The question is very simple… but the idea behind the question is anything but that. Imagine you were asked to do a job, however easy or difficult that does not matter, with the prescience that neither prize nor punishment will be awarded for the work you do. That does not mean that the quality of your output will not matter or that, your doing the thing well is not going to make a difference to anyone. It most probably will, just that you won’t be held accountable for it. Would you still care to spend yourself to do justice to the job?
As impractical as the above question may seem, it is not completely hypothetical. Of course, most of the time we work hard because we expect some reward/gain for doing a job well or loss/punishment/rebuke as a consequence of failing to deliver. But sometimes we can face situations where no such strings are attached. For example, think of the time in school when you knew that no matter how poorly you did in co-curricular subjects (like art, music, dance, physical education, sports, etc.) you will still pass, because those subject for some reason never count. (At least they did not count in my school.) Or, the time when you had secured the requisite grade in a course even before taking the finals and had the option of learning and doing well in the finals or not caring and flunking. Or, the time when you are about to leave a job and have the option of working hard for the last few days and diligently handing off your responsibilities or dumping the work because it won’t come on your record or affect your future prospects in any way.
In all these situations the thing to remember is that you may be spending the same amount of time trying to do the work as you would trying to malinger it. In other words, whether you do well or not on your co-curricular activities at school, you may still have to take the test just as you may have to take the final exam of the course you have already passed. Or while serving the notice period at the company you are going to leave, you may be required to be on your desk and look like you are working as usual. The only thing that would have changed is your answerability to your peers and superiors.
The answer to this question will certainly give you some insight into what kind of worker you are, and what it is that motivates you. Are you the kind of person who in the absence of any external impetus can inspire enough self-motivation to deliver the goods or, are you the kind who will drift till you are saddled up and put on course by the conditions around you…?
It may also give you some insight into whether you like doing what you do. Most people would do things if you give them an extremely good reason or an awful lot of money for doing it. The question is how many of them would be doing the same things if you take away the money or the status or the strings?