The students at Olin College where I work never cease to impress me. This time it was the selection of Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-motivation as the summer reading book, which the entire community gathered to discuss at Convocation at the beginning of the semester. In my late 50s, I’m only beginning to understand my motivations and those of others but these engineering students are eager to develop a much deeper understanding of what makes them and others tick. These students also convinced Psychology Professor Edward Deci, the author, to come to their Convocation to speak and answer questions.
In Deci’s remarks he laid out his well-researched case for why providing support to make people “autonomous” or able to make their own decisions about life is the most powerful avenue for learning and engaging in life in general. He contends that for humans to fully enjoy health and wellbeing, there needs to be three conditions in place, a sense of competence, autonomy (you’ll have to read his book to understand why autonomy doesn’t always equate to independence) and relatedness. Giving students choice, understanding their perspectives, acknowledging difficulties and providing positive feedback are more likely to lead to greater persistence, better conceptual learning, more creativity, better problem solving and improved health and wellbeing, claims Deci.
Controlled motivation, often referred to as the stick-and-carrot approach, uses threats of punishment, deadlines, evaluations (grades) and competition, which lead to compliance or defiance, rigid thinking, short-term rote learning, algorithmic performance, alienation, short cutting and diminished mental and physical health.
I was surprised how much I learned from the book and more importantly how much of Deci’s advice I’m now incorporating into my daily life with success:
- I’ve stopped “introjecting” what my 20-year old son should be doing with the rest of his life and started listening to what he wants, and providing options and support.
- I’m not rigid about my “honey do” list for my husband and talk to him about what he wants to accomplish around the house, and explain my rationale for my list.
- I can see why my direct reports did an amazing job creating a recent news channel? Because it was their idea and I had the common sense to not get in their way.
Watch Deci answer five questions on motivation in this video. His work certainly helped me to think differently about how to relate to others, get my work done and enjoy life more.