Motivation by Wonder and Purpose

A good friend and fellow principal, Lydia Wilson, from Bixby Central Elementary, wrote me recently after reading my last blog post.

Laughing Zoe by: airenmin license: Creative Commons 2.0 (by-sa)
Laughing Zoe, by: airenmin. Creative Commons Photo

Her response is a good reminder of the deep satisfaction that comes when we have the right motives for school leadership. She writes:

Ultimately, there is no satisfaction in work if there is no balance in life.  

It does not mean that I don’t still experience heart-wrenching moments in this job, infuriating frustrations, or great losses filled with sadness.

I do believe those are part of our beautifully complicated existence in this world.

Just today I had a teacher of tremendously strong faith find that she is cancer-free.  A child who read to me who has NOT been able to read through any of our instructional efforts thus far, but in the late part of his 2nd grade year, he has now read “Dan, the Tan Man” on his own.

And this morning I cried in a classroom where four children who are nonverbal and severely disabled TOOK TURNS in group time to work at the smart-board. My background was to work with some kids (and adults) like them….and I know that God has graced me with an extreme privilege.

I’ve had quiet moments of connection with those who do not celebrate their successes in the ways most children do.  I have truly felt that divine spirit  settle over me in those privileged moments – much the way it feels to hold a new baby and KNOW God.

Like Lydia, I am trying to learn that healthy motivation not only changes leadership, it changes learning.

Have you ever thought of how learning is affected by motivation? Imagine if a student is so overwhelmed by the wonder of a subject (whether it is Shakespeare or geometry or welding), that he or she pursues the subject for the love of understanding or mastering the subject.

Motivation by wonder is what separates a worker from a creator. It is why Benjamin Franklin helped pioneer new inventions and a new nation; it is why Einstein revolutionized the world of physics; it is why Steve Jobs championed Apple products.

It is what turns a job into a calling.

I heard a lesson from one of my favorite writers and teachers, Timothy Keller, where he explainted that people are often motivated by the two extremes: fear or pride.

Neither are healthy.

Fear motivates someone to take on a new challenge because he or she is afraid of the options; it motivates us to react to the moment or to over-react to what others think about us.

Pride, on the other hand, is another unhealthy motivation that often leads to burnout. Pride often pushes us by appealing to our egos. We expect perfection and don’t allow failure to be part of the learning process.

When we are motivated by fear or pride, we push instead of pull others along.

So what is a third alternative to motivation by fear or pride? Keller says there are two alternatives: beauty and duty.

To put it simply, the most positive motivation is when you pursue a goal for the sheer joy or delight in pursuing and accomplishing the goal (beauty). Or when you pursue a path because you know it is the right thing to do (duty).

I like to think of these terms as wonder and purpose.

When I step out of my car each morning and walk the sidewalk to my school, I remind myself that I have the opportunity to make a difference. I try to remind myself of the wonder and purpose behind my job.

When you focus on the deeper meaning of what you do, it helps you view students as people, not projects; parents as partners, not opponents; and teachers as team-members, not employees.

When we approach life motivated by wonder and purpose, we begin to see how it changes the way we lead and learn.

Now It’s Your Turn What motivations drive you to do your best work? How can you learn to keep a positive perspective even a midst the more mundane tasks of the day? What are some ways you stay motivated to lead and learn? Share with the rest of us!

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker