How to Intrinsically Motivate Children to Strive For Excellence in Everything They Do

Alpana Shitolé
6 min readJul 27, 2020


It was 1993. I was 14 years old. I was riding my bicycle to school when I felt the need to visit my mom, who was in the hospital battling the last stages of cancer. As I watched her through the glass door of the ICU, little did I know that within the next few minutes my life would change forever.

She died that morning.

Years have passed, and I am still trying to come to terms with that loss. As I look back, I realise that my grieving process was compounded because I did not have the means to handle the dark emotions I experienced growing up.

As a family we all grieved together but the moment I went back to school, I felt lost as there was no set-up or tools to deal with emotional needs, such as mine. That gap has always stayed with me.

The next time the word “mom” entered my life was when I gave birth to my first child. I got a chance to experience the world all over again from a different perspective — that of a parent.

I am a protective mother, constantly trying to prepare my child for the real world, in case something was to happen to me.

When the time came to find a school for my daughter I went overboard. In my pursuit of finding the perfect fit, I changed her school three times before she reached first grade! Finally, I found a private IB school that encouraged students to consider both local and global contexts in their learning, to think critically, and challenge assumptions. It was a keeper.

I was so inspired by it that I gave up my thriving corporate career to join this school as a teacher’s assistant just to experience the amazing methodology of this non-traditional education system.

As a newly minted teacher, I saw first-hand the powerful potential children have to change the world, an exhilarating feeling that was miles ahead of working the corporate ladder.

A Life-Changing Realization

This opportunity also gave me a radically different perspective that led me to the greatest realization of my journey:

Despite sending my child to this amazing school, there was neither a certainty that she would make the most of the opportunity she had, nor that her current achievements meant she would reach her full potential to achieve ‘meaningful success’ in the future.

And that is when I decided to dedicate my life to understand what ‘meaningful success’ means and how to help children achieve it.

I spent the next eight years studying the work of researchers and world leaders — The Dalai Lama, Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Sir Ken Robinson, Dr. Tony Wagner, Dr. Angela Duckworth, Dr. Daniel Goleman, Dan Pink, and Simon Sinek, among many others. I also worked closely with over 300 parents, children, educators, and professionals locally and across the globe.

In 2015, I was accepted to the Fellowship program at 4.0 Schools, a non-profit organization that selects a handful of educationalists every year from across the U.S with next-generation ideas and provides them with mentoring and funding to test their ideas in the community. This allowed me to greatly expand my research and workshops.

My Findings

Success in schools is largely measured by grades, students incentivized and rewarded through comparison and competition with peers. The corporate structure pretty much follows the same pattern of comparisons and increments as a yardstick for success.

So, for most, fear and reward are the two primary drivers for achieving this kind of success.

Fear in children to conform to this definition of success, can only lead to compliance, not engagement with their education. Rewards, on the other hand, as demonstrated by Sam Glucksberg in the famous modified “Candle problem”, are effective only for as long as the tasks involve mechanical skills with a clear path to achieve the goal but fall short if there is any cognitive skill required to complete a task. Life, unfortunately, comes with no instruction manual to navigate a clear path to success and happiness.

To add to the pressure, growing up in the age of social media with more time being spent on gadgets than in playgrounds, children are caught in a regimented routine with little time to find their own individualistic self.

So how do we break from this regressive template and established paradigm of fear and reward? How can we enable children to embark on a journey of true meaningful success?

The answer lies in Personal Leadership, which redefines the meaning of success.

Meaningful Success

True meaningful success is not about an achievement or a destination; it is a journey. A journey of continuously striving, achieving, and exceeding your own potential, to reach personal excellence in everything that you do, driven by your own intrinsic motivation. This is a journey of Personal Leadership.

Personal Leadership is what makes success meaningful and lasting. Meaningful because it is driven by intrinsic motivation and not external praise or reward. And lasting, because it is a continuous quest for improvement.

Those who undertake this journey of Personal Leadership with a desire to always strive for improvement will be empowered to eventually change the world for the better. Because when their motivation expands beyond personal improvement — to their society and the world, they would have exercised the muscles needed to become true leaders, of their personal lives and, if they so choose, of society and the world.

The Four Pillars

Based on my research and study, there are four core attributes that are key in this journey of Personal Leadership:

The Frolific Wheel

1. Emotional Intelligence: Personal Leadership begins with your self-awareness and self-control.

Emotional intelligence facilitates your ability to handle impulses, pressure, and anxiety. It is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and build meaningful relationships.

2. Perseverance: When challenges exceed talents, as they sometimes do, endurance in that moment by leaning into the mundanity of consistency, to follow through on your goal.

Perseverance is not mindless drudgery through a task. It is the result of laboured and meticulous mastery of skills like resilience with learned optimism and persistence with expert practice.

3. Self-Innovation: The ability to reinvent yourself… time and again.

We live in an age of exponential change that is rapidly evolving and redefining the demands on our professional and personal. The core skillset needed to thrive is not just subject matter expertise but the ability to ‘learn how to learn’, to become comfortable with ‘not being comfortable’, and to think critically and creatively.

4. Humanitarianism: Giving back to the society by enriching lives with equity and compassion.

Meaningful success cannot be achieved in isolation. People are an inevitable part of everything we do. We need to acknowledge and appreciate our interdependence and how it contributes to our well-being. We have great potential to positively touch the lives of people around us and our communities.

What Next?

If thriving in life depends on abilities such as having the perseverance to follow through a purpose driven goal, the courage to take risks, and the ability to build deep meaningful connections, the question I have for you is why is there no concerted effort to develop and nurture these skills starting from elementary school years? Why is it left to chance who grows up to be resilient, who has empathy, or who is self-driven?

While my journey of discovering meaningful success may be rooted in losing my mother at a very young age, no one should ever have to experience such strong emotions to understand the need for these.

I cannot emphasize enough on how these four pillars of Personal Leadership should be made an integral part of our children’s growing up years. The attributes of self-awareness, resilience, self-innovation, and giving back to society need to be treated just as importantly as the subjects of math, language, social studies, and science.

While schools may not be fully equipped with the tools required to instill the skills of Personal Leadership in our children, we, as parents, can surely guide our children towards this new paradigm. Instead of focusing only on grades, let us inspire them to achieve meaningful success and help them lead a fulfilling and happy life by design, not default.



Alpana Shitolé