What I’m about to write may be an example of what sb calls summer-brain-melt-syndrome. Still, it’s been on my mind:
What makes people decide to learn? It is hard to learn, to sit with the frustration of not knowing and to find the ways to understand that which you didn’t. The pleasure of it is, some say, worth the struggle. It has been for me, at least some of the time. But it’s still a struggle; painful, arduous—it takes a force of will and a willingness to be wrong, to look stupid. What would induce someone to do it? Worse pain is one obvious answer. Masochistic pleasure in delayed gratification is another possibility. Motivation by some benevolent outside force is, perhaps, a more positive spin. Some suggest we are born with a natural, innate desire to learn. Maybe, but it’s too easy for that desire to be defeated by other learners, poor teachers, and other crap in the world. I think relationships with others are the best answer for why people continue in the face of such difficulties. Or maybe that’s just me; I’ll admit it: I’m mostly externally motivated (and I’m working on increased internal motivation).
Probably, of course, there are as many reasons people decide to learn as there are things to learn and again as many paths to follow in the process. I have learned enough about how we make decisions to believe that it is pretty complicated. The bigger the decision, the more complicated it is. Careers, relationships, jobs, moving locations, political activism—sometimes I am surprised we ever choose anything. It’s scary; almost always impossible to know the consequences of your choice; rarely clear what is right or wrong.
There are those who seem to have little trouble with decisions, no matter their size. You know this kind: they appear to know, among other things, what they want to be when they grow up without even thinking, without doubt, without question. I worry about them some. Probably I worry too much.
Years ago, as I was struggling in my first marriage, I asked my mom how you know when to leave a relationship. She said, “You know.” There was a finality, a certainty, in her voice that made me jealous and frustrated. “You know”?!? How could you know? What makes you know? I guess I figured it out—for better or worse—as it were.
All these questions seem like the same question to me. And I don’t believe Dale Carnegie and his ilk have the answer. There is no easy answer to how we can motivate our students or anyone else in our lives. In fact, probably we don’t motivate others, only ourselves. Sometimes something we do helps someone else to motivate themselves, to make a decision and to act on it. In my experience, this is rarely about convincing them through arguments or reasoning. Such logic can sometimes be a part of it, but only a part. Some other, more mysterious or magical or chemical, events occur. Whatever combination it takes, suddenly we’re there in new decisional (delusional?) territory.
Perhaps all we can really do is be in relationship with people as they make their decisions. Perhaps it’s like sitting with the dying; there is nothing to do; you can’t help them; but sitting there, letting them know you are there and won’t disappear, somehow makes a difference; they feel better even as they fade—or is life-to-death a light that is on now and then not? Is it another combination of factors that leads to the last decision we make?