People need a purpose. Expectations about the future are where motivation begins. Failing expectation, people become impatient and hold unreasonable beliefs, or worse give up.
If I work now, give this up now, study now, I will be able to have some useful thing another day. More wealth, more time, a healthy body, a strong relationship. It is a capitalistic exchange of something in the present for something better in the future.
When you are dealing with anyone, but particularly children and young people, expressing negative ideas when you are frustrated, tired and angry can place life-changing ideas in their minds. Ideas that change how they understand future outcomes. Your comment may be a throw away, a poorly conceived and worse executed statement. A label.
You are dumb. You are ugly. You are a coward. You are weak. You are mean. You are lazy. None is a well formed thought and none would be expressed if the person saying them had to support their opinion with carefully calculated facts. Depending a little on where it comes from, the recipient may accept the thought as true and forever after behave accordingly. Then what?
Self-view pieces that limit the future are not helpful. Dumb, ugly, cowardly, weak, mean and lazy are not absolutes, yet the self-view adds the label and behaves as if it is true. Once a label is part of a person, they do not challenge it intellectually, they just react.
All attributes are part of a distribution. No one is dumb except relatively. At university, four of my friends had national scholarships in mathematics. By comparison, in mathematics I am dumb. If I had instead hung around with people who took English, my math skills might have been exceptional. It is good to know where you fit in the spectrum and it is good to know how the spectrum is constituted. That provides you with a sound and workable self-view.
Try to avoid the mistake of comparing your everyday effort to someone else’s highlight reel.
The second future related error is to deny someone, a young person in particular, a future thing or event that they have been counting on and which they value greatly. Remember future outcomes motivate present behaviour, but they are not the only factor. If you wish to change present behaviour, you must find a way to do it that does not diminish the future, even though that seems the easiest. “Your marks are poor; you cannot go to the prom.” “You drank alcohol; you are grounded until you are 40.” “You were late last week; I cannot promote you.”
If you use only negative motivating methods, the person will come to do things to avoid punishment rather than to achieve outstanding performance. Good enough is not helpful for anyone. If the person comes to see their expectations used against them, everyone will have a problem.
Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. Building on strengths and learning how to cope with weaknesses leads to greatness. Focusing on weaknesses while letting strengths drift is a losing tactic.
Future expectations motivate action in the present. Do you suppose poverty follows from a loss of future expectation? Successful people see it differently. Most describe their future as being bigger than their past. Poor people do not.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.