Help Your Child Find Their Motivation
Yesterday evening I was on a boat with a friend who told me that when he was 12 his father asked him why, though he was as smart as his brother, he didn’t apply himself as much at school. He answered his dad: “I could do as well as my older brother, but I would have to change my personality.”
He explained to me that he personality often amounts to a different set of motivations. It turns out that when he was in varsity, he finally came alive to whatever he was studying, gave it his all, and one thing led to another since then, and now he owns a boat.
This convo reminded me of a conversation I’d had with two young teens—my son and his friend—just a few days before in the car on the way to school.
My son is amongst the top mathematicians in his age-group in my country and his friend, amongst the top cellists.
What makes this all the more interesting is that that my son has a comparable talent as an artist, but is now giving all his attention to maths. His friend will no doubt continue to excel as a musician but he gives much of his free time to learning entrepreneurial skills for his future business plans, and I suspect he is going to own a boat one day, too.
Realizing the unique privilege of sitting with young masters, I asked them what motivated them. Initially the question stumped them. They stared back blank face. But I thought to stick with it—and initially move the convo away from their motivation to what motivates top achievers in general.
As a group effort we slowly came to answers … achievers tend to be motivated by one or more of the following, we noted. Here is my slightly sharpened summary of things that we agreed motivate different personality types:
- Purpose—using one’s abilities to make the world better.
- Joy/Passion—the sheer thrill of doing the activity.
- Fear—an undesirable picture of one’s future..
- Vision—a desirable picture of one’s future.
- Validation—the praise achievement attracts.
- Mastery—the thrill of perfecting one’s skill.
- Competition—being better than others.
We couldn’t think of anymore. And we all agreed that probably most achievers are motivated by many, if not all, of these.
So having uncovered a plethora of motivations, it was time to figure out which did and did not motivate these boys and their driver:
My son is motivated by:
Joy/Passion. He said, “I love the feeling of solving math’s problems. I don’t just enjoy the feeling of solving the problem but working on the problem. Once I am done with the problem, I am sad it’s done. Then I need another problem to solve.”
We asked him how he copes in maths at school with how advanced he is. “I just create and solve my own problems.”
In response, I commented to him: “Wow. There’s a saying that says don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, for what the world needs is people who have come alive. You’re lucky to have found something that makes you come alive.”
It also made me realize why he had been neglecting his art talent and was doing maths instead: maths must be giving him more joy than art did.
His friend turned out to be far more complex in his motivation set:
Joy/Passion. As for his cello playing, he said that initially it was joy. His mother had assumed that it was best to let him just chill after school, but his restlessness led her to conclude that he needed more challenge after school so got him started with cello lessons. He immediately liked it and didn’t mind doing it for hours every day.
Mastery: He said that practicing cello doesn’t give him joy anymore, but he knows that once he perfects a piece it will give him joy. “Two hours of frustrating practice leads to the joy of perfecting a 15 second piece,” he explained.
Vision. When I asked him why he is working so hard on acquiring business skills he said, “I just see myself in the future with everything working: my finances, my health, my relationships are all good; and it means every day I am happy. Business success will get me there.”
Fear. “But I also see another picture when I look to the future, I also see myself not having made it, and I don’t want that.”
This led us to talk about the pursuit of happiness. I explained, “Although delay gratification is important, it is possible to postpone happiness for years and then when finally the situation you have been working towards comes about, you might find that you’ve lost the art of finding happiness in your present situation.”
What has motivated me? I said to the boys in the car:
Joy. “I love surfing. I love speaking and writing. I love learning new things and teaching others. I have pretty much organized my life around these things.”
Purpose. “I love to use my abilities to make a positive impact on others, and carry a sense of spiritual calling to do so.”
Validation. “In my life I have liked trophies and applause.”
But now the boys could have a go at me. “Hang on, how do those last two motivations co-exist? Validation is selfish, purpose is unselfish.”
They had me! But I had an answer for them. “You’re right. Of our list of motivations, the three with the most obvious dark side are fear, validation and competition. To be honest, as a teen I was motivated almost entirely by validation, but now decades later life has beaten that motivation down to a small size. I have learnt that if you are motivated by people’s validation you will be destroyed by their criticism (i.e. invalidation). And truth be told, my sense of purpose has swallowed me up more and more. For example, I don’t really want people to like my sermons and books—I want people to be changed by them.”
That’s my story, but can I suggest six ways you can apply these insights as you parent your progeny:
1. Use our list to help your child figure out what motivates them.
For example, I ran this list by my second born and he identified with validation, competition and fear.
2. Accept the present set of motivations that exist in your child.
Though I have initially tried to discourage competition as a driver in my second born, I have realized it is better to accept it, and teach him to balance it with concern for the other. Having accepted its presence, Julie and I are now factoring it into what high school we may send him to next year.
3. Suggest ways that they might tap into this motivation.
My second born knows there are trophies at the end of his school year—i.e. validation—and it pulls him to greater effort.
4. Coach them about the potential dark sides of their motivation.
My second born laughed that all three of his motivations carry a potential dark side, which he is now keen to watch out for.
5. Suggest that they might want to try on an additional motivation.
I suggested to my second born that if he could catch a sense of purpose, as well as see not a negative but desired vision of the future, the dark sides of his three motivations will balance him out. Also, reawakening a sense of joy in what he does regardless of outcomes will help.
6. Help them find things that bring them joy.
Leaving the case of my second born behind, notice that both the man in the boat and the boys and their driver in the car had joy/passion in their list of motivations.
I suspect that for most everyone liking something is the beginning of getting really good at it.
For example, years ago Julie and I signed up our daughter to do ballet and she did it dutifully and averagely. But when she came back from her first modern dance class she said, “I just found the thing I want to do every day for the rest of my life!” It’s no surprise, then, that she has been doing far better at modern dance than ballet.
When I asked the librarian at my four younger children’ primary school how she had turned pretty much every kid in the school into a reader, she said that every kid will read if they can just find the kind of book they uniquely enjoy. “I spend time with them helping them to find a genre they like. Kids will only read if they like what they’re reading.”
A sage of a friend tells me that the ideal path of life is play–passion–purpose. First (as kids) humans should have plenty of time to play, trying out as many things as possible. Second (as teens) they should take to those things they particularly enjoy. Finally (as adults) they should find ways to use their passions to meet the needs in the world. Play. Passion. Purpose.
What does your kid love to do? (And if they haven’t found it yet, how could you get them to explore more widely the library shelves of life, and play more widely, until they find something?)
Also published on Medium.