“Validation isn’t coming” was recently pronounced over dinner with a friend and dance colleague, who by all outside accounts, has achieved every imaginable form of validation: a job in a large visible company, world tours, high-profile choreographic grants, glowing reviews from major presses for phenomenal performances as both a dancer and dance maker, etc. Coming from such an accomplished individual, I thought this remark highlighted just how elusive a sense of self-worth can be for dance artists.
To provide a little more context, the genesis of this title-inspiring remark was a discussion about why one might re-enter the dance world after many years away. A mutual friend was considering returning to dance after taking some time off, and identified her motivation as something like: “I want to be a part of someone’s process, to try to figure out how that person thinks and sees.” It was this remark that prompted the response: “As long as that’s why you’re doing it, because validation isn’t coming.”
In graduate school I learned about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation would be wanting to: get a certain role, receive a good review or an award, win someone else’s respect, etc., while intrinsic motivation would be more along the lines of wanting to: experience the joy of moving through space, connect the mind and body, conquer new material and physical challenges, etc. Research suggests that those with intrinsic motivation for a task experience more positive outcomes than those with extrinsic motivation, which is associated with burnout, withdrawal from participation, and a host of negative feelings. When I learned about this, I was in the throws of burnout myself, and these findings hit close to home. Extrinsic motivation predicts burnout? Is that why I’m not dancing, because I lost touch with my intrinsic motivation? I got swept up in my ego and lost site of some wholesome love of dance!?!? I felt the research was assaulting me personally with a moral agenda, saying: “In order to be a happy dancer, Ellie, you cannot be concerned with petty matters and outward achievements.”
My interpretation of the research was that in order to be happy, one must avoid extrinsic goals, and I was quick to find faults with this logic. Mainly, how could I be expected to maintain such a Pollyanna outlook on something with which I have had such a long and complex relationship? Of course dancing brings me many intrinsic pleasures, not least among them is the pure enjoyment of moving through space to music. If I were dancing for a hobby my motivations would easily remain purely intrinsic; I would go to a desk job by day, and in the evening, I would delight in the simple joy of romping around a big open space to live music with an eclectic cast of characters. It’s not to say that these pleasures are not present in the professional dancer. For me, these intrinsic motivations are the core reason I dance, however, where my career is concerned I also have a plethora of external motivations and frankly, I believe these are important too. Getting a good job leads to other good jobs; positive reviews help earn space grants or commissions; people want to work with those who earn their respect; and on and on. How can I be expected not to concern myself with these less virtuous ambitions? I have a 30-year-long relationship with dance and “it’s complicated”.
Of course, research doesn’t make moral suggestions. Rather, it illuminates patterns. Studies don’t advise individuals on how to live their lives, at most they provide data on which to base advice. This particular body of research reveals that the nature of motivation predicts or correlates with things like burnout or positive affect, but what you do with that information is your business. Personally, even in the face of this knowledge, I maintain that it’s unreasonable for a professional, working dancer to entirely avoid extrinsic motivation and for me, the take away is that it’s important to find a balance between your career ambitions and your day-to-day “joie de danse”. If you get too fixated on career goals and lose sight of the things you really like about what you do, you’ll probably be unhappy and eventually burnout. Surely this is the same in all professions.
While I know I have genuine, internally motivated reasons to dance, there have certainly been times where my external motivation has over-powered those reasons. The outcome is unpleasant. So, I wonder, how can we protect our intrinsic motivation, and prevent it from being consumed by extrinsic ambitions? Remaining actively aware of the things you love about dancing seems like an obvious, possibly simplistic, but “easier said than done” bit of advice. Perhaps a daily assignment, such as writing down your positive dance experiences and intrinsically motivated goals in a journal, or a daily meditation task with a mantra that puts your “joie de danse” at the forefront of your mind. Also, evidence shows that some work and learning climates are more conducive to intrinsic motivation, so choose your environment and employers wisely. Self-determination theory suggests that people and situations that foster a sense of relatedness, autonomy, and competency are best for maintaining intrinsic motivation.
Finally, I want to tie these matters of validation and motivation to my previous post on the importance of establishing good goals. To recap, goals are not just for pushing us forward, but are also for boosting confidence. Self-esteem is essentially your sense of self-worth, and by establishing the right goals you can enhance self-confidence and reduce reliance on outside recognition for a sense of validation. Establishing goals and accomplishing them demonstrates (to yourself) your capacity for achievement, and enhances your sense of control over your destiny, both of which are thought to ultimately boost self-esteem. With sturdy self-esteem, validation is secured from within. Thus, in order to increase self-confidence, it is important to set actionable goals. Actionable goals are things you can address independently. These might include technical goals, fitness goals, attitudinal goals, or intellectual goals such as improving turnout, endurance, positive outlook, or anatomical knowledge. Conversely, getting a certain job, role, or grant are ultimately NOT within your control, those outcomes are decided by someone else and are therefor NOT actionable. Another way to ensure your goals are actionable is to generally focus on goals that are task oriented (i.e. improving specific skills) rather than ego oriented (i.e. being the fastest, the first, the best, etc.), since you can only control yourself, not anyone else’s abilities or your relationship to them.
In summary, research clearly indicates that intrinsic motivation is important to happiness and wellbeing, so we have to find ways to keep it well nourished. In my opinion, it is unreasonable to expect any professional not to have some extrinsic motivation as well, so I believe our challenge lies in keeping these ambitions from dominating our attention. We might do this through writing assignments, or enhancing mindfulness, and we can also bolster our intrinsic motivations and sense of self-worth by setting appropriate, task oriented, actionable goals. Ultimately, validation has to be secured from within, and cannot be reliant on things outside of your control.
How to you protect your “joie de danse” from your career ambitions?
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54–67.
Quested, E., & Duda, J. L. (2010). Exploring the social-environmental determinants of well- and ill-being in dancers: a test of basic needs theory. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32(1), 39–60.
Quested, E., & Duda, J. L. (2011). Antecedents of burnout among elite dancers: A longitudinal test of basic needs theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12(2), 159–167.