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Dan Liljenquist: Intrinsic motivation and true self-esteem

Published: Thursday, May 22 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

True self-esteem is built by doing hard things. There’s an old adage that says: “If you want self-esteem, you have to impress yourself.” Children, like adults, can tell the difference between affectations of praise and earned success.

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When 7-year-old Clare Bowler pulled the piano bench forward and lifted her hands above the keys of my mother-in-law’s grand piano last Sunday night, launching into Joseph Haydn’s Concerto in C-Major with such speed, intensity and emotion that my entire family sat in stunned silence, I understood why Clare was selected as a first place winner in the prestigious American Protégé International Piano Concerto competition. Clare is by all definitions a child prodigy, and on Monday night she will take the stage at Carnegie Hall to play the opening number in American Protégé’s “best-of-season” concert. This is a remarkable honor at any age, but especially for a second-grader.

Before our Sunday night private concert, while Clare was running around the backyard with my three youngest boys, I asked her parents, Adrielle and Matt: How does Clare stay motivated to practice the piano upwards of three hours each day, and even more in the weeks leading up to competitions? I expected to learn about some sort of elaborate incentive program that involved candy or money or threats of being grounded from watching the Disney Channel (all mechanisms that I have brilliantly used to try to generate five minutes of focused attention from my own children). Instead, they told me that all they really expect of Clare is that she become a competent pianist. Clare has a lot of intrinsic motivation, and they merely seek to reinforce it.

I understand that not every child has an ear for music or the long fingers required to glide along the keys or the temperament for hours and hours of focused practice or even a piano in the home — all advantages that Clare inherited from her parents. But I do think that we, myself included, can learn a lot about how to foster intrinsic motivation in our children from the principles the Bowlers follow when it comes to Clare’s development.

First, true self-esteem is built by doing hard things. There’s an old adage that says: “If you want self-esteem, you have to impress yourself.” Children, like adults, can tell the difference between affectations of praise and earned success. It is through intense effort and subsequent achievement that children gain confidence and self-esteem. Clare has learned this lesson, and recently commented to her mom, “When I do something hard, then I want to do something super hard.”

Second, kids will work harder, relish the effort more, and achieve more when they are praised for working hard rather than praised for being smart or talented. Intelligence and talent are not inherited, finite traits, but are characteristics that can be developed. Parents who recognize and reinforce hard work can expand the horizons for their children while equipping them with the tools to make their dreams possible. Clare believes that by working hard she can achieve whatever she sets her mind to.

Finally, achievement comes through consistent effort. Clare’s piano instructor, the renowned master of pedagogy Dr. Irene Peery-Fox, insists, “If a pianist misses one day of practice, they lose three days worth of work.” This is as true for the piano as it is for math, or baseball, or any other activity that requires continuous practice. Few things are more frustrating than struggling with things you once knew how to do. And conversely, few things are as exciting, and therefore intrinsically motivating as progress. Consistent effort leads to progress and progress feeds intrinsic motivation.

I wish Clare the best of luck in New York City. But I know, after learning of what it took for her to make it to Carnegie Hall, that luck has nothing to do with it.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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