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.
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.
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.)
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