Successful. Entrepreneur. Prime Minister. Nobel Prize Winner. Scientist. Leader. What words come to mind when you think of people described by this list? Underachievers? Learning disabled? Unmotivated?
These probably weren’t your first thoughts, but many people with these job titles weren’t good students in high school. In fact, A BBC-study found that a “significant majority” of self-made millionaires in Britain struggled in school.
Too often we view teens through the lens of school. Who can blame us, given the amount of time they spend in school? The problem is we can easily forget that school isn’t all of life. This is especially true when it comes to motivation.
Think of motivation as a hierarchy, starting with none, moving up to externally-focused motivation, and ultimately reaching intrinsic motivation which is when, “activities are done for the interest and enjoyment they provide,” according to researchers Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan.
Intrinsic motivation is the “gold standard” and is linked to creativity and higher well-being note Brown and Ryan. Extrinsic motivation is driven by something outside of the activity itself: a requirement from someone else or a reward for doing the activity such as a grade.
Much of education reflects extrinsic motivators – -either goals set by others or rewards for an activity (e.g., grades, awards, gold stars, class rank). Some students respond well to outside motivation but others do not. Does that make them unmotivated? Far from it.
When did we start calling kids “self-motivated” if they responded to someone or something outside themselves?
Doesn’t the word “self” mean that it comes from the individual himself? Is someone truly self-motivated if they are doing something to get a reward from someone else?
Teens who are not top students may appear to be unmotivated when we look only at their school performance. When I studied teens who were not top students, my results showed they could be highly motivated for activities that suited their gifts, interests and strengths even though the activities were not rewarded by anything except the joy of doing them.
In other words, their own inner desires led them to take action and they invested enormous amounts of time, energy and resourcefulness when driven from within. These same students didn’t always respond well to external motivators such as school demands.
Motivation and Life
When you understand the motivation hierarchy, you can see why the very students who pursue activities out of interest would be less inclined to respond to extrinsic motivators. They are intrinsically-motivated by the satisfaction they get from doing the activity. This is self-motivation at its best—and it will serve them well in life.
Even when we are able to coax a child into adopting our goals (for example get good grades so you can go to a “good” college), he is still not pursuing the activity for the joy of doing it. I used to fall into the trap of thinking that working hard at activities I had little interest in showed more motivation than actively pursuing something I cared about.
At long last, I’ve realized that exploring or taking action because I am personally passionate about the activity is the ultimate in self-motivation. I wish I had known this in school.
When it comes to teen motivation, one-size does not fit all so be sure you know what you’re looking for. If your focus is on school, you will get one view. If you take snapshots of their non-school life, you will get a very different picture.
Countless leaders in business, government, and science would not have looked like motivated students if you had seen them in high school, but they have clearly demonstrated a drive to succeed in life.
News from the Author:
See my 3-minute video interview on teen motivation myths with documentary film maker Bill Parker.
Check here for upcoming events, such as Unwrap Your Teen’s Gifts, a parent workshop co-presented with Ned Hallowell.
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 105-124. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Duvivier, C. (2007). Appreciating Beauty in The Bottom 80™. Philadelphia, PA: Capstone Project for University of Pennsylvania MAPP degree.
Hallowell, E. (2003). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy. Ballantine Books.
Images: *Motivation Hierarchy created by Christine Duvivier based on Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory model