In every sphere of life, success and the attainment of excellence is impossible without the ambition to learn and to apply that knowledge. The will to succeed is more important than any single tool to do so. We could bludgeon knowledge into the minds of students, but, no matter how hard we try, we will never succeed as thoroughly unless a student wants to learn. Even better: is driven to learn. Best: craves learning. Fostering the appetite for learning and excellence is a topic I have thought about and experimented with for years. Here is what I have learned:
1. Provide meaning. People will only do something if they perceive it to have value. This fact might seem obvious, but it is woefully neglected in academia. Why study Biology? If you are only interested in Art, why learn Mathematics? These questions demand answers if we hope to be able to motivate any student. Some students will be motivated enough by grades or the expectation of their parents to do well in school. But these reasons will not suffice for all students. Thus, the first step to motivating anyone to do anything is to convince them that the work is worth it. Here is a post that helps explain why every aspect of education is worth it.
2. Convince them they can succeed. Even if people think something has value, they will not attempt it unless they believe they can succeed. If people believe a task to be impossible, they will not try. Thus, the second step must be convincing students that they can achieve success. Once they start working hard, they will start seeing results, and then we can use this incremental success to reinforce and show them that they can achieve success.
3. Indoctrinate good values. At the beginning of every session with students who struggle to complete their work and hit even a fraction of their potential, I ask, “What’s the key to success?” They respond, “Hard-work.” And then we start the session. This routine is important for two reasons: 1) It teaches them what the key to success is, which most students did not know, and 2) The repetition ingrains this knowledge. Repeated enough times, this knowledge becomes a value. Values shape and initiate behavior. Behavior becomes habit. And a habit of hard-work will lead anyone to success in whatever they choose.
4. Prompt them to think long-term. Ask your children (especially if they are teenagers) where they see themselves in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and 50 years. Have them write down with as much detail as they can where they see themselves at those increments. Chances are they have never thought seriously about the long-term future. (Most adults do not even do so.) But, although this may seem obvious: they will become their future selves, so they should obviously have an incredible interest in ensuring that “future self” is doing well. Many students will say that they want to be a doctor, an engineer, etc. However, they might be getting B’s and C’s in school, yet they do not see the disconnect between their current achievement and what it will take to reach their goals. Typically, no one has ever connected the dots for them to let them know what they need to do to achieve their goals. Thus, the first step is getting a child to think long-term. The second is explaining how to achieve those long-term goals.
5. Give them tools to succeed. Doing so can take a variety of forms: sitting with your child to teach them, getting them a tutor, or simply giving them a quiet space to work on homework. But sometimes giving children the tools to success is “laying down the law” and taking away phones or video games; doing so is giving them the gift (even though they will likely not see it this way) of uninterrupted and productive time. Children and even young adults have lower impulse control, and it is simply an unrealistic expectation that most will ignore their phones if they see a text notification. A tool is useless if not picked up, but, if we provide tools for success, then we are giving people the opportunity to accelerate their success and increasing their probability of achieving it.
6. Advise them to choose quality friends. You might have heard the quote from the motivational speaker Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If you surround yourself with people of good character who work hard, then you are setting yourself up to be like them and to succeed. But the reverse is also true. Thus, choosing good friends is important for a multitude of reasons, but also for attaining personal success as well.
7. Be there to catch people when they fall. Obstacles in the path to success are unavoidable, so everyone will stumble in the pursuit of any goal. But do not let a person quit a worthwhile endeavor. Give people encouragement and help them to see that this setback is temporary. Ultimately, this encouragement teaches people perseverance, one of the most important attributes for attaining success. We all fall; who gets up and how fast will determine who wins the race.
If a car is in neutral, you can push it to its destination. But how much faster and easier if that car starts its engine and drives? How much more likely that it will reach its destination? To help students reach their goals, we need to help them start their own engines, to be self-motivated, and to advance themselves. Fostering ambition can help jump-start that engine and help it to run smoothly so that students can attain their potential and achieve success.