Confessions of a World-Changer: Fighting Against the Desire to be Great


Do you desire to be great? Make a dent in the universe? Turn the world upside down? Change the world?

New studies by two prominent psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz  reveal that your chances of achieving these lofty goals depend not just on how motivated you are but also the source of that motivation. (Click HERE to read the entire study) 

There are two major types of motivation. Internal and instrumental motivation. Internal motivation is when you achieve a goal for its own sake, whereas instrumental motivation is not directly related to the goal itself. 

For example, let’s dissect my dream, my overarching goal in life:

“My dream is to turn the world upside by equipping the next generation of leaders who will reclaim the seven mountains of culture.”

So the million dollar question is…

Do I want to achieve this dream in order to simply be recognized as a renowned thought-leader and pioneer in this field? If the answer is affirmative, this would be an instrumental motivation that is external to the goal itself.


Do I want to achieve this vision simply because I thoroughly enjoy the process of equipping leaders and genuinely believe this is what I was born to do? If so, this would be an internal motivation as it directly relates to the goal itself. 

Which one is it?

For many, this is not an either/or decision. Rather, it’s more likely a both/and decision. In other words, it’s easy to say I am motivated by the desire to be recognized as a thought leader and I am motivated by the enjoyment the process of equipping leaders brings in my life.

To be quite honest, I struggle with my goal a lot since I am prone to become prideful of my own achievements. I see myself vacillating back and forth in this spectrum of internal vs. instrumental motivation. I know I want to do this for God alone yet I find myself fueled by the desire to be known by others.

Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz

For the past 14 years, Wrzesniewski and Schwartz collected data from surveys from incoming cadets on their motivations and outcomes for more than 10,000 cadets. Every year, 1,300 young men and women who entered the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. Only about 1000 of them graduate. Of those graduates, a smaller portion pursue military careers beyond the mandatory 5 years of service. And fewer still are selected for early promotion, a mark for those on their way to the top ranks.

They asked a pivotal question, “How did the cadets fare, years later? And how did their progress relate to their original motives for attending West Point?”

Studies showed that the stronger their internal motives were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers. Those with the internal motivates did better in the military as well and were more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service – unless they also had strong instrumental motives.                                                                                                   

What’s surprising about the studies is that cadets with strong internal and instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.

So, you may wondering… why should I care about this study? Why does it matter to me? 

The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there” – John Buchan

Don’t get me wrong. All of us are made to be great. In fact, the desire is real and authentic. However, we must not forget to ask the “why” behind the desire. Is it to puff up my pride and share my glory or is it to serve and glorify God, our Creator. Sadly, when you try to do both, like the studies show, it doesn’t work. We fail dismally.

Honestly, the new studies didn’t surprise me. It simply articulated and confirmed what I’ve always “intuitively” known all my life. As Christian leaders, our internal motivation should come from the calling He has placed in our lives. Whatever we do, we should do it heartily as for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23)

Question: How will you apply this new research on motivation in your life?