Unlocking the hidden potential in children

February 26, 2011

Just finished reading another amazing book by Daniel Pink – Drive. It’s a nice amalgamation of thoughts and learning from some of the greatest psychologists and behavioral economists of our time and Dan Pink wonderfully builds on their thinking to give us a nice operating system for the 21st century – dubbed Motivation 3.0. It is the key to unlocking hidden human potential especially in this day and age when the world needs more creative and conceptual thinking. The most profound learning for me was the impact of this thinking on parenting. I guess this is the change in perspective that comes when you became a father of three kids.

So what is the big learning. The idea that we as humans do our best when we are inner directed and self-driven is both very intuitive and at the same time quite unreal. Why the paradox? Well there are so many people out there who seem to only operate when there is a carrot or stick to drive them forward. They seem to be getting by, following the wave, going with the flow of the status quo. Thinking about why this is so I realized that this is a probably a symptom of Motivation 2.0, as Dan Pink puts it. After spending years of their life in a world of Motivation 2.0, people feel succumbed and resistant to the idea of autonomy. Now it is hard for them to imagine being self-directed and tune in to their inner selves. And I believe a large part of this has to do with parenting and schooling. What happens in an organizational life only further perpetuates a mindset many have grown up with. This is the reason why I feel it is important to positively influence the environment early on for kids and help them find their way to a self-directed and autonomous way of living.

Although the principles in the book apply across all life stages I have looked at them from a perspective of parenting. What are the the three driving principles of Motivation 3.0 as Dan Pink puts it?

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Larger Purpose

These are simple yet powerful principles that are key to unlocking human or a child’s hidden potential. The key premise being that we as humans thrive in an environment when we are given the freedom to do what we want to do, how we want to do, when we want to do and who we want to do it with. Obviously from a child’s perspective it seems bizarre to let them simply even do what they want since a young mind will not always know the difference between something harmful and harmless and therefore could end up doing some serious damage to themselves or to someone around them.

However, with proper direction and a set of controlled variables a child can be given the freedom to choose and practice some level of autonomy. For example, if a child is sent to the library for an hour to freely explore and choose a book as he pleases, there is little damage he could do but what he would do out of his own choice will be far more enabling and motivating then any forced learning.

The principle of Mastery is yet another profound concept. The idea being to shift behavior from performance goals to learning goals. For example, getting an A in science or becoming an explorer of the universe are two different things. Dan Pink talked about how performance goals have driven many corporate executives to game the system and focus so narrowly on short-term targets that they vastly undermine an organizations longer term interests. The same applies to children. A blind focus on grades means less learning and more focusing on anything that will help to get the grade. The quest for mastery creates enthusiasm and creates engagement in the task itself. One key trigger of this behavior is the mindset. If a child believes their intelligence is limited they would push to a certain extent until their self-belief drives them to stop trying. This was proven in an experiment when in another scenario children who believe that intelligence is expandable and can be nurtured work harder to overcome challenging situations. One way to put a child on the quest for mastery is to create opportunities which encourage “Flow” – a concept by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which he covered in a book by the same name. Those experiences when we are engaged in a Goldilocks task – not too hard, not too easy, but just right keep us going. And it is through these everyday experiences of “flow” we can set ourselves and our children on a path to mastery.

Last but not least, driving behavior through a larger purpose. I think this idea is important at all levels. From a child to an organization. Brands which adopt a larger purpose not only build loyalty amongst it’s customers but also it’s employees. I think there is a DNA code within us that drives us to pursue a purpose larger than ourselves and it is this larger purpose that makes us the most happy. The same applies for children. Explaining to them the larger purpose of what they are doing and why they are doing it can really drive them forward to pursue a task with greater zeal.

I could probably go on writing but in sum, Motivation 3.0 is driven by three principles: Autonomy, Mastery and Larger Purpose. This is one of the longest posts I have written and despite that I don’t think I have done justice to both the book and the topic. Drive is an amazing light read – one that I would highly recommend whether you are a parent, teacher, organization leader or simply human. It has some lessons in there for everyone.

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