Learning About Motivation from a 2 Year Old
In November 2010, my son Gavin turned 2. Literally overnight, his vocabulary and corresponding ability to express his intentions and desires, took a quantum leap. He has a strong will and likes to wield it toward pretty much everything he lays eyes on. He's particularly drawn to clasps, buckles, snaps, zippers and anything that closes, opens, connects, disconnects, inserts, and so on. Yes - we keep him away from electrical outlets. About 2 months ago he was buckling himself into his booster he said: "Daddy let me do it. I can do it". After just a little bit of effort, the buckle snapped closed and he exclaimed: "I DID IT!" I hugged him and celebrated with him and he gave me a "Gavin 5" - his version of a high five. I showed him the buckle and how the two straps connected it. At the time I didn't realize that in just a few minutes, 2-year old Gavin had strung together 3 phrases that are now his 3 most favorite things to say in the world: Let me do it! I can do it! I did it!
I thought this string of phrases was pretty cute and I told anyone that met Gavin about his "3 Fave Phrases". When I mentioned his "3 Faves" to a colleague at work, I realized that there was something much deeper at work in the willful mind of my 2 year old. Gavin's "3 fave phrases" represent the [intrinsic] motivation-reward cycle that drives all humans - we've all experienced motivation and sometimes rewards for accomplishing a goal we set for ourselves. A 2 year old's mentality offers a certain distillation of intrinsic motivation into its purest form.
I believe intrinsic motivation is the product of passion and perception: Motivation = Passion X Perception
Passion = One's desire to make a change, accomplish a goal.
Perception = One's perceived ability to accomplish a goal. Perception of ability develops from experiencing successes and failures.
I think about Gavin's "3 Fave Phrases" with respect to my role as a manager supporting high performance and capable people. The key for me has always been to understand how my team members are motivated and then create conditions that feed that motivation engine.
Let Me Do It! - The passion
Passion is the foundation that provides people with a desire to achieve. I believe people with passion want to contribute more, are more likely to take calculated risks, and are always looking to broaden their understanding of the world and how things fit together. When they take on more and try new things, they'll be successful most of the time. They may fail more too. But when they fail, they'll have learned something that will have made the stronger and better equipped for the next challenge. Lesson from my son: Create conditions for people to experiment and set goals and calculated risks, and when they want more responsibility or to try something new, do your best to support them.
I Can Do It! - The perception of ability
Perceiving one's ability to achieve a goal is the second critical factor for motivation to exist. A positive attitude is a huge benefit in this area. Believing in one's self also reinforces their likelihood to take more calculated risks. Ensure people can express their vision of success and what support it will take to achieve that vision, i.e when to ask for help. Lesson from my son: Give people time to practice to find opportunities to learn on the job and with the help of other skilled experts from which they can pick up best practices.
I Did It! - The reward, and the cycle continues
Motivated people that take calculated risks and achieve their goals celebrate and enjoy a very satisfying sense of accomplishment. Many will also reflect in the moment and think about exactly what they did and in what order to achieve their goal. The highest achievers are introspective, develop a feedback loop, and self-actualize: they realize their own full potential. These high achievers then look for more opportunities to broaden their horizons, accept new challenges, and keep developing along their path. Lesson from my son: Give people time to celebrate successes and discuss the factors that contributed to their success.
I've learned how important it is to understand what people are truly passionate about, what drives them day in and day out, and to link that with opportunities that have just the right amount of challenge (not too exceed their perception of ability). Striking that balance seems to tap into that childhood drive all of us have: knowing we can someday achieve all of our dreams.
Let me know your thoughts.