We oversimplify rewards in our lives, letting others and circumstances tell us (implicitly and explicitly) what should be rewarding to us. We would be far better off if we learned how to tell ourselves and the world what rewards us, satisfies us, and (yes) even annoys/frustrates us. It’s bad enough that life has conditioned us not to openly share this information with others. What’s worse is that becoming aware of what is personally rewarding happens to be trickier than it is made out to be. How so?
Something will be rewarding depending upon the uniqueness of the individual, the situation and the consequences or implications of getting the reward. Therefore, when telling yourself what the most powerful rewards are for you, situations or circumstances must be discounted to some degree. That is, you must be able to say, “Regardless of circumstance/situation, I find XXX to be a powerful personal reward”. It also helps if you can tell the difference between the reward itself and the consequences or implications of getting that reward.
For some rewards, that separation is virtually impossible. For example, money or time can be powerfully rewarding to you because of the things you can do with them. Possessing money or time means nothing until you put them to some rewarding use. In contrast many of us find “respect from others” tremendously rewarding in and of itself. In fact, having self-respect is one of the most powerful psychological conditions you can be in.
In psychology classes we call this the concept of primary and secondary reinforcers. There’s a great deal more you need to learn about these topics if you want to truly understand the role of “rewards” in your life. (Consider this an ad for taking Psych Courses!)
If you think you understand enough about your personal rewards, then it’s useful for you to address this question: What matters and means the most to me when it comes to the effects of rewards on me and my life? For example, is wage/salary more important than benefits? Is being appreciated more valuable than being well-compensated? Is winning at all costs (the result) more rewarding to you than performing better than you’ve ever done (the performance)? Do you get it? If you do, then you can generate your own list of rewarding, valuable things, some of which are quite intangible but nonetheless powerfully rewarding to you personally.
Finally, if you’ve steered through all the above, you can build your personal “Hierarchy of Rewards”. To do that you need to do what we academics call “paired comparisons”. Let’s say your list of rewarding things has twelve items. You start with any two and decide in your mind which is more rewarding. The more rewarding item goes above the less rewarding item. Keep doing that until you’ve made all the possible pairs of comparisons, which with twelve items would be sixty-six, to create your hierarchically ordered rankings.
If that all sounds like too much work for you, let me suggest two alternatives:
- Do nothing and let the world dictate to you what life’s most important rewards are; or
- Take control of your life starting with a short but real list of personal rewards you’re willing to do something to get.
I recommend the second option!