What’s love got to do with creativity? Everything.

by | Feb 25, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

If you want to be creative, fall in love with something.

Introducing the intrinsic motivation theory of creativity, developed by my colleague Dr. Teresa Amabile of Harvard University.  Here it is: People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, challenge and satisfaction of the work itself… and not by external pressures or rewards.

This differs from extrinsic motivation where people are motivated by some external reward for performing the task,  like being paid to do a job or earning a grade in a class. Simply put, persons who engage in an activity primarily out of their own interest in it are intrinsically motivated.  People who engage in activity in order to obtain some goal that is not related to the task are extrinsically motivated.

When the novelist John Irving was interviewed and asked why he writes, his answer was:

“The unspoken factor is love.  The reason I can work so hard at my writing is that it’s not work to me. Or, as I have said before, work is pleasure to me.  I work, and always have, quite obsessively. I can’t just write for four or five hours and then turn the book off. I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m writing it.”

According to Amabile, this remark by Irving echoes that of the Nobel prize winning physicist Arthur Schawlow:

“ The labor of love aspect is important.  The successful scientists are not the most talented, but the ones that are just impelled by curiosity.  They’ve got to know what the answer is.”

For some, intrinsic motivation appears as passion. Passion to do something for its own sake, because it is interesting, enjoyable, satisfying or personally challenging.  It comes from within.


The contemporary artist Fotini Galanes has this to say about intrinsic motivation. 

“People ask me: ‘How do you get so much work done?  How do you draw every day?’ Some of my friends call this discipline. But for me, my work has nothing to do with discipline. It is an insatiable need. I don’t know any other way. If I am not working, I am not happy.  I have to consciously teach myself to relax and be with friends or with my son and not feel guilty about not working.” 

Some of the best advice I ever received about life and a career was given to me by my university mentor, Dr. Jim Wanner now professor emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado. 

When I told Jim in 1977 that I was planning to move from Greeley, Colorado to Buffalo, New York to study creativity, I had no idea if I could make a living in this work.  He gave me this piece of advice, “It has been my experience that if you do what you love, then the money will generally follow.”

That is the same advice that I give to all of my students when they ask what they should do in the future. That is the advice that I gave to my daughter as she was growing up. 

What is it that you love?  What is it that you are passionate about? What must you do? 

Whatever it is, do it for love. Do it to make a difference in the world.

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  1. Nicole Jones

    Thank you for sharing the good news of the intrinsic motivation theory by Teresa Amabile! It is wonderfully encouraging to be reminded that the best and most rewarding work we can do starts within. And that working for the love of it is not synonymous with poverty and starvation. Lol. In fact, working in the “unspoken [of]love” is true wealth.

  2. Kevin Gecowets

    Powerful thoughts Roger. As a reluctant entrepreneur and a newbie in the creative problem solving world, I appreciate how encouraging this article is.

    I’m loving this work and hoping to be able to afford to continue down this path!


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