On the overjustification effect

The world of startups is as thrilling as it is relentless, with success often measured by how much capital you've raised or how many users your product has. It can be easy to lose sight of original intentions, as I discovered through my journey with edgi, the startup I co-founded. This experience introduced me to the overjustification effect, a psychological phenomenon where an expected external incentive, like money, can undermine a person's intrinsic motivation. Essentially, when the reward becomes the main driver, the genuine interest in the activity itself can wane and even morph.

At edgi, our initial days were fueled by passionate enthusiasm and perhaps a naive optimism. But after raising a round of venture capital, our actions began to shift imperceptibly. It wasn't immediate, but gradual, almost insidious. The pressure to deliver growth nudged us towards decisions that sometimes, in my opinion, strayed from our core mission. It became all about about surviving the cut-throat world of startups. This environment, where every major move was dictated by growth milestones, accelerated my burnout, eventually culminating in my decision to step away and take a sabbatical.

The overjustification effect wasn't limited to company goals; it extended to our users as well. For one of our product iterations, we designed a system to gamify learning for the high school students we served, incorporating symbolic rewards like badges and a virtual currency. It seemed like a great idea and we even took inspiration from successful companies like Duolingo, but we soon observed an unintended consequence. A segment of students was now driven by the lure of these rewards, sidelining the actual joy of learning and discovery for the sake of it. We were inadvertently promoting the very behavior we sought to avoid, emphasizing rewards over genuine, self-motivated engagement.

Combating the overjustification effect requires a delicate balance. It's not about completely abandoning rewards; after all, they are useful motivators and provide tangible goals. However, it's crucial to maintain clear boundaries. For hobbies, for instance, the moment we start monetizing them, we risk corrupting the sheer joy we derive from the activity itself. The hobby no longer relaxes or fulfills us in the same way because it's not just for fun—it's for profit.

As I navigate this transitional phase in my career, the lessons from the overjustification effect remain salient. I’m reminded that success isn't solely about financial gain or external validation. It’s also about authenticity and maintaining integrity in one’s core values and purpose.

My sabbatical isn’t just a break; it's a reset, a time to introspect about what truly matters, devoid of external incentives clouding my judgment. And I’m also trying to be clear-eyed about what activities I choose to partake in purely for an extrinsic reward.