A Question of Motivation

Katy BurkeUncategorized

View up the side of a cliff in the Adirondacks, NY

Share this Post

The Story

In this post, we return to our fabled twin teenagers, Kelly and Collin. These two have much in common—same age, same upbringing, shared friends, shared good looks, even a shared problem: getting their first jobs, a teenage rite of passage. However, in the past few weeks, their parents realized that the teens’ shared problem stems from different roots, and, using different approaches, they were able to help the teens get past their individual fears. What a relief! Kelly and Collin became enthusiastic and reinvigorated in their pursuits…

For about a day.  Not long enough to sustain the goal. (Good grief, parenting is HARD.)

The Problem

What is going on here? Both these kids want jobs, have great support, and have worked past their stumbling blocks…so what gives? Your suspicions are right. It seems to be a question of motivation, of wanting it versus feeling like it.  Who feels like filling out job applications? …Ever? The twins’ fears have been addressed and their desire to each get a job is strong, but it is simply not enough to sustain them through the gruntwork: finding which jobs are available, figuring out what work is involved and if they’re suited for it, figuring out how to get there and how to apply, making first impressions, filling out the applications, following up…and that’s just to get the job. There is a reason this process is a rite of passage for young people.

Fortunately for Kelly and Collin, they are blessed with parents who rival saints. Parents who are certainly imperfect and privately thinking “Get a job already!!!”, but are caring, dutiful people who are even on the same page—about this at least. They don’t want to push the kids, but they don’t want to be inactive either. They decide on the strategy of seeding in suggestions. Over breakfast: “You could try…” And dinner: “You know, how ‘bout you…” And as more time passes, they start dropping more emphatic hints, “If I were you, I would just…”

Still nothing. Now that the twins’ walls of fear have been broken down, and the paths cleared, their parents are wise to give them a little boost. The path is uphill, after all. However, the lesson from before—to individualize the approach—still applies. As it stands, their parents well-meaning method of gentle suggestions is actually having a negative effect for both teens, but for different reasons.

With every suggestion, Colin is reminded that he is not living up to his expectations, and it makes him feel like more of a failure. He already puts a lot of internal pressure on himself that is not visible to others. Though suggestions are not critiques, he filters them as critiques through his own lens of self-indictment. On the bright side, Colin’s high standards and desire to please are simply reflections of his most admirable trait: conscientiousness. His desire to do good in the world, to be useful and respected by others can propel him past his fear of failing as he learns that the only true failure is not moving forward at all.

On the other hand, for Kelly, suggestions feel like orders. Kelly has a strong independent personality with a bit of an oppositional defiant streak. Though she wants to grow up as fast as possible, and getting a job seems like a good way to do that, getting one at her parents’ will  makes her feel like more of a kid. To be Kelly’s parents is a real challenge at times, but they don’t ever truly worry about her. This girl can hold her own. She is very motivated to enter the adult world, and her desire for freedom and independence can override any challenge of increased responsibility.


They may not look it, but these kids are as different as two people could be, and though they both need a little motivation to get going, the motivators will look as different as they are.

What ultimately will be helpful to Colin? He doesn’t need pressure or anything that remotely resembles it. He puts enough pressure on himself. What he needs is help relieving it; to see himself succeeding. He needs a winning streak to look at and feel proud about. When we first met him, he wrote out a step-by-step linear plan to success.  Now, with some encouragement, he displayed the plan on his wall and checks off every completed bite-size move towards his goal. He can see just how well he is doing and is boosted by past successes. His parents are affirming his efforts even when he falls short of his own high standards.

So what about our girl Kelly? Kelly does not respond well to suggestion either, but she equally resents regular praise, especially from her parents. Yup, resents it. She loves her parents, but she also wants to be her own person. Pleasing them feels like compliance, which, frankly, feels like losing. Kelly hates to lose, which is why the best motivator for her is a challenge. She doesn’t want to go along; she wants to go up against. Recognizing this, her parents started brainstorming strategies. Her dad thought, perhaps they could challenge her to get a job by a set date? He might even challenge her to do so before he accomplished a goal of his own. Mom was worried that would be too much interference. As it turned out, they didn’t have to do anything. Kelly found her brother’s chart, and set up an interview the very next day.

Wrapping Up

If you know a teen (or anyone really), who is having trouble moving forward with something in his or her life, first the path must be clear in order to move forward. All debris, rocks, and other obstructions, often constructed of misconceptions, have to go. Next, a boost getting started is always helpful, especially because all new paths seem to travel up. However, the clearing and the boosting will be different depending on the person, and the only way to know is to build a relationship with this individual.