But in fact, as the psychologist Carol Dweck and others have shown, this idea is mostly wrong. Motivation is largely social; fueled by our interactions with the people around us. In other words, motivation is less about what’s in your heart, and more about how you connect with your social circle.
Check out this passage from a new soccer book called Stillness and Speed, which tells a story about a promising but unproven younger player named Robin Van Persie and a veteran star named Dennis Bergkamp. It begins with Van Persie recalling an afternoon on Arsenal’s training ground.
Van Persie had finished earlier and was sitting in a Jacuzzi which happened to be by a window. Out on the field he noticed Dennis doing a complicated exercise involving shooting, and receiving and giving passes at speed. Robin decided to get out of the bath as soon as Dennis made a mistake.
“It was a 45-minute session and there wasn’t one pass Dennis gave that wasn’t perfect,” [Van Persie said.] “He did everything 100 percent, to the max, shooting as hard as possible, controlling, playing, direct passing… That was so beautiful! To me it was plainly art. My hands got all wrinkled in the bath but I just stayed there. I sat and watched and I waited, looking or one single mistake. Bu the mistake never came. And that was the answer for me.
“Watching that training session answered so many questions I had. I can pass the ball well, too. I’m a good football player as well. But this man did it so well and with such drive. He had such total focus. I found myself thinking, ‘OK, wait a minute, I can play football well enough but I’ve still got an enormous step to take to get to that level.’
And that’s when I realized, if I want to become really good, then I have to be able to do that, too. From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment. With every simple passing or kicking practice, I did everything at 100 percent, just so I wouldn’t make mistakes. And when I made a mistake I was angry. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”
Van Persie, of course, went on to become a huge star. It’s a familiar pattern. You start out thinking we’re pretty good. Then you have the thrilling, slightly frightening experience of seeing somebody who’s on the next level. Then, using that person as a north star, you start taking steps that direction.
From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment… I wanted to be like Bergkamp.
Those moments are powerful because they’re fundamentally unpredictable. They can’t be scripted by a coach, or inspired by mere words. They’re more like social lightning bolts, high-voltage connections between people that happen when you least expect them.
That said, I think it’s possible to engineer these moments by paying attention to the design of our learning spaces. Because while these lightning bolts may be uncontrollable, the odds of them happening are increased if you follow certain rules. For example:
- 1) Design for openness. Don’t separate the stars from the rest of the group; instead, provide space for lots of mixing of various skill levels, whether it’s in the office, the classroom, or the locker room.
- 2) Build in free time. In our hyper-busy world, we tend to be allergic to unstructured time. Yet these moments — when someone sits idly by a window and stares in rapture at a brilliant performer — are exactly when this sort of connection happens. So let it.
- 3) Be quiet. So many coaches, parents and teachers feel like they need to be talking in order to motivate their learners. But it’s exactly the opposite. Words shatter the spell.
Can you imagine Van Persie’s reaction if a coach would have come over and started giving him an inspiring speech about how he should be more like the veteran star?
Uh, thanks coach — but I really gotta go.
And Van Persie would have been absolutely right. Because it’s not about the coach, the teacher, or the parent. It’s about creating a learning space that’s aligned with the way motivation really works.