Thursday, April 02, 2015

Praise (your e-mail)

The e-mail on praise has been so interesting and thoughtful that I'm going to run the rest of them today.

All anonymous. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Failure’s never been a problem for me. It’s a great teacher because you rarely learn half as much by getting something right the first time as you do when you fail and get to watch the slow motion cascade of dominos as ‘It seemed like a good idea…’ turns into a burnt down building.  (metaphorical building. I’ve never burnt down anything)

My secret wasn’t my parents not praising me or praising effort.  They took a pretty laid back approach in that they simply made opportunities available if I were interested (gifted schools, programs, etc.).  The defining rule was that if it was educational (or I could make a case that it was), they’d pay for it. If it wasn’t, I had to save and earn and work for it.  Grey areas, they met me halfway (I had to pay for my SCUBA lessons and certification at 11, but they paid for the equipment – was about 200$ out of pocket for both sides).

That wasn’t the secret for success though.  The secret was a brother five years older who loved to lord it over me.  He was better in school because he could do the math problems I worked on in his sleep. He was better at spelling. He was better at languages. He was better at everything.  I was too young to recognize it was because he had five years of growth and education on me and pushed hard to catch up to him in every way, all the time.  When we played games, we would play something and he would crush me over and over until I learned to counter his tactics and could beat him.  As soon as I won two rounds of whatever strategy game du jour, he refused to play again.  Learning to take out ships with a good 20% more point value in Star Fleet Battles was pretty much the last game we played; he knew the BPV system, I didn’t and routinely went in between 15 and 30% undervalued compared to his fleet, but still found ways to outmaneuver him.

Anyway, short version – if you really want to push kids to excel, find them a rival.  Someone close enough to be a peer but who is better than them, hands down.  That creates a drive that’s pretty hard to compete with and I suspect it’s why Eli’s travel teams have done well when matched up against higher level opponents.  Anyway, this is rambling, but I didn’t see anything in the article or in the email from your reader that pointed out the way you motivate smart kids (or non-smart kids) is you find someone better than them to serve as a rival.

I like your very interesting posts on praise.

From my own experience I think they might be a bit of a generalisation but then that's normal for any sort of analysis anyway, IMO. I just wanted to comment a bit on this bit and give a little of my own life and understanding of myself as well:

"Smart" kids are more likely to look for the fastest path to success, even if it's not the most enduring success. They want the praise reward, instead of being in it for the long haul.

The thing is, because the environment a child grows up in is so important I really don't believe in IQ as any sort of sane measurement or idea in defining a person's ability. A smart child would understand all the ramifications of their choices in determining the most efficient way of achieving a goal. However, what you may see here (in the quoted text) is the way they've been brought up by the society around them: they want to achieve things as fast as possible. It doesn't even have to be for praise at the end of it - speed has become a very important metric in society over the last few decades, I think, to the detriment of quality of life and enjoying moments despite all the pithy "motivational" speeches and posters/images telling people to live in the moment, etc.

I think this aspect is more pronounced in countries like the USA and China where the monetary bottom line can become the overriding factor in every decision a company takes (which might also be a symptom of this mentality filtering up into the workforce).

One of the crazy things for me as an observation on how far into people's psyche's this idea of "get things done fast" is the drive home from work. I have a friend (English) who literally speeds every chance he gets to get home faster for those extra 5-20 minutes it affords him in reality. Despite all the dangers he poses to himself and others on the road due to his manoeuvres. He considers himself a good driver (and I think he is) but that's not the only factor to take into account in the environment.

Now, this guy is very intelligent. A mathematics genius who participated in national-level competitions, fantastic chess player who is also very sporty and who went to Cambridge to study engineering. He couldn't understand why I think this driving mentality is reckless.

Now, myself.

I wouldn't consider myself to be smart. I may be a little above average but not really intelligent in any particular way. What I do have is my upbringing from my mother. I was praised for my accomplishments - I don't think I was particularly praised for my effort though I think they usually are tied together in some form. However, my mother instilled in me a very large amount of empathy. Maybe to a fault. ;)

I am very aware of everything and everyone around me (this is coupled with being a bit of a control freak as well) but I do not have very much self motivation. I am extremely focused on other people. I would move a mountain to help another person but will not lift a finger (well not quite that bad) to do something for myself. So many people tell me I'm very smart but that I need a lot of pushing to do things.

Now, I'm not unaccomplished; straight MSc to PhD. I am pretty good at photography and my general analytical skills are supposedly pretty good and, like your second emailer, I'm pretty happy with who I am and where I am at this point in my life. I'm not sure being praised for my efforts would have made me much of a different person - though unfortunately we can never test that!

I've been following your comments on Motivation with some interest.  In part because I have kids, but also because I'm a psychologist and find motivation fascinating.

I actually teach 2 different psych courses at university (one undergrad, one graduate) and we talk a lot about how to motivate people at work.  I've also designed leadership programs for large organizations.  (I'm an Industrial / Organizational psychologist, so I focus on the psychology of work / organizations.)

What I can say with absolute certainty is ... there is no certainty in motivation.

It may be the single most complicated, contradictory, and fascinating topic in my world.  Half the theories seem to contradict with the other half.  And what works in one situation will fail miserably in another situation.  What motivates one leader (or employee) is different than another leader (or employee.)  What motivates my daughter is totally different than what motivates my son.

The closest I can get to a "simple" theory of motivation comes from the Ohio State Studies done 60 years or so ago.  They found that people need two things from a leader to thrive - "consideration" and "initiating structure".

In other words, everyone needs to have both "play" and "purpose" in their lives.

When we praise "smart" usually what we're doing is focusing on "purpose" and neglecting "play."  So we have people who avoid risk because failure would harm their identity and therefore their "purpose" (i.e., being smart).  Everything is done to protect that identity - so you take the easy way, because it protects your self-view.

The flip side is an over-emphasis on "play".  In this case, everyone gets a ribbon for participating.  We get recognized for "trying" and not so much for "doing."  We have inflated self-esteem but an inability to act, perform, or solve problems.

Great leaders, and therefore great motivators, do both of these at the same time. They offer play (relationships, coaching, a shoulder to cry on, encouragement, fun) while also expecting purpose (results, accountability, challenge, effort, success).

This tension is difficult.  Which is why people (and society) swings from one pole to the other.  I fully expect the next generation to receive more "tough love" from their parents as a response to getting trophies for showing up.

Of course true motivation is more complex than this.  And I could go on - but to really talk about motivation you'd need a whole semester (or longer!)

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