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
Thanks for the motivation angle. I’m really glad that was the theme this month because I’ve often thought about your articles in the context of moving teens forward and dropping their limitations, and now that you write about it in the motivation context, it absolutely makes sense.
Thanks, Senia, for your feedback and for choosing motivation as the theme this month. I would never have written this particular article without being prompted by your theme. I loved the chance to share my surprising findings about teen motivation.
Great article, Christine!
Loved what you said about working hard at activities you had little interest in versus being passionate as the ultimate in self-motivation. Insightful realization! I had never thought of it that way, but I agree. Reading it gave me a BFO – or a brilliant flash of the obvious!
Thank you for another great contribution!
Thanks for the inspiring look at teens and motivation. In my work coaching teens I seem to be finding so many kids who simply don’t have time to pursue those strengths and interests that could be fueling them! I love when I find parents who “get it” and make sure that their child has an activity linked to intrinsic motivation as part of their weekly schedule.
Many high school students are overburdened with school demands and competing to get into college. It seems sad that a student can be so talented and intrinsically motivated to excel at his/her passion, yet be judged by a school system that only seems to care how well he/she performs in traditional subjects like English, History and math.
I am a bit confused about the hierarchy model of looking at motivation. I see intrinsic motivation definitely at the “top” and most desired, but I don’t really see that you have to begin with none and then move to extrinsic before reaching intrinsic. I know many people who are intrinsically motivated to do things that were not ever reinforced externally. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the application of the hierarchy idea.
I appreciate the important work you are doing. Thank you.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I often say that teens don’t want to be helped but they want to be empowered. They want to be given the same information and opportunities as adults but not in a ‘Rated G’ format. Schools also fail to nurture young people. Everything focuses around discipline for the unruly or for getting a low score. That is why you see the high drop out rate which is now spilling over into suburban areas. In a middle class neighborhood nearby where I live the high school dropout rate is as high as 70%. This is not in the inner city. These are the kids of parents with advanced degrees. Their kids are bored and when they express their creativity and independence it is often seen in a negative light.
I actually wrote about a similar issue a few months back. As I work primarily with teen boys (who are supposed to know everything by default or figure it out without assistance…another topic, another day :)) so often they feel pressure that their productivity as an adult parallels their GPA that they stress themselves out trying to manage all these roles. As a result it is too overwhelming so they give up because they are not able to please everyone….and they either become withdrawn or they rebel. Then people simply say that they don’t apply themselves. It’s no wonder why!
So bottom line it is refreshing to see your article. Thanks again for sharing.
Hi Marie-Jo, Thanks so much for your feedback! I’m glad it gave you a useful insight.
All the best,
Dear Joan, You are so right– I shouldn’t have put the arrows in there because it implies you have to go through each level to get to the next — and you’re right, you don’t have to start at the lowest level and move up to the top.
I also agree that many teens are over-loaded with extrinsically-oriented activities that it’s hard to find time for the things that are generated from intrinsic motivation.
The teens you coach are very lucky that you have such a clear understanding! Thanks very much for your comment and for your insights.
Dear Shonika, Your point on teens wanting to be empowered is a great one. Thank you for your comments and insights. Your story about the suburban school dropout rate is shocking. I’m also fascinated about your comments on boys– I have two girls, so I didn’t realize this, but it makes sense now that you’ve said it.
You also make a great point about teens trying to please many different people and getting overwhelmed.
I’m happy to know that there are people like you out there helping teens to find a better path! Thanks for your feedback and your comments,
I googled pp for teens and a number of your articles came up. I have a not-for-profit org and authored a character curriculum for at-risk teens that we constantly update. I would like to use some quotes from this article and the one about Fry in our introductory material. May I have your permission? If you give me the proper address, I will give you more information.