On listening to teenagers

This weekend I had the chance to hear a sixteen-year-old harpist play a Mozart concerto on two harps—playing one with his left hand and the other with his right, the type of tour de force you know he learned how to do not because someday a handful of people sitting on some wooden benches would applaud him but because he wanted to learn how to do it for the sake of learning how to do it.

How do you develop the internal motivation to want to learn to do something like this? I can guarantee you it’s not by competing in the traditional way that we hold so dear in this society. There’s always a meme going around Facebook about how people shouldn’t get medals just for participating, goldarn it, and in my day we had to win to get a medal! Yeah yeah and you learned how to be Pavlov’s dog, so here’s a tasty treat for you.

If you only try because you want to win a medal, you are externally motivated. No medal, no more trying. Does that sound like the key to mastery, happiness, or even success? Of course not. Participating is how you get better. Most of us aren’t innately talented so we’re going to suck at the things we do for a long long time. We have to be motivated to get better by something other than medals because someone who is not us is going to win them.

At some point an idea or a product or a book either achieves commercial success or it doesn’t, and while we like to think the best X wins (whether it is a man, a machine, or a purpose), if you have experienced life for more than, say, six years, you know better than this, or you ought to, anyway. Commercial success (“winning” as we traditionally define it) may have something to do with quality and expertise, but it also has a lot to do with timing and luck and knowing the right people and having the right personality and deflating the football at just the right moment.

So you can’t have that as your goal, or you can but it’s sort of self-defeating. You can’t control having luck, and you can’t control having timing. You can’t even control your personality all that much (ask me how I know). It makes more sense to focus on the craft, on the thing you can control, through practice and work and education and caring every day for the rest of your life, whether or not you get a medal for it.

Intrinsic motivation can be helped when someone pats you on the back and says, “You tried really hard” because it’s the trying that matters. Really. Really really really, no matter how much those Facebook memes bitch about it.
Don’t be Pavlov’s dog. Be the sixteen year old who can play a Mozart concerto on two harps just because he wanted to learn how to do it.

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