Are extrinsic rewards the ultimate motivator?

When our son utters his very first words we shower him with kisses, or when our daughter takes her first few wobbly steps we sweep her in our arms and hug her. Life is all about punishment and rewards. We know that even animals comprehend this simple truth, aka Pavlov’s theory.

Management schools teach the same dualism: lead a team successfully to achieve the company goal and you will be rewarded with a promotion and an increment, or else you will be doomed to a position of insignificance.

How do we reconcile this apparent truism of life with the Bhagawad Gita’s doctrine on karma yoga, in which the karma yogi is meant to achieve spiritualism by being duty-oriented, indifferent to rewards and by showing equanimity to all people? Duty orientation is understandable and to some extent attainable. But how do we achieve a state in which we are indifferent to rewards when we are conditioned from an early age that achievements will be rewarded and failures will be punished?

While I am still grappling with these questions, I did some across a karma yogi recently. Someone who believes in working meticulously in the corporate environment that he is in, silently, without bragging of his own competencies, and someone who after bagging a promotion, did not trip over himself to immediately share this good news with either family or colleagues. He just took it in his stride. It was as if he was unmotivated by the results of his actions, but rather that the work he was doing was a reward in itself. To him it was the journey and not the destination that was the ultimate. What an eye-opener this was for me.

As for showing equanimity to all people, I have found this rare trait in my father-in law. He treats everyone with the same love and respect, even those who have cheated him in life. When I ask him, “Why so?” he replies, “Who am I to punish them? That is for God to do.”

Working hard, but not being driven by the results, and also treating everyone around you with the same amount of love and respect – phew! That’s a tall order, but not totally unachievable!


2 responses to this post.

  1. This post brings out the irony of our situation.

    I believe in a corporate environment, where people are stuck to tasks that are independent of imagination (and perhaps passion), people look to other results for motivation, like money or position.

    Being a karmayogi is indeed a very tall order! However, equanimity is something that is more achievable and more commendable as per me. It is a very humane quality.

    The satisfaction of doing a great job is perhaps the greatest motivator for me, but like it is for any artist, an applause never hurts! 😉


  2. Wow, nice to see you writing on Karma Yoga… hope to come back to this place more often..


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