Something sort of magical happened with my son’s recent social studies project. His class was studying geography and the assignment was to make a map of an imaginary country which included all the signs and symbols they were studying in class. At first, his usual procrastination set in, along with complaints about doing such a big project on the weekend, the “when am I ever going to need to know this” argument, etc. Then he started the project. And it grew into an elaborately sketched out plan, with islands and mountain ranges and railroads connecting multiple cities. Different options about what to include on the map were considered at length. The markers and crayons came out to carefully color this intricate design. By the time my son was done, he ended up spending hours embellishing the project well beyond the requirements. He was proud of his work and excited to turn it in.
I felt like he turned a corner that day – realizing that doing a good job is its own reward. He understood there would be no extra credit for his extra effort, no gold star, no “reward bucks” teachers often use for motivation – the work itself was enough.
Hopefully this lesson will linger with him and as he grows older he’ll make the connection that when you find work you enjoy and you’re good at, it doesn’t really seem like “work.” Expending only the minimal effort required isn’t acceptable anymore because you really care about what you’re doing and you want to do it well. Doing a good job becomes the norm because that’s the standard you set for yourself, not for teachers and not for parents. I suspect that once a person internalizes this value, whatever definition of success or happiness they have is easier to achieve.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things this particular twelve year old boy has pretty low standards for (a clean room and personal hygiene for instance.) My hope however, is that when it comes to whatever work becomes important to him – when no one’s watching and no prize is being dangled -he still does a good job.