Followers of my writing understand the four characteristics I believe should be nurtured in our children. These are a healthy sense of self, the ability to relate to others appropriately, develop a sense of autonomy and finally to have a purpose in life. In this Newsletter I want to discuss the subtlety of purpose especially for the kids whose history leads them to believe their life has no purpose (see Newsletter Creating Purpose - 12 February 2018)!
A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction. If you examine people who you would consider successful and content you would see individuals involved in a range of endeavours. These activities extend from working in large corporations, making million dollar deals to those who have dedicated their life to a political ideal. Others have devoted their life to a particular sport or recreation and others who work with charities helping those less fortunate than their self. The list is endless but there is a commonality and that is they have an intrinsic motivation that drives their behaviour. These successful people have aligned their life’s purpose with their distinct sense of who they are.
In the best of situations, we can work in jobs that are directly related to our intrinsic goals. For the children coming from a disadvantaged base it is unlikely that they will have in the first instance the ability to work in an area that captures their imagination.
This is the problem; how do you get these children who think they are worthless to even attempt to plan for such a future. This can be achieved by not only using short term goals to engage them, in the first instance and to encourage them to always strive for excellence in the tasks you set them.
One problem that must be addressed is that in the early stages of change there is a significant amount of negativity that is part of their sense of shame. These children have a default position of failure and we are asking them to attempt something that they may well find very threatening. This can be overcome providing them with the key pillars of any successful classroom, structure, expectations and healthy relationships – no surprises here!
A technique to help students engage with learning, I learned from a colleague and friend Randall Clinch provides a useful description of our approach to classwork. His approach divides the motives for undertaking effort into four categories. In the first instance Randall spoke of a negative cycle that could be initiated when undertaking a challenge. These are the negative traps we can fall into if we do not approach work with the best of motives:
- Excitement – This is the feeling of excitement when we choose not to attend to our work. Instead of attending school we may decide to truant and that can be accompanied with a sense of excitement. There is a sense of danger the first time we take such a risk. But excitement is a short-term feeling feedback that you are doing ‘the wrong thing’ and can help motivate you not to truant.
However, the more you truant the less excitement is experienced and the easier it is to ‘do the wrong thing’.
- Hardness – This is a feeling we experience when we have to do something we are made to do, something we don't want to do or something we think we can't do. This is prevalent in all classrooms where teachers insist on the students doing their work. It can also be a problem when we start a new job. Everyone experiences some apprehension when they are placed in an unfamiliar setting.
- Guilt – Guilt is closely associated with shame so there is no surprise that these children can be victims of this emotion. We feel guilt when we know the work we have done is not our best effort. If the task we have been set is not engaging then it is tempting to just put in a minimal effort. What our students need to know is that most jobs are boring especially at the start. Some jobs, such as production line work will be boring and it is hard to remain enthusiastic about it.
- Frustration – This is the final trap we can fall into if we fail to take a positive attitude into our work. Frustration comes after we complete a task and as we look back we recognize that our actions have not met our expectations. The task is finished and we have to submit something that will produce a sense of shame. The redeeming factor, if there is such a thing is this is healthy shame.
The alternate to these negative outcomes from not putting in our best effort are given below.
- Excitement – This is the feeling that comes from the expectation of an activity that holds an element of fear. For a pleasing life we need a bit of excitement. It is important on a personal level and explains the popularity of ‘dangerous’ carnival rides such as the roller coaster. And it’s no surprise teenagers are particularly attracted to ‘excitement’ but of all the motivators the satisfaction excitement provides is very short lived. The ‘excitement’ of an activity soon abates and we require either other activities or we need to take even more risks.
Excitement is no motivator for long term success in work.
- Enjoyment – This is the ideal motivator for any vocation. Going to work to do something you enjoy makes life easy. It is the ideal way to earn your income. But as I have pointed out the number of people who have the privilege of working at what they love is small and usually for those who have had an equally privileged developmental childhood.
- Reward – This is working ‘for the money’. There is nothing wrong for doing this as long as it is in a way that doesn’t clash with your deep sense of worth. It may be possible to make a great deal of money selling scam products, the market place is full of such schemes. Unless your intrinsic sense of ethics and personal qualities gives you to believe that taking advantage of other’s gullibility is part of life’s competition, working in such occupations will clash with your intrinsic drives.
However honest work will provide support for your sense of self and the resources to support your real goals.
- Satisfaction – This is the best type of work. This is when you work in such a way as to improve your own talents and experiences in a way that will increase the professional skills you possess. Along with improvement of your ‘self’, there is a great deal of fulfilment in undertaking work that improves the lives of others. This can be providing things like new roads, fixing cars, working in the service industry and making someone’s experience special because you treated them well.
The fact remains that school work is often threatening for these kids but it can be very boring for all kids. Unless we make a concerted effort the easy path is into those outlined in the negative outcomes. It takes a special quality to naturally have enthusiasm for the mundane. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be downhearted about the work you have to do. The four positive approaches can help anyone to remain actively engaged in any task.