Reach the carrots by ignoring them

Author Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which is also nicely summarized in his 20-minute TED Talk, argues that the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t lead to long-term motivation. Telling someone, “If you do this, you’ll get this” works for simple, rote tasks. But for 21st century jobs requiring creative thinking and innovation, the extrinsic motivators like money and authority are actually less effective than three intrinsic motivators:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Too many families approach the high school years using the carrot-and-stick approach to college prep.

If you do this: take hard classes, get good grades, study for the SAT, do community service, take leadership positions, etc.

You’ll get this: admission to a prestigious college.

Given the science that supports Pink’s argument, it’s no surprise that this approach fails far too often in one of two ways: (1) Kids do what they were told to do but still don’t get into their dream college, or (2) kids just can’t find the motivation and won’t engage in their college prep.

What if families took a different approach and focused their college prep on autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

Find the subjects and activities that appeal most to you. Work hard to engage and excel where your strengths naturally fit. And do all those things not just because they’ll help you get into college, but because they’ll also make you smarter, happier, more fulfilled, and ultimately more successful in whatever you decide to pursue.

Pink isn’t arguing that the path to motivation is to do only what you want to do whenever you want to do it. We all have responsibilities at school, at work, and/or at home that deserve our attention. And there’s nothing wrong with having aspirations and working hard to achieve them.

But motivation isn’t an unlimited resource. It needs to be refueled occasionally. And the promise of just-do-this-and-you’ll-get-this won’t refill the tank. There are plenty of things worth learning and worth doing. Students might do well to follow their internal motivators, the ones that draw them towards their natural interests and talents. Listen to those intuitions, put the work in to master them, and connect them to a greater purpose of becoming a better human being.

Do that over and over again, and you’ll be a lot more likely to reach those carrots, too.