“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Lao Tzu
Is motivation a skill? Since skill can be defined as any action or activity that can be learnt then it would seem that motivation is indeed a skill. In fact, in recent years there have been vast numbers of speakers and books supposedly explaining how we can develop our motivation skills, especially from the sporting elite or business gurus. Perhaps more importantly, there has been a lot of international research and scientific studies to investigate and analyse the skill of motivation, which I have spent several years attempting to share.
In 2003, I created my presentation, ‘What Motivates Us’ as part of my role as a Learning Consultant, to support organisations, schools and parents with the behaviour of children. I have given this session many times since then and every time it has been clear that few people seem to know or understand much about the research or evidence on motivation, and the evaluations invariably commented on this and appreciated that I’d brought it to their attention.
“A Theory of Human Motivation” – Maslow’s Hierarchy
The biggest surprise for me in giving these presentations on motivation was that very few people seem to be aware of ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, yet it had been first proposed 60 years previously. I discovered Maslow’s Hierarchy in the mid-eighties and it had a big impact on my research, introducing me to the term ‘self–esteem’. The following extract from the introduction to the 1943 original paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, illustrates that his theory was derived from his research and how he was keen for it to be tested.
“The present paper is an attempt to formulate a positive theory of motivation which will satisfy these theoretical demands and at the same time conform to the known facts, clinical and observational as well as experimental. It derives most directly, however, from clinical experience.”
In essence, Abraham Maslow had discovered that when we are born we are motivated to get what we need to survive and only when we have achieved this, which requires us to develop, can we focus on our next level of motivation and so this ‘hierarchy of needs’ is continued. This is a very simplified version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Survival needs such as water, air, food, warmth and sleep.
Safety and Security
Being and feeling safe and secure providing good health and well-being,
Social (Love and Belonging)
We are social animals so need to feel loved, affection and that we belong. Friendships, romantic attachments, families can fulfil this need, but also involvement and acceptance among their social groups, clubs, workplace, religious groups, and gangs. We need to love and be loved, and are susceptible to loneliness.
We need to feel valued by others.and that they respect us i.e. care and consider our thoughts and feelings. We are susceptible to using criteria to compare ourselves that is superficial, transient and relatively unimportant.
Feeling contented with ourselves and mission-focused. Maslow (1970) estimated that only 2% of people will reach this level, characterised by accepting themselves and others for what they are, able to look at life objectively, creative, resistant to enculturation, concerned for the welfare of humanity and capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience.
On the numerous times I’ve shown and explained this hierarchy of needs in my sessions the response from my delegates (audience) has been extremely positive and disappointed they did not already know about it. The simplicity, rationality and applicability of it gives the impression that it should be ‘common sense’, but clearly it is not.
Since each level requires further development of people, it useful in explaining that motivation is a skill that can be learnt, and with numerous people I have used it to explain that many difficulties are due to what is motivating us. Bullying is a very good example of how Maslow’s Hierarchy can help people to understand the need to develop their skill of motivation since people are vulnerable to bullying if they have security, belonging or esteem needs and have not the skills to avoid or resist the method of bullying.
Locus of Control
In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter introduced the psychological concept of locus of control, referring to how strongly people believe they have control over the situations and experiences that affect their lives. Since its introduction this concept has been extensively applied, I began using it in the mid-eighties in my teaching (and research) and extended a great deal (see mindsets) because of its usefulness.
A good example of the application of locus of control is in education and how students perceive the reasons for their academic success or failure in school.
Internal locus of control – these students believe that their success or failure is a result of the effort and hard work they have invested.
External locus of control – these students believe that their success or failure is a result from factors beyond their control, such as genes, luck, fate, bias, poor or unfair teachers.
There is substantial evidence and my own research supports it, that whether a student has an internal or external locus of control has powerful effect on their motivation. The skill of motivation became an important part of my research findings and teaching, and discovering the research on locus of control in the eighties was extremely encouraging and helpful.
By the mid-eighties, I had spent about 10 years of surveying and interviewing students as part of my research and the skill of motivation had become one of the five learning requirements. The evidence was clear that the students who were struggling, the vulnerable young people, had a view of themselves and life that invariably seemed to blame others and unable to take responsibility for their behaviour. Consequently, discovering that these people had been identified by Rotter as having ‘external locus of control’ was very reassuring and I began using this term to understand and explain their behaviour. I gradually began integrating the characteristics (behaviours) of locus of control into reports and profiles, as well as in interviews with the students (usually when sent to me for ‘bad behaviour’).
Carol Dweck and Mindsets
In 2008 I bought and read a book written by psychologist Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, and I was delighted with it. Basically, she had spent many years experimenting and researching motivation, continuing the theme of locus of control, though it is not mentioned, or Julian Rotter, throughout the book. As well as this focus relating so closely to some of my own, there were several other reasons for my delight with her book.
- Being such a fan of sport I was pleased she used a number of examples from sport to establish and explain her research.
- She had experimented extensively with students in the classroom, as I had.
- Her theories are based on scientific research, and include brain research.
- She provides simple clear practical approaches.
- She begins chapter 1 with the following introduction that could almost be written by me –
“When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that changed my life. I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple with hard problems”
In recent years, Carol Dweck has become internationally well-known (excellent TED TALK November 2014) and her theories used by numerous schools and educators worldwide to inform how students should be taught more effectively.
Carol Dweck uses the term “mindset”, to describe how people perceive themselves (self-awareness) in relation to their success and intelligence. Instead of using internal and external locus of control, she uses “Fixed and Growth Mindsets”.
Fixed Mindset – people believe that their talents and abilities are fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that; nothing can be done to change it. When people adopt the fixed mindset, it can limit their success. They become over-concerned with proving their talents and abilities, hiding deficiencies, and reacting defensively to mistakes or setbacks-because deficiencies and mistakes imply a (permanent) lack of talent or ability. People in this mindset will actually pass up important opportunities to learn and grow if there is a risk of unmasking weaknesses
Growth mindset – people believe that their talents and abilities can be developed through passion, education, and persistence. For them, it’s not about looking smart or grooming their image. It’s about a commitment to learning–taking informed risks and learning from the results, surrounding yourself with people who will challenge you to grow, looking frankly at your deficiencies and seeking to remedy them. Most great business leaders have had this mindset, because building and maintaining excellent organizations in the face of constant change requires it.
As with locus of control, this provided me with terminology and research evidence to support my own and clearly illustrate a very important aspect of the skill of motivation. I entitled chapter 18 in my first book (A Wonderful Life?), ‘Locus of Control and Mindset’ and attempted to demonstrate how having a fixed mindset can be be so damaging and needs to be a key focus for mentors, coaches, teachers, parents etc. to try to change in the people they are supporting.
I have shown a video clip of Carol Dweck to hundreds of parents and staff in my sessions and they have virtually all been both surprised and impressed. In this video Carol Dweck explains why saying to your child, “You’re so clever”, can be so damaging, as it can help them to create a fixed mindset, whereas praising them for their effort can help to create a growth mindset. The discussions provoked have been excellent and very powerful in persuading them to rethink their parenting, teaching, mentoring etc.
Paul Tough’s very popular book “How Children Succeed” published in 2012, provided further support and publicity to Carol Dweck’s work ((pages 96/7) as has Martin Seligman in “Flourish” (2011). The section on “Parenting” provides further information on her work.
Angela Lee Duckworth and Grit
Paul Tough’s book actually has the full title “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character”, the reference to “Grit” relates to the work of Angela Lee Duckworth, who gave a TED talk in April 2013 on “The key to success? Grit” in which she said:
“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called “growth mindset.” This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
Angela Lee Duckworth features a great deal in Martin Seligman’s book “Flourish”, who helped to select her for her PhD program at Penn University in 2002. On page117, he has written the conclusion of her first-year thesis in which she compared IQ with self-discipline in predicting grades.
“Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes. We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline… We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.” Research Article Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents 2005 American Psychological Society Volume 16—Number 12
I first became aware of Angela Lee Duckworth through her 2009 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6 with Christopher Peterson, Michael Matthews and Dennis Kelly entited “Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. She has also collaborated with Walter Mischel, and to my delight she has focused on studying and measuring an aspect of the skill of motivation via a Grit scale which can be found at ‘The Duckworth Lab’ (https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth/pages/research). The research statement from it illustrates how closely it relates to my own research and the 8 skills.
“Our lab focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.
Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007).
Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, in press).
On average, individuals who are gritty are more self-controlled, but the correlation between these two traits is not perfect: Some individuals are paragons of grit but not self-control, and some exceptionally well-regulated individuals are not especially gritty” (Duckworth & Gross, 2014).
Angela has been a key collaborator with Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson in measuring the character skills which overlap greatly with the 8 skills. I feel her background as a teacher has been invaluable in this and the following extract from her TED talk ends with quoting a phrase I began using in the late seventies to emphasise learning skills like motivation!
“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hardto make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence
When Daniel Goleman finally publicised Emotional Intelligence to the world with his book in 1995, I was very relieved, as I had some very useful references and support for my own research.
Chapter 6 is entitled, “The Master Aptitude,” and focuses on the skills of self-management and motivation. On page 80 he wrote:
“What seems to set apart those at the very top of competitive pursuits from others of roughly equal ability is the degree to which, beginning early in life, they can pursue an arduous practice routine for years and years. And that doggedness depends on emotional traits—enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks—above all else.”
In his this book, Daniel Goleman made no attempts to measure emotional intelligence but he did refer to Martin Seligman on page 88 and the tests he had used on optimism, illustrating that this aspect of the skill of motivation is already being measured.
“Seligman defines optimism in terms of how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. People who are optimistic see failure as due to something that can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change.”
On the same page he writes “optimism predicts academic success”, and he refers to some of Martin Seligman’s research illustrating this. However, in Daniel Goleman’s next book, “Working With Emotional Intelligence”, published in 1998, he does provide attempts to measure emotional competence, as he calls it on page 26.
Here is the section on motivation.
The Emotional Competence Framework
· Achievement drive: Striving to improve or meet a standard of excellence.
· Commitment: Aligning with the goals of the group or organization.
· Initiative: Readiness to act on opportunities.
· Optimism: Persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks.
Dan Pink and “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”
He proposes that motivation based on self-determination theory (SDT) developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the seventies should now be applied.
“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Here is what science knows.
- Those 20th century rewards, those motivators we think are a natural part of business, do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.
- Those if-then rewards often destroy creativity.
- The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive– the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cos they matter.”
This is an extract from Dan Pink’s TED Talk on July 2009 on ‘The puzzle of motivation’, reflecting the key points from his book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’. Both the book and the talk have been very popular, increasing awareness and understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In essence, he has applied to the business world the research evidence from several decades of international psychology research and very much supporting my own, illustrating that developing intrinsic motivation is far more effective than using rewards and extrinsic motivation.
Throughout this book I’ve outlined my own research and the importance of the skill of motivation has been very significant, especially in studying my own development and the students. For me personally when I was young and in my teens I became motivated by the joy of having a great personal performance in sport rather than the reward of winning, basically I became intrinsically motivated. Similarly when I became a teacher, I had little interest in my salary, and was motivated by the challenge (the joy) of becoming as effective as possible, hence becoming a teacher/researcher and my quest leading to the evolution of the 8 skills.
Dan Pink applies the extensive research that the traditional ‘carrot-and-stick approach’ to motivating people (employees, students etc.), reward the behaviour you want, and punish the behaviour you don’t, only works for routine, unchallenging and highly controlled tasks. However, the 21st century jobs have changed dramatically and have become more interesting, creative, complex and self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick approach has become counter-productive leading to less of what is wanted and more of what is not wanted.
He proposes that we need to focus on motivation based on the self-determination theory (SDT) developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the seventies should now be applied by developing intrinsically motivated people and provide these three things:
- Autonomy: the ability to direct their own lives, have choice and some degree of control
- Mastery: the need to learn and create new things and the opportunity to become better at something that matters to them
- Purpose: an understanding of the meaning behind what they do and a sense that they are contributing to something greater and more lasting than themselves.
Hopefully it is obvious that he is actually advocating that society in the 21st century needs to prioritise the development of one of the 8 skills, motivation.
I am a fan of the work of Martin Seligman, I refer to him on many occasions and perhaps the following quotes from him in the April 2011 issue in the Harvard Business Review illustrates one of the reasons why.
“Although I’m now called the father of positive psychology, I came to it the long, hard way, through many years of research on failure and helplessness. In the late 1960s I was part of the team that discovered “learned helplessness.” We found that dogs, rats, mice, and even cockroaches that experienced mildly painful shock over which they had no control would eventually just accept it, with no attempt to escape. It was next shown that human beings do the same thing…
Strangely however, about a third of the animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never become helpless. What is it about them that makes this so? Over 15 years of study, my colleagues and I discovered that the answer is optimism. We developed questionnaires and analyzed the content of verbatim speech and writing to assess “explanatory style” as optimistic or pessimistic. We discovered that people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. (“It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”) That suggested how we might immunize people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure: by teaching them to think like optimists. We created the Penn Resiliency Program, under the direction of Karen Reivich and Jane Gillham, of the University of Pennsylvania, for young adults and children.”
Since my mission is for developing and measuring the 8 skills to become central to our societies, then Martin Seligman and his many collaborators have already contributed a great deal towards this aim. His excellent 2011 book, “Flourish”, provides a lot of very useful research, information and resources to develop and measure various parts of the skill of motivation.
Probably due to my late start to literary research, until the nineties, I was only familiar with the term resilience in relation to science, “the ability to return to its original form having been bent, stretched or compressed”. However, I was familiar with the factors that contributed towards making people resilient.
Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.
Factors contributing to resilience
1. positive attitude,
3. able to manage emotions,
4. view setbacks as part of learning
Discovering the term resilience and the resilience factors was very helpful in clarifying the skill of motivation and how it is developed. In “Flourish”, Martin Seligman outlines “PERMA” which stands for the five essential elements that should be in place for us to experience lasting well-being (healthy, happy lives!).
- Positive Emotion (P)
We need positive emotion such as peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, or love as it’s really important to enjoy yourself in the present, providing the other elements of PERMA are in place.
- Engagement (E)
If we are fully engaged in a situation, task, or project, we experience a state of ‘Flow’, losing track of time and sense of self, The more we experience this type of engagement, the more likely we are to experience good lasting well-being.
- Positive Relationships (R)
We are “social beings,” and meaningful, positive good quality relationships with others are central to our well-being,
- Meaning (M)
Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves, a mission, purpose, religion, or a cause that helps humanity in some way..
- Accomplishment/Achievement (A)
Motivated or driven to better ourselves in some way, mastering skills, achieve a valuable goals, contributes to our ability to experience lasting well-being.
In Flourish, on page 115, Martin Seligman refers to the work of Anders Ericsson on ‘deliberate practice’ and emphasises that expertise is dependent on the number of hours of deliberate practice. If a person is to achieve lasting well-being then they will need to spend thousands of hours practising and developing the skills to achieve it.
For many years I have used the criteria in this table to assess and measure the skill of motivation of many people and I think you will find it relatively simple to use. Hopefully the various contributions to the skill of motivation outlined in this section can become integrated into societies via education, health, social, employment, government, media etc.