Learn Smarter Not Harder – Unveiling the Mystery of Motivation



In the warm enveloping folds of your duvet you hear the not so distant intrusion of your alarm penetrating the depths of your slumber, trying to drag you into the land of the awaken. And as usual, you hit for the snooze button.

Chances are this is the morning ritual many of us face day in and day out. And yet you always get those lucky few who seem to just bounce out of bed and into life almost seamlessly. Every single day.

Be it getting out of bed in the morning, learning a new language, starting a new business, or just getting through another day at work, why is it that some people seem to have an endless supply of motivation while the rest of us feel like we are just running on empty all the time?

Is the situation reversible?

When I first went back to university a few years ago, motivation was a recurrent topic of my classes. I met with two hotly debated words that formed a backbone to a good part of the research going on: Monsieur Intrinsic and Mademoiselle Extrinsic. The ongoing question was: Is motivation more intrinsic, or coming from within yourself; or is it more extrinsic, or dependent on external sources to fire itself up?

Something I have always observed from new students is how they love telling me how motivated they are. Repetitively so. Almost as if the more they repeat the words the more motivated they will magically become. While I never doubt them in the slightest, the real struggle is not that initial burst of motivation, but being able to harness it so it can continue to fuel your project.

What if you were able to transform your motivation from something extrinsic, your long-term goal of achievement, to something intrinsic: an almost addictive compulsion to push forward in your project day after day, whatever is thrown at you?

For many, motivation will come in the form of an achievement and something you would like to attain, many of which are in the long-term and clearly unachievable overnight. Hardships quickly show up and the reality of keeping yourself going day after day comes to the fore. This is where the magic comes to play. What if you were able to transform your motivation from something extrinsic, your long-term goal of achievement, to something intrinsic: an almost addictive compulsion to push forward in your project day after day, whatever is thrown at you?

If you have already read my previous article on achievements, then you will already have a first clue as to how this may be done. In life as in business, focus is often put on achievement: big achievements, winning awards and the like. Anything less is considered unimportant and little more than a stocking filler. In thinking this way, however, we could be missing the biggest trick ever. Why so? Let’s take a look below the surface at how the brain processes achievement and motivation.

It turns out that the one thing that makes us feel so good when we achieve something is the same thing that is behind addiction to drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Something called dopamine.

Dopamine, among many other roles it plays, is known to play a major role in reward-motivated behaviour. When it is released into certain areas of the brain, it creates pleasurable feelings, often the result of positive activities such as eating food and having sex. And it goes without saying that when we experience that rush of pleasure, more often than not we want to experience it again and again and again, usually doing so by simply repeating the action we have associated with causing that pleasure.

The question is, what if we could experience the same rush of pleasure while learning and what impact would it have on our ongoing motivation to learn?


Intrinsic motivation can be the golden ticket to realising your ambitions

The answer may lie in some controversial research from over 50 years ago.

Reward-motivated behaviour in the field of learning is strongly debated, particularly when associated with the research on behaviourism and conditioning carried out by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s and 1960s. While most focus today is on the negatively viewed act of conditioning and the way a person’s behaviour can be negatively or positively influenced through positive or negative rewards, the actual reason and focus behind Skinner’s research in this area was quite different.

Being a strong advocate against corporal punishment in schools and decrying a general lack of focus on the teaching process itself, Skinner was looking to promote a learning environment where students develop a love of learning and thirst for knowledge rather than learning out of fear of being punished. His focus in learning was to create a positive and immediate reinforcement system in the learning process while banishing negative reinforcements such as physical punishment, directly impacting the motivation of the student in a positive way. Through positive and immediate reinforcements, not only would students experience that feeling of pleasure (dopamine) while learning, but because of the very short time lapse, they would come to associate it with the learning itself.

If, for example, addictive substances took two or three days to take effect, how many of us would actually continue taking them?

Whether we agree with it or not, behaviourism is present to a certain extent in education today in the form of reward systems that promote both positive and negative rewards and consequences. Of particular note are the rewards and consequences themselves: grades, certificates and awards versus detentions, suspensions or other losses. If we look at each of these rewards closely, we can see that each of them are externally sourced. This means that if one’s motivation in learning is to get good grades, earn certificates or win awards, we will be looking at an extrinsic motivation, with any pleasure surge predominantly riding from good grade to good grade, certificate to certificate or award to award. This creates a long time lapse between the action of learning and the positive reinforcement (awards and grades), making it very difficult to directly connect the feeling of pleasure with the learning itself.

Why is that direct connection at such a short time lapse so important?

It is the same reason that can make certain drugs so addictive and some activities so enticing: the instant feeling of pleasure they give. If, for example, addictive substances took two or three days to take effect (or as long as it takes students to get results back on an assignment), how many of us would actually continue taking them?

Intrinsic motivation is like having that golden ticket taking you to places you thought never accessible outside your imagination.

By creating a system of positive and immediate reinforcements* in your learning process, you are 1) creating a context where you will experience pleasure, and 2) directly identifying and associating your learning as the source of that pleasure. Once that vital connection is made, you will want to keep on learning, if only to re-experience that feeling of pleasure. It is at this point that your motivation goes from being extrinsic and for an external reward to something intrinsic and for that buzz you get from within.

Intrinsic motivation is like having that golden ticket taking you to places you thought never accessible outside your imagination.

While mine may often have trouble separating me from my duvet in the morning, it did teach me Chinese in a year and is still pushing me to new levels.

What you do with yours and where it will take you is for you to discover. Enjoy the ride!

*How we can create those positive and immediate reinforcements will be the subject of a near future article (Sneak-peek: it is something you can actually create for yourself).

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I learnt Chinese in just one year and I’m here to share the secrets behind my success. Passionate about everything learning, I’ve been working in language training, conception and design for more than 15 years, on a corporate, individual and academic level. For more information or to set up a meeting, contact me directly through LinkedIn.

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