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Motivating Factors

May 15, 2011

“We are not supposed to be perfect.  We are supposed to be useful.” — Leonard Peltier

A few weeks ago, a senior in my philosophy class–let’s call him Andy– asked me, “How do you stay motivated?”

I don’t think he was interested in what kept me going, per se.  I think he wanted to know how anyone had motivation, and if there was perhaps some  magic elixir I could share with him.  I remember thinking at the the time that when we are young we are far more willing to look at the world thus: if I could just find that one answer I’m looking for, everything will fall into place.  If I could just get my car, if I could just get that girl to notice me, if I could just get my diploma, then it’s all going to be o.k.

Come to think of it, we keep doing that as adults, don’t we?   I think this is why his question has stuck with me so.  What keeps me motivated, and why does Andy struggle with it?  What keeps our current class valedictorian so motivated that she’ll do extra credit for me if her grade slips down to a 98?  Conversely, what keeps one of my colleagues–let’s call her Andrea–from being  motivated?   Andrea uses all of her sick days  up by February vacation and seems perpetually  resentful of the presence of her students.

I wonder if Andrea thinks if she can just make it to Friday, or the end of the school year, or to retirement, then everything will be o.k..  The problem is that most of her day is filled with events and interactions that make those goals seem so far away.  Maybe that’s why she’s so unmotivated.  She has a goal, but it doesn’t get her what she needs, and she has to wait so long to get it.

This strikes me as ironic, because every motivational speaker–whether they be self-help gurus, retired professional athletes, or pseudoscientific charlatans (or all of the above!)–will tell you that the key to motivation is to set realistic goals and work towards them.  I won’t dispute this, but it seems to me those goals also  have to be meaningful–that the process of obtaining them must be just as valuable, if not more, than the goal itself.   For Andrea, there is nothing meaningful that happens between her showing up at work and her next day off.

I think the same may be  true of Andy.  He wants to graduate high school, but he can’t get motivated enough to do what  he needs to do to finish, perhaps because there is no meaning in it for him.  This wouldn’t shock me–Andy might be the smartest kid I have ever  taught.  He  is likely bored by high school.  Of course, if we are bored and uninterested in what we are doing, it becomes virtually impossible to derive any meaning from it.

I tried to answer Andy as honestly as I could.  He’s here to get his diploma.  If that is the single most meaningful thing in his life right now,  he could do it–and in his case, with very little effort.   However, if he  is encumbered by the fact that  a lot of what he is being asked to do is purposeless–well, he’s right.  It’s high school.  A lot of it is stupid.  A lot of it is pointless.  A lot of it will be so unimportant in a few years, it will disappear down the memory hole, never to resurface again.  As I frequently tell my students:  if you ever meet someone my age who says high school was the best time of his life, run like hell away from him, because his life sucks in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine.

So I asked Andy what he ultimately wanted–to walk in graduation with his fellow seniors?  To walk away early to adult ed or a GED test?  To stay at home until his parents died and it becomes his?   He confessed that he was afraid of those choices, because he didn’t want to be a quitter (I think he actually meant being  judged a quitter by his parents, but that’s just my supposition).  I told him there was no shame in quitting something he found meaningless.   Ultimately, though, he was going to have to figure that out on his own.

He thanked me for the advice, and he left me hoping I had been of some use to him.  Then I started thinking about what kept me motivated at a sometimes thankless job that despite some common misconceptions, doesn’t pay very much and eats up a great deal of energy.  And though I will be the first to admit that I am happy on Friday afternoons, and relieved at the end of the school year, those are rarely at the forefront of my mind.  Indeed, I am sometimes asked how many days are left in the school year, and I take it as a good sign that I rarely know.

So what does motivate me?  Relationships.  The relationships with my students, with my colleagues, with the materials and ideas I teach.  I find meaning in all of these.  Indeed, I would argue that relationships are the single most important factor in a successful classroom and school.

In fact, I will argue that extensively in my next post.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa permalink
    May 15, 2011 9:24 pm

    With my campus so quiet, no events planned out, and practically everyone is moved out already, I find myself asking the same things about motivation. I had/have a six day weekend right now until my exam days and I AM SO BORED. No motivation to do anything, although I should probably study for exams. It makes me wonder just how I will survive summer vacation this year, since I don’t have a job like last year that kept me busy from 9-5 every weekday, all my friends are relatively far away, and there is nothing to do in these small towns.

    I need goals like you mentioned, something to keep me interested, something to reward me at the end of a task, etc. My big motivation this summer to save me from being a couch potato will probably end up being drivers ed class, because I still don’t have my license and I want/need it. But those were my thoughts in response to your post. I do enjoy reading your blog! 🙂

    Psst, in other news– I made a WordPress account, and it won the ECSU Best ePortfolio Design Award in the Excellence Expo!

    Furthermore, when does Lyman get out? I’d like to pay you and some other teachers a visit some day soon. 🙂

    • May 16, 2011 9:48 pm

      I was hoping the post would generate a number of different responses, so I’m glad you wrote what you did. I think the thing to do now is to think: okay, my friends are gone, I’m not working, I’m going to have a lot of time to myself. Is there anything I’ve always wanted to do but I couldn’t because I was working or spending time with friends? I know you’re stuck in the small town, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing for someone in your situation. You are a creative, artisitc, clever individual. How can you put that creativity to good use this summer?

      Congrats on the Award! I’d love to see the portfolio. What is the URL?

      Lyman gets out on the 14th–and Mrs. Gibson just retruned, so I’m sure she’d love a visit from you.

      • Melissa permalink
        May 16, 2011 10:16 pm

        Yea, I think this will be the summer I get back to writing my book. I practically abandoned it this year, with all the work and stress going on! 😦

        Oh and my blog can be found at:
        Some of the categories on there are odd because they were made to accommodate a rubric for the competition. Its still a work-in-progress, but I post on it sometimes. 🙂

        And I really do hope to see Mrs. Gibson. I gotta tell her I switched my major to Digital Art & Graphic Design!

  2. May 16, 2011 1:36 pm

    Another excellent and reflective post. Motivation…so much the key to everything we do. Why do we slog through things forever on end that we know bring us nothing but the wish for it all to end? I read something once about motivation and work: “If you hate your job you should leave it. And if you can’t leave it, then you need to figure out how love it.”

    Finding meaning and purpose in what you do is the most important thing. I realized the other day that my new job is so much more meaningful for me now because I feel like what I do matters to people. I’m helping them achieve dreams. For me, there is nothing more satisfying that being a part of that.

    Agreed. Relationship is the most important part of teaching. It can also be the most toxic, if you aren’t careful. Know what I mean?

    Good post, hubby. You rock it big time!

    • May 16, 2011 9:53 pm

      I’m very happy you are enjoying your new job so much. It’s so good to see you not dreading your work, and not coming home frustrated and drained. It’s also wonderful to know you are finding meaning in what you do.

      I know exactly what you mean about toxicity–that will be explored as part of the next post. Relationships are, of course, a double edged sword.

      Thanks for your kind words, wifey. Got nothing but love for you! Yes, my urban slang is all from the 90s. Deal with it. 🙂

  3. June 6, 2011 5:06 am

    I like the post. Personally i ‘ve always wondered the same thing about the super academics and never understood why they do it. XD

    Is it strange that I dont really think about my own motivation? For some reason i dont question it. If I want to do something i just do it. If its difficult i just accept it and enjoy the journey. For example, at the beginning of last month I decided i wanted to visit some of my friends down in fairfield. I dont have a car so i decided to bike there. (I talked about it on my blog if you are interested in the details.) A few days later i set out and after getting lost several times ended up biking about 90 miles across the state in 7 hours. My body was pretty much giving up by the time i arrived. My lungs burned, my legs were jello, I was dehydrated even though i drank over a gallon on the way, i had burned about 3500 calories from the biking itself, never mind what i normally need and was tired as heck. Yet, somehow over the entire journey i never thought of turning back, or giving up, or what was ahead, or even why i was doing it. I just did.

    Thinking back I could have waited a week to see my friends, I could have taken a train most of the way there, there is all kinds of other ways i could have gotten there. Yet I just stuck with biking and the thought to do something differently never crossed my mind.

    What’s your opinion?

    • Melissa Nosal permalink
      June 6, 2011 5:46 am

      Wouldn’t that just suck if your friend wasn’t even home? Although I guess it wouldn’t REALLY be time wasted, since you got good exercise, etc. 😉

    • June 20, 2011 8:48 pm

      My opinion is there must have been something about the biking experience that you wanted to have. In other words, I have no doubt that you wanted to see your friends. I think what you probably wanted to do was go on a bike trip. This would explain, I think, why you never questioned the validity of your choice, or its difficulty. This is what you set out to do. And that, of course, raised an interesting question about motivation. It’s pretty easy not to question your motivation to do something when you want to do it. Rarely do we wonder about that. To me, what is more interesting is why don’t you want to do something you know you should do, or should be doing? I would suggest the next time you find yourself in that situation, think about what is affecting your motivation. And then, compare that thought to how you feel when you want to do something without reservation. I think it’s at those moments we get insight into what motivates us.

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