Rational Self-Interest: The Road Less Taken

People often tell me that they don’t feel motivated to do something because they lack the conviction that they have a good reason to do it. In other words, that reason must be connected to one’s self-interest.

If your child needs something, you’re motivated to help because it serves your interest to help someone you love. Or, if your car has a flat tire, you’re motivated to fix it because you want to drive.

Motivation is a psychological concept that arrives in the form of an emotion. Since we are both mental and physical beings, motivation manifests itself physically as well. If a child is unmotivated in school, he’ll be unable to concentrate because he finds the material (or its presentation) uninteresting or unimportant. Correct or incorrect, conscious or subconscious, these are value judgments on the part of the child. Value judgments are also experienced in the form of emotions, and poor concentration can be a physical byproduct of those emotions. But that same child will leave school, go home and play a video game with an energy and focus that Einstein would envy. The child sees no tangible, self-interested reason to focus in school, but the video game provides interest and motivation with clearly defined goals.

The emotional state of students “diagnosed” with now-finally-being-debunked “attention deficit disorder” is, “Schooling is not important. What purpose does it serve?” It’s as if they’re depressed about what they encounter in the classroom. Most kids aren’t lazy. They’re often delighted to think and discuss, but many feel no incentive to do so in school. Good teachers tell me that the biggest challenge is to motivate a child to learn. Unfortunately, some teachers and schools mask their inability to teach and motivate behind wholesale diagnoses of “ADHD” and “ADD;” self-importantly recommending that the kids pop a few Ritalins to at least quiet them down.

The same applies to adults who are unchallenged by certain aspects of their workplace. But they go home and pursue hobbies or a side business with full vigor and enthusiasm.

Physical problems can sometimes hinder concentration. For example, some people ignore the effects of a cold and continue their work, while others just can’t get anything done when they’re sick. To some extent, the underlying motivation depends upon the nature of the work (e.g., do you interact with other people, or do you work in isolation on the computer?). Pre-existing circumstances also play a part: If it’s in your financial self-interest to meet a deadline, you’ll be less likely to be hampered by minor physical symptoms.

The best way to feel motivated is to live life directed by your rational self-interest. Rely on logic and facts, not gut feelings, unfounded beliefs, or pressure based upon tradition, society or other people. Challenge unearned guilt. Live the life you want to live, and ignore others’ attempts to intimidate you with, “Don’t be selfish!” or “Go along to get along!” These issues are deeply ingrained, but the more aggressively you address them, the more confident you’ll become.

With kids, point out how a particular activity (like learning) serves the child’s self-interest in both the long run (how school can lead to making money to buy things they like) and in the here-and-now (“If you want to go out and play, you must study first”). Parents should raise their children intellectually through informal home schooling, family reading time and regular discussions about real-life problems. TV should be limited to agreed-upon shows. Storytelling and imaginative games that require abstract thinking are infinitely better than passive reaction to mindless garbage on a TV screen.

Parents often tell me that they just don’t have the time for this. I ask them if they will have time to attend the teacher-parent meetings about their child’s purported “attention deficit disorder” (or whatever). Or if they’re ready to deal with changes in personality when the kids are loaded up on the latest pills for their “disorders.” Time spent on a child’s intellectual growth isn’t a matter of choice. It’s actually the best investment a parent can ever make.