The Great Motivator

July 15th, 2009

Anxiety works.  But is it worth it?

Not long ago, we found ourselves talking with good friends about what motivates kids to work hard and do well at school and other activities–something that I think pretty much every parent of a teenager would like some insight into.

Ultimately we decided there were two main ways people are motivated to work hard.  One is by interest.  If you enjoy a certain subject or activity, you’re going to want to throw yourself into, work hard at it, learn more about it, find a way to do it as much as possible . . .   The only down side is that  if you don’t enjoy a subject or an activity, you can’t find any reason to work hard at it. 

Kids who are motivated purely by their interests are likely to have uneven report cards and some teachers who love them and some teachers who are frustrated by them–and who are mystified why the other group of teachers love them.

The other motivator is anxiety–the fear that if you don’t study or work hard, you’ll fail and disappoint everyone around you, including yourself.   

Kids who are motivated by anxiety often do extremely well at school–but it comes at a price of sleepless nights, self-doubt, and that annoying tendency to say, “I am SO going to fail that test!” right before getting a better grade than anyone else.

Here’s an interesting thing.  Ask me which I’d want for my kids–motivation by interest or by anxiety–and I’ll instantly say “interest.”  When I look around at the adults I know, I get some sense about how both attitudes play out over time and it seems to me the people who rise to the occasion when something piques their interest are the ones who have the happiest and most interesting adult careers.  

We all know the opposite type, too, the ones who never once stopped to think about what they enjoyed doing because they were too focused on doing well at everything.  Those people often end up choosing a career because they’re good at it and it’s prestigious, not because they love it. There’s an emptiness that comes with that.  Sometimes even sadness.

Okay, so I get that motivation by interest is probably a happier life choice.  Why, then, does it drive me crazy when my teenage son refuses to worry about an upcoming test in a class that doesn’t particularly interest him, does the bare minimum of studying, and is satisfied with a decent but not stellar grade?  Why do I poke and prod at him with words, trying to get him to–yes–WORRY more about these things?  I’ve seen him work hard at stuff he loves but I can’t get him to fret about the rest.

It’s possible that he’s a lot healthier emotionally than I am.  In fact, it’s likely.

Anxiety always motivated me–still does.  It doesn’t even matter what the category is, writing, parenting, housekeeping, blogging . . .   Others are doing better, doing more, speeding ahead, and I’m losing a competition that’s entirely in my own head.

On the plus side . . . I do love writing and I’ve managed to make a career for myself out of it.  So even thought I can see the dark side of my own anxiety, I’m also not ready to abandon the strategy that got me to where I am right now.

And I think that’s the root of the problem for me.  On some level, I believe that anxiety produces results.  It did for me, right?  And, like the dad I once knew who talked about how much he hated his old school–and then enrolled his kid there–I have a vague sense that whatever made me who I am is valuablefor that reason alone and should be handed down to my kids.

That’s a false belief.  As I sit here and write it down, I know that.  There are many things I would change about who I am as an adult, but first and foremost would be to get rid of the anxiety that walks with me everywhere I go, tears down my accomplishments, keeps me up at night, makes me fret with indecision, regret, disappointment, even self-loathing . . .

Anxiety is not something you should wish on your kids, even if it brings straight A’s and an Ivy League college education along with it.  The price is too high.

So . . . my hope is that my son will find something he loves to do and work hard to succeed at it because it gives him pleasure, not because he’ll think he’s a failure if he doesn’t.   

Actually, I think I’ll wish for that for all my kids.  And for myself, too.