Sometimes it’s hard to tell why I’m doing what I’m doing. Am I reading all these difficult books because I actually want to, or because I want to be able to say that I’ve read them and impress other people? To some degree, it’s both. I want knowledge for its own sake. But I also want it because more knowledge might make others think more highly of me. And I’d like that. There are multiple sources of motivation pushing me toward the same actions.
I think it would be better if I were motivated solely by the pursuit of excellence. Intrinsic motivation is generally more reliable than extrinsic motivation, as it need not change when your external circumstances change. But if the two line up and encourage you to do the same things, I consider that to be a good reason to give thanks. My surroundings are such that I am encouraged to do the things that I know I ought to by those around me. That’s great.
The primary motivation, however, should be the intrinsic one. Extrinsic motivators can complement intrinsic motivation, but they cannot replace it. When your sole motivation is extrinsic, you end up accomplishing something very different from what you otherwise would. For instance, if I were solely motivated by the prospect of impressing people about the breadth and depth of my reading, I would have little reason to actually engage with difficult texts like Being and Time. A surface-level understanding would be sufficient to make it look like I know what I’m talking about, especially to people who aren’t familiar with Martin Heidegger.
That excellence is often rewarded with honor is a good thing indeed. But excellence should be the goal, and not merely the means to the end of honor, which is a pleasant by-product of excellence, and not a worthy end in itself.
While I don’t think much of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, I do think that she gets this particular point exactly right. In her novel The Fountainhead, the main character is absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision of architectural excellence, no matter what the client or the architectural community may say. Public opinion is easily malleable, and does not necessarily correlate with the truth. Thus, it should not derail your pursuit of excellence when others think less of you for it. It is lamentable that excellence might not receive praise, and even more lamentable that mediocrity might receive it, but excellence is not worth pursuing for the sake of praise, but for its own sake.
When Rand extols the virtue of selfishness, this is what she means: When you act, act in pursuit of excellence, and not for the purpose of appearing excellent to your peers. It is the thing itself, and not the accolades that come with it, that are relevant. The Good is not determined by what the masses think is good. Therefore, orient yourself toward the Good, and not toward the masses.