required to write something that sells — not something you enjoy.
There are three major solutions to the motivation problem for musicians. They include:
- The Feynman Response (also called the Radiohead Response)
- The Discipline Response
- Removing Motivators
In Part 2 of this article (click through to read it!), we walk through how each of these solutions helps musicians overcome the loss in motivation that happens when you turn music into your career.
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