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  • Jackie Luo

How Should our Children Motivate Themselves?

April 12, 2020

As high schools are adjusting their grading methods in response to the virtual learning environment, suddenly, some students may find that they are missing a purpose for their daily grind. Before the close-down, they were focused on getting high GPAs and getting an “A” in every test. Now it’s uncertain how the grades are going to be determined. They might just get a pass, no matter how hard they work. That is demotivating somehow.

They are asking themselves, “should I really work that hard? What’s the purpose?”


That is the problem when we tie learning to some extrinsic rewards like curve-based grades or GPAs. Our society has long conditioned our students and educators this way. Learning should be a life-long endeavor. We know all successful people, in all walks of life, have a passion for learning. Warren Buffet is famous for reading 500 pages a day. Mark Zuckerberg reads multiple books a week. Bill Gates publishes his reading list frequently. If you ask many employers what they value in an employee, a top quality is “innate curiosity and the desire to learn new things”. To cultivate a life-long habit of learning, using an arbitrary externally focused measure, such as curve-based grades, is not a sustainable motivation. ​


So how should we give guidance to our children when it comes to develop motivations? We want them to develop sustainable motivations so they can not only become life-long learners, but also achieve their highest potential in whatever they choose to do.

The best-selling author and research psychologist Daniel Pink has identified three key motivations behind some high achievers’ consistent quest for excellence: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

1. Autonomy. We want our children to know that they can decide what they want to do and how to do it. The school environment and the need to pursue extra curriculum activities tend to impose many pre-defined tasks on them. They perhaps don’t feel a sense of ownership to these tasks. Now, we no longer have many pre-defined tasks during this “shelter-at-home” period, it is a good time for us to instill a sense of self-management into our children.

2. Mastery. Our children are used to learning to get good grades. With most schools getting rid of the numbered grade for the remainder of the school year, they may question, “why do I want to study so hard on this subject?” We hope they want to study hard because are driven by the need for “mastery”. Mastery is a strong motivation. People will work extra hours, immersing themselves in a topic, just so they derive satisfaction from mastering something. That is how people, whether Olympic athletes or successful entrepreneurs, can achieve superior performance.

3. Purpose. We all need to have a sense of purpose to ground our daily activities. High school students should be encouraged to explore and define their purpose in life. That purpose will guide their choices after high school. Searching for purpose is a journey, but it will avoid wasting time on things that don’t serve the purpose. In the United States, 30% of colleges freshmen drop out after their first year. That is a big waste of time and money. If these students had asked the question “What’s my purpose in life?” They might have realized that going to college after high school wasn’t the right path for them. That could have avoided the costly mistake. Not everyone needs to go to college. As long as you have a clear purpose in life, you will figure out a way to achieve your goals.

During this unusual time of “Shelter-at-Home” period, while our usual lives are disrupted, it could be an opportunity for us to encourage our teenagers to think about their purpose in life, decide what they want to spend their time on, and try to master things they want to work on. If they do that, 10 years later when they look back at this COVID-19 period, this might just be the turning point in their lives.


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