The Greatest Mistake We Make Motivating Others – Especially Our Kids

Skateboard Mr. Page was short, built like a brick house and sported a tightly groomed black mustache that put a signature on his authoritative presence. He was that special kind of teacher you both feared and loved. A favorite of mine because he cared about improving his students and made that clear by how he treated us on an individual basis.

As my 4th grade year came to an end, Mr. Page challenged me to complete exercises in a math workbook over the summer and offered me a nice financial reward if I finished them before the next school year began. As I drove home with my mom that day, dollar signs were in my eyes and I imagined myself inside the local sport shop purchasing a brand new Powell-Peralta skateboard.

So, I didn’t do a single math problem that summer and the skateboard I wanted so badly mocked me from the storefront window as I walked by the shop in the months before school started up again. What happened?

We’re all in the business of motivating other people whether we’re in the workforce, on the home front raising kids, coaching or single looking for love. The process of moving people in the direction we want them to go or provide us what we need is an art form, though most of us don’t put enough thought into how we go about it.

From author Daniel Pink’s book Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, to clinical research performed by renowned human performance psychologist, Carol Dweck, Ph.D, the data is conclusive about personal motivation – we’ve misunderstood it for eons.

Daniel Pink’s research discovered that work for reward, such as good grades for an Ipod, is actually de-motivating because at that point it’s not their dream, not their goal, but just effort for reward. Sounds like a lame job, right? Looking at the issue in this light, the de-motivation factor makes plenty of sense. Dangling carrots just doesn’t work like we thought.

Mr. Page, entirely well intentioned, if not overly generous, offered me a job that summer – math for money – and the prospect of working during the summer crushed my motivation.

As parents, teachers and coaches, I think you’d agree that we are foremost looking to improve and advance the young people in our lives. Pushing their progress with a work for reward model is outdated; a relic of the Industrial Age. Leading social scientists and researchers are helping us move beyond old paradigms of motivation and their findings are important to note. Even the way we express encourage to kids hasn’t been as helpful as we thought.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., discovered through her clinical studies of human behavior that praising talent leads to a decline in performance, but praising effort increases it. Ms. Dweck further explains, “Telling someone they’re smart will lead them to want to preserve that positive label at all costs, so they will shy away from challenge for the chance it could reveal weakness or imperfection.” Whereas those praised for their effort are happy to continue to struggle to improve and take on increasing challenges; they feel good about their effort and ability to get better when applying it.

We’ve covered a lot of important information quickly, so I’ve summarized the two key takeaways below:

  1. Motivating others with rewards has shown to be de-motivating. Providing opportunities for autonomy and ownership of goals empowers kids to take action with a sense that they are directing their lives. This is powerful.
  1. The journey remains more important than the destination, which means growth is more important than the temporary summits marked by academic or athletic accolades. Compliments are nice, but encouraging effort will keep youngsters moving forward and improving in the face of their challenges.

Moving others into action and motivating performance is really about developing and shifting their mindset. There is an incredible amount of good you can do by teaching a growth mindset to a young person. Excelling in any domain whether academic, athletic, or the arts takes intense effort and a continuous personal challenge to stretch abilities again and again. Success is more about effort than it is about talent.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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2 Responses to The Greatest Mistake We Make Motivating Others – Especially Our Kids

  1. Phyllis Rembaum says:

    Am making Erika and Ron read…so true about acknowledging effort…Ron has always offered $$$ as incentive and Shayna has always been told how smart she is (does not like to be wrong), but we have always applauded effort. I like this article…Success is more about effort than talent.

  2. coach marshall says:

    Thanks for sharing Phyllis. I felt embarrassed as a young athlete because I had to put so much effort into my sports to become successful at them. I figured I wasn’t talented. This was a completely misguided mindset. My effort provided the means for talent to develop. I see this as a truism for human performance whether in the realm of sport, academia, the arts, or business. So, yes, applaud the effort!

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