Motivational Lessons from a Five Year Old

Motivation is a classic, universal problem. How do we inspire someone to want to do something that isn’t inherently enjoyable?  The typical method is to come up with rewards.  We see this method applied pretty much everywhere.  Need an employee to do something?  Offer him/her higher salary, bonuses, more time off, etc.  Need to lose weight?  Promise yourself that post-workout TV time, a cheat food, or that bit of money towards a long awaited vacation.  Want a five year old to push himself a bit during a race? Maybe cartoons or candy will work.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of having as my running partners a friend of mine and his young son, whom, for anonymity’s sake I’ll refer to as Ben.  One of the many reasons I enjoy spending time with Ben is that, like most five year olds, he can be full of surprises.  This past weekend he surprised me by inadvertently reinforcing several lessons regarding motivation that I have had to learn throughout my career and personal life.

When we started the race, my friend and I made the mistake of letting Ben more or less set his own pace. Everything was going well at first, but shortly after passing the one mile mark our failure to moderate Ben’s pace started showing.  He stopped keeping up during the slow intervals – my friend and I are both in less than ideal shape, so we did the race in 1 min on/off intervals – and didn’t want to run at all during the steady intervals.  It was clear he had energy left, as every time an obstacle came up he tried to sprint toward it and wanted to bounce and play around. We quickly realized that it wasn’t that he was completely burned out, but rather that he’d burned just enough energy to lose focus on the overall goal – finishing the race. Enter our dilemma. How do you motivate a five year old to focus on and finish a task you know he’s capable of completing?

Lesson 1. Motivation Varies

If you peruse a few articles or books on the topic, you’ll quickly find that there are very few things that motivate people across the board.  Even money, once thought the holy grail of motivational forces, is being shown more and more to only be truly effective with certain people and personalities. Ben, for example, has little to no real use for money.  His financial needs and wants are completely taken care of by his parents.  Likewise, he has no care for things like health insurance, profit sharing plans, or any of the other standard forms of motivation we use in the workplace these days.  Additionally, he doesn’t have a strong concept of long-term planning, so concepts like “if you push yourself now, you’ll do better next time” don't really hold much value to him.

In Ben’s case, almost none of the traditional forms of motivation work.  Want to know what did?  Piggy-back rides.  Before we figured out that he had simply lost focus and not burned himself out completely, I decided to give him a break by carrying him on my shoulder’s for a bit.  Like most five year olds, he loved it, and shortly after having been put down asked to do it again.  I took this as an opportunity to experiment.  I told Ben that if he ran the next steady interval, I’d carry him for the following one.  He agreed and it worked like a charm.  He ran his interval, I carried him for another, and we repeated this for the remainder of the race.

For Ben, money and other things we tend to value as adults have no meaning, but give him an opportunity for a piggy back ride and he’s happy to put in some effort.  How many employees do you know that would work for piggy-back rides?

Lesson 2. Motivation Needs Recharging

Once Ben and I implemented our “Piggy-Back Rides for Strides” program, his performance increased dramatically.  However, we starting having issues with him losing focus during some of the slow periods and falling behind to play with hay or talk to people behind us.  It was pretty obvious that it was because he was getting bored during the walking periods, and, as people sometimes do when they get bored, he decided to veer off-goal in hopes of keeping himself entertained. Since we couldn’t find a good way to keep him actively engaged while walking, we initially just kept reminding him that if he didn’t keep up he wouldn’t get his highly desired piggy-back rides.  If you’ve just thought to yourself that there is a parallel here to managers that constantly remind their employees they can stop receiving pay checks for not performing, I’d have to agree.

Obviously this is not a great tactic, as that particular whip has some pretty well known drawbacks.  First, it only works just enough to get the person to meet the bare minimum.  Second, like most threats, it creates an inherently adversarial environment.  Of course, most of that is lost on a five year old, but it was worth finding an alternate tactic none-the-less.  This brings me to the most surprising lesson I learned from Ben.

Lesson 3. Simplicity Works

It turns out short term motivation can actually be pretty simple.  You don’t always need threats, complex reward structures, constantly increasing salaries or the promise of future advancements to give people that extra nudge they need to stay focused.  Ben was able to demonstrate this in one clear, simple act.  Just as one of our steady intervals was ending, Ben stopped completely for a second and fell behind.  I stopped to go back and give him a high-five for the steady interval and, surprisingly, he ran up to me to collect his high-five instead of letting me come to him.  This struck me as interesting and I decided to do an experiment. Several times throughout the rest of the race, when I noticed him falling behind, I offered him a high-five.  Amazingly, every single time he ran up, gave me my high-five, and refocused himself.

In essence, offering him a high-five turned out to be an extremely simple way to recharge his focus and motivation. Why did this work? I suspect it is because, even at five, Ben has already learned an appreciation for external recognition.  He enjoys being shown and told that the people around him are paying attention to and thinking positively of his effort. This powerful concept is why so many sources these days cite simple things like consistently praising your employees as great ways to increase morale and motivation.

Lesson 4. Motivation Can Inspire Creativity

As I am writing this I am reminded of an event that I didn't fully realized the significance of at the time, but now believe to be the most important lesson learned from this experience. It’s also something I think Ben deserves a ton of credit for.

As we neared the end of the race, Ben was having more and more trouble staying motivated.  While he was still anticipating the piggy-back rides, he just wasn’t able to stay focused very well.  During one of the walk periods, he started to fall behind, and I went to give him another high five for making it so far. Like the previous times, he ran up and gave me my high five.  Then he grabbed my hand and asked to hold it, arguing that holding my hand would help remind him to keep up. Asking to hold someone’s hand isn’t an unusual occurrence for Ben, so I didn’t think much of it at the time.  However, it is important to consider that action, and the reasoning, in context.  Ben, a five year old, recognized a problem that stood between him and a goal and actively sought and implemented a way to fix it.  In other words, he was motivated enough not only to do what he was asked, but to find creative ways to ensure his tasks were completed so he could achieve his goal.  That kind of motivation can’t be bought.

I’m really glad I had the opportunity to run this race with Ben, and I look forward to applying the lessons he has reinforced for me.  I invite you to do the same by honestly considering what types of things motivate you, why they motivate you, and how you can use that information to achieve your goals, both personal and professional.

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