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When I was 31, I asked myself a question, as much from doubt as from certainty: What if I took the ideas of the scholars I so admired as a psychologist and led an intrinsically motivated life? Now, from the vantage point of today, though I could not have been more serious then, it seems naïve of me to have determined this path with such commitment at a relatively young age. I still hear the echoes of the answers I gave myself, “Don’t just teach it. Don’t just practice it. Live it.”

I don’t think I ever told anyone that was my intention. For the person I was then, that declaration would have been too religious, too doctrinaire and too ideological. Yet I wanted something I could believe in, seriously study, and know so deeply that its nuances would continue to awaken me to its limitations as well as its advantages as a belief system for guiding my life. I would not use faith as an excuse to mask its weaknesses and inconsistencies. I thought I could be reasonable and justifiably scientific about understanding intrinsic motivation, advocating for it as a theory for learning, and, within my own life, following it as my true north to give energy and purpose to how I lived.

Every course I ever taught, every workshop I ever led, every speech I ever gave, I designed and delivered as close to an intrinsically motivating experience as I could imagine. Both for the participants as well as myself, this work has gone well.

What I see in this memoir, that I only vaguely realized before is that, professionally, intrinsic motivation as a way of being, where the behavior itself is its own reward, became an instinct as sure as sight for me. Because I could follow its principles, I never had a class or course that left me feeling blameful or hopeless. I knew time was on my side. There were questions I could ask to guide me at the next opportunity to teach. How am I showing respect for these students? What could be more relevant for these learners? What’s the best and quickest way I can authentically demonstrate they are becoming more competent at something they value?

One of my most challenging groups of learners were teachers themselves. The audience most frequently interested in my work were administrators who thought their teachers “needed” motivation. Although I was clear I didn’t give pep talks and I wasn’t a motivational speaker, the subject of motivation drew their interest, and often I would present workshops to faculty who were skeptical, in conflict with their administration, and exhausted from the enormous challenges they faced in under-resourced schools and communities. These included programs among the rougher edges of cities including New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Memphis, Buffalo, and Boston. On more than one occasion, I found out on the day of a planned meeting with teachers that they had called a strike vote the very morning of my arrival.

Nonetheless, I remained enthusiastic. I had a compass. Intrinsic motivation. The first principle was connection. The question: How could these teachers see me as one of them, a brother, not a judge or an outsider? There were many ways: sincerely asking questions about their circumstances, challenges, goals, and immediate hopes as professional educators; relating vignettes about my experiences as a teacher in Detroit; sharing incidents where I had unwittingly lost my temper with students; using visualizations of students who stumped their best intentions; and often just plain sharing our circumstances and why I believed I had something of value to offer. Then the door was open to many possibilities. I learned very quickly that the most important result of the first fifteen minutes with teachers was not that they liked me but that they took me seriously.

But the toughest of the tough were college faculty. My peers. It’s like talking with your family when they don’t agree with you. They know the questions to ask. They know when you may have faltered. And sometimes, the knives are out. I loved it. Truly. It was as close as I might come to an Olympian event. Often, there were professors present who would know the theories and research better than I did.

On one occasion, at an eastern university, things were not going well. The workshop had been mandated as part of a grant and the faculty clearly did not think they needed the program. I did not know these circumstances before I arrived. After an hour with the faculty, the air in the room felt like it had turned into a dull lead weight around everyone’s neck, including mine. I knew the issue was the faculty’s hostile attitude and I had to do something immediately or it would fester into indifference—the surest slayer of intrinsic motivation anywhere. So, I told the participants that I could tell the climate among us felt deadening and that I’d like to suggest an activity to offer us a better direction to make the workshop worth our commitment. A few mumbled okay and a few nodded their heads.

I passed out a set of 3x5 cards, one to each participant, with the following directions: “Without signing your name, please write what would have to happen in this workshop so that you would find it worthwhile and more interesting. Then I will collect the cards, shuffle them, and read each one aloud. Afterwards, we’ll decide what to do next.” I collected the cards and began reading them.

The first card said, “You have to make this workshop more specific to our subject areas.” I thought to myself, “That’s a reasonable idea.” The second card said, “Divide us into small groups and let us redesign this program.” I thought, “More difficult, but possible.” The next card said, “A public hanging of the dean.” I thought, “Oh, wow! What the…?”

But before I could think any further, there was a roar of laughter. I looked up to see the dean was laughing heartily as well. I smiled and suggested we take a break. It was as though we went from darkness to daylight in an instant. Energy lit the room and everyone began talking with each other. After the break, a faculty member suggested that we continue the program as planned. And by acclamation we did, quite successfully.

To this day, I don’t know what the dynamics were among that faculty group that led to such an amazing shift in their mood and involvement. Humor? The exaggeration of a dark impulse? Political history? However, I do know the activity was sound because I followed the intrinsic motivation principle that it is the learners’ perspective that has to be involved in the solution of any problem that affects them.

Sometimes I think of intrinsic motivation as a magic divining rod. If I trust and practice its principles, it will lead me to the water, the motivation every person has naturally within them as much as the earth has water beneath its ground, sometimes at a distance but always there. For teaching and learning with adults, I can honestly say that after 40 years of practicing and applying its principles, I don’t know a better theory.

David Pink took the idea of intrinsic motivation and for most of his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, applied it as a theory for innovation in business and corporate environments. I have used intrinsic motivation as a teacher and a learner with the added perspective of transformative learning to guide my life. As a means to make professional choices and to discern what to study next, intrinsic motivation and transformative learning have worked for me. Since graduation from college, the job changes I made were matters of will—from elementary school teacher to psychologist, to professor, to human relations specialist, to therapist, to adult educator, and now memoirist. All were chosen because I knew I could learn in those professions what I needed without having to force myself. The topics and work they offered pulled me along like a rolling marble on a downward slope. I’m 75 and slowing down a bit, but the energy I had for work and study across forty years was electric. Like there was a current out there I just had to plug into for the light.

I wish this way of life for everyone. I don’t think being committed to an intrinsically motivated life means enormous success or status but it is fulfilling, interesting, and usually provides an economically decent living.1 Connected to a value system that supports the notion of justice in pursuit of the common good, it contributes substantially. But untethered to a value system that is oriented toward peace, mercy, and the betterment of the rights of all people, it can be a destructive energy. Fighting, gambling, and narcissism at their core are often intrinsically motivating behaviors. In personal life and family matters, intrinsic motivation needs goals with boundaries and aspirations framed with a higher purpose.

The second part of this book provides an overview of intrinsic motivation and transformation theory with examples from the memoir in Part 1. It offers activities by which the reader or a teacher can facilitate greater awareness of intrinsic motivation and transformative learning in their own lives, promote this understanding among other adults, and use techniques of storytelling, non-fiction, and memoir to increase adult learners’ agency to make intrinsically motivated learning and transformation a means to determine their own future.

As I wrote the memoir, looking back from ages 8 to 48, in every chapter I could see how I benefited from a system where my formally uneducated father could find employment with a living wage, benefits, and health care, and I could find a college with affordable tuition and housing at less than a third of my monthly paycheck. I was able to work continuously with contributions to a pension I now collect. Most of all, these economic conditions allowed me to dream and to make choices to fulfill those dreams with learning and work I cherished. I clearly saw how my choices benefited from an economic context supportive of intrinsic motivation and transformative learning.

As we develop, we need to realize and question the worth of our work for what it means for us and our society. I am grateful for where and how intrinsic motivation and transformative learning led me. This memoir is their testament. I have come to believe that if I do work I love, I never really finish. I stop. Usually I find a way to share it. Then I move on to what’s next with confidence as well as doubt about what I’ve done. As I’ve grown older, I’m more welcoming of this uncertainty because I’ve learned that’s where the challenge and the new learning are. At such moments, I can hear one my favorite quotations ringing true: To love something is to find it inexhaustible.

Learning is hope. Most of history is not so much finding a way out of the dark as much as it is learning a way into the light. The genesis of a cherished interest is usually an engrossing and successful learning experience that lasts over time. For those of us who teach, we are a medium to that possibility, and for those of us who learn, we can claim it as part of our being, a joy whose greatest value is its benevolent sharing.

Living a Motivated Life

A Memoir and Activities

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