Beware of external motivators: they kill grit

The new school year has started for many in India. It’s an exciting time for children to reconnect with friends and parents eager to make the new academic year count. Given the limited number of good schools and ‘seats’ at the best colleagues, there is extra focus on academics and private tuition, unlike what I have seen in Australia and the UK. I’ve seen children as young as 4 being groomed for all India rank which ensures a smoother path to gaining entry into the elite IITs or IIMs, which of course comes with higher status, better job prospects and seemingly forever success and lifelong happiness.

This strong focus on achievement has led to an overreliance on extrinsic motivation and the undermining of intrinsic motivation, the self-desire to seek out new things, challenges, learning a new skill and for pure enjoyment of the task itself. Extrinsic motivators in contrast come outside the individual such as rewards (money for grades/performance) punishment (no TV for poor grades) competition (encourages winning, rank system) and praise & recognition (ribbon, gold star)

I’m sure you’re probably thinking what the big deal is! If it leads to required outcomes being attained and positive shifts in behaviours, what is the harm in trying to influence behaviour with extrinsic rewards? The issue is that levels of motivation reinforced by external rewards are not sustainable. Children and adults who performance activities for external rewards, such as money and recognition, are consistently found to eventually tire of it and quickly lose ‘grit’ and give up.

I’ve seen it in my own nephews. Knowing the costs of external rewards, we encouraged their parents to give them more ‘free time’. Knowing they loved swimming and were curious to learn a musical instrument, we enrolled the boys into weekly music and swimming classes. It was a big commitment on everyone, everyday swimming after school and regular guitar/keyboard lessons but they loved it. They took to water like fish and swam everyday, even when it was pouring with rain. They were also always keen to play us their favourite songs they had learnt on the keyboard or guitar, without difficultly. As they got older however things changed when they started being ‘assessed’ at music school according to international standards and swimming competitions increased. This resulted in pressure to perform and a loss of interest in swimming and music. This is the danger of switching to external rewards. They kill our intrinsic interest and passion for the task and once gone it is difficult to restore.

Angela Duckworth’s pioneering research and book on Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance found that Gritter people where more successful in life and that they tended to rely more on intrinsic motivators to develop their Grit. They cultivated early interests into passions, which helped sustain their efforts in the face of setbacks and challenging training sessions. Of course you can’t do well at school or have a meaningful career simply by doing anything you enjoy and love doing (e.g., playing Xbox games). The constraints are real in how we decide to earn our living. The point is that we will be more motivated, happy and successful if the work we do is aligned to our strength of interests and passions. The danger is not to kill self-interest in the quest for short term wins. As parents and mangers, don’t be tempted by allure of extrinsic rewards, instead encourage time spent exploring different interests and working hard to ensure they develop deep mastery and lasting passion.

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