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One of the most dangerous things a student can do for their grades is to get caught up worrying about pleasing everyone else with those grades. “My parents want me to get a…” is one of the most depressing things to hear a student say. Students tend to use this line to suggest they should be trying to get a higher grade than they’re currently getting but at the same time, admitting that their most powerful motivation comes from other people around them pushing.

This may come as a surprise but your parents will never be satisfied with your grades. Your teachers will never be satisfied with your grades. There may be some level that they’ll stop complaining about them but those are just arbitrary values based on those individual people. In fact, once you start raising your grades, odds are they’ll just increase their standards for you.

If you really wanted to please them then you might as well score a few F’s this semester. Then next semester you can score your usual grades and they’ll probably be happy about it. These standards that people hold for other people are usually ridiculous. More important than that, they’re miserable motivators.

External Motivation

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Science has studied motivation for decades now. Scientists have done experiment after experiment trying to explain the way people get motivated. Some of the science just proves the things you’d expect with common sense. When you give someone external motivation, someone generally does better at mundane and repetitive tasks.

For example, if I offered you a dollar for every page of notes you wrote, you’d write a whole lot of notes. That makes sense. Not all of the science makes that much sense.

When you give someone external motivation, someone generally does worse on creative tasks. Instead of the external motivation pulling a person forward, it becomes an anchor holding them back.

The theory behind this is that external motivation puts the brain in a high adrenaline mode. At that time, your brain is well suited for running from tigers or picking up heavy things. Your brain is not ready for sitting down and thinking. It’s too stressed out for deep thinking. (Deep thinkers in stressful situations get eaten by tigers.)

Do you think school is a repetitive and thoughtless pursuit or does it require creativity? I personally think the answer is complicated but I can summarize my opinion pretty quick.

School can be repetitive and require no creativity but it becomes a boring and time consuming process. This is the way too many students treat school To get the most out of school in the least amount of time, you need to treat it like a creative problem.

How do you get higher grades? Do you complete more work? Or do you pick your work more carefully? Creative students find ways to learn more and do less. Creative students find ways to improve their grades without spending more time.

Parents are an external motivation. They’re virtually a carrot hanging down in front of you or a stick poking you on the ass. (A carrot if you want to please your parents. A stick if you want them off your back.) As long as you’re letting them be a significant motivating factor, you’re going to treat school with a higher stress level than you need to. That may make you spin your wheels and do worse in school.

Instead of asking what other people want you to get, ask what you want to get.

What Grades Do You Want

Forget about what your parents or teachers expect of you. That will just get in the way of you achieving your goals. You need to decide the grades you want to get. If you want to just pass your classes and have fun then it’s nobodies business to try and stop. In reality, I suspect if most students examined their goals they’d prefer to get higher grades than they’re getting now. If you find that out then instead of focusing on other people’s motivation you can focus on thinking about your own internal motivation.

Studies have found that internal motivation tends to be the most powerful motivation. Internal motivation often comes down to just a gut feeling for most people. There may be some logic behind it but it’s ingrained emotionally. They’re emotionally invested in the results. This is how pro athletes wake up early to work out. This is the motivation behind people that become great at what they do. If you want to become great at school then you have to find a way to get a similar internal investment.

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As much as I’d like to say there is some magical formula that can get you internally motivated, it just isn’t there. Instead of looking to develop internal motivation, it’s much more productive to embrace the internal motivations that you already have.

If you’re the kind of person that’s dying to score high because you want that feeling then you’d do better to focus on that motivation instead of the motivation of those around you. If you’re the kind of person that’s looking to do as little as possible (ideally, while still achieving a certain average) then embrace that motivation instead.

You should, of course, consider your goals in the context of reality. If you internally really want A+’s you also have to make sure you’re willing to pay the price for those A+s. Anyone can dream of getting top notch grades. The hard part is actually picking a goal that you’re willing to put in the effort to try and accomplish.

This isn’t an exact science but remember that time investment to achieve different difficulty levels of goals is not linear. In an academic sense, turning a 90 into a 95 is dramatically easier than turning a 95 into a 100. They’re both 5 points but they take dramatically different investments of time to achieve.

Once you find your own personal goals and stop worrying about the goals of those around you, you’ll be able to take advantage of your own internal motivation. That will get you to study faster, more efficiently, and better in general. That improvement in your studying can turn mediocre grades into extraordinary grades (and extraordinary grades into unmatched grades.)

Do you want to know How To Take A Day Off Studying (And Not Have The World Collapse Around You)? You can find out in our subscribers only section. It’s completely free.

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Priority One: Pleasing Yourself

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12 thoughts on “Priority One: Pleasing Yourself

  • January 26, 2016 at 8:25 am
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    As a student myself and as a mother of students…I completely agree. This is true at any age. I try and explain this notion to my children who are in school because the pressure can be debilitating. I set goals for myself in school which I may never achieve but nevertheless I set them for MYSELF, and I think that is much different than living by someone else’s standards. This is why I give my children space to set their own expectations as well as our expectations as parents and if we meet somewhere in the middle than it is a job well done in my book. The pressure of being the best is so great that students have actually taken their own lives because they feel like they have failed a standard that is set so high, they would never be able to achieve anyway. It is unfortunate that we sometimes place all the focus on grades instead of actually retaining the information and learning.

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  • January 26, 2016 at 4:41 am
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    So many people live to please others, everything they do is for someone else’s happiness. But they fail to realise they cannot do that all their life, everyone has a breaking point, it’s better to realise that sooner rather than later when you actually reach it. So I think it’s really great that you pointed this out as it’s often overlooked. Everyone should read this article, thank you! 🙂

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  • January 16, 2016 at 10:50 pm
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    I completely agree with every point made in this post. I have been struggling with getting motivated again, since it is my senior year and I’m beginning to check out mentally. External motivation would be a huge help towards achieving my academic goals, and becoming a better student as a transition into college. What I am usually focused on, is comparing my grades to others, and working at the will of my mother, who expects my grade to be perfect. After reading this post, I have realized that at the end of the day, the only one who can make you work towards something is you. No one can tell you what to do. Its your decisions being made, and your life thats being effected. That being said, I will be implementing these tips into my everyday life and see how they work out for me.

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  • January 5, 2016 at 4:21 am
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    Thank you so much for this post! This is exactly what I’m struggling with at the moment. Not too long ago, I learned that I may graduate with honors if I’m able to maintain the GPA that I currently have, over the next year (my last in college). While I was very happy about it, it also stressed me out a little, because my relatives began to constantly push me to “do better” (i.e graduate at the top of my class instead of just “with honors”). It was saddening to see that something I was so proud of just wasn’t enough for them.

    I’ve been trying to let that go and focus on my own personal goals instead of theirs. However, it is much easier said than done. I’ve found, though, that it does pay off. In fact, I’ve learned that allowing that pressure to consume me only results in me getting lower grades. When it comes to studying and getting good grades, it is so important to do things that actually make learning enjoyable and to remember the goals that you have set for yourself.

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  • December 22, 2015 at 5:08 am
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    I believe that this is one of the most important posts that I’ve ever read. So many people have serious self-esteem issues because they’re trying to please their parents, instead of doing their best and celebrating small victories. I’m glad that my parents never were the type to force me to have only As, but not all of my friends were so lucky.

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