My daughter, Isobel, and I use to run together when she was in high school. We would go to a nearby trail that climbed for a couple miles before turning downhill.
On her first day on this trail, we got half a mile up before she ran out of energy. We were far short of the ‘top’ of the trail and she knew it. I found a stick, planted it in the ground and declared it her personal best.
Every day we went back, we’d grab the stick as we went by and moved it forward by a small amount. This ritual was so satisfying. After marking our new personal best, we’d high-five in celebration and head back to the car feeling stronger than the day before.
Everyone is motivated by the desire to feel competent. Whether it is being good in math, music, dance, writing, conversation or any activity, we are drawn to those things that leave us feeling intelligent, creative, witty, eloquent, strong or any other metric of competence.
One day, Isobel and I couldn’t find our stick. We found another one, but we both had a little bit of uncertainty about our progress that day and didn’t celebrate when we stopped on the climb.
The more ‘official’ something feels, the more powerful the feelings of accomplishment and the stronger the motivation. (That is why SAT tests and track meets are strong motivators.)
Over time, the need to measure competence plays a diminishing role for social musicians. We simply enjoy music for the other satisfactions it provides such as creativity, self-expression and community.
But, in the early years when the need for motivation is high, teaching our children to recognize and celebrate progress is a healthy and sustainable method for cultivating the motivation they need.