A freshman boy came in to see me not long ago. His grades had slipped and his parents couldn’t figure out why. He was clearly bright and had even received substantial tutoring elsewhere, but something wasn’t working.
So I asked him what he thought was going on. As it turned out, it wasn’t a mystery. Simply put, he was struggling to stay motivated in school and, as a result, was falling further and further behind.
Rather than chide this student for being lazy or give him a “pep talk” to try to motivate him, I instead worked with him to help transform his attitude toward school, and toward work in general. And after this one session, as extreme as this may sound, his work ethic in school turned around completely.
When he came in the following week he immediately got down to work, remained focused for the entire session, and left having completed all of his homework. It was as if I was witnessing a different student. And it wasn’t just that he was more productive. He carried himself differently. I saw in him a new sense of self-confidence and purpose.
In my more than 15 years of working with students, I had never witnessed such a dramatic turnaround. His transformation was, in fact, what inspired me to write this piece about the approach I used in that pivotal session.
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Part of my approach to working with attitude comes from my exposure to mindfulness practice. One definition of mindfulness is the act of staying present, in a non-judgmental way, with whatever arises. During meditation, unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations often arise: boredom, physical aches and pains, sleepiness, agitation. In our day to day lives, when these inner experiences occur, most of us find ways to distract ourselves from them. We grab something to eat, watch TV or jump online. Part of the benefit of mindfulness practice is that it teaches us to make peace with our own inner lives.
There is a beautiful phrase in Buddhism that captures this idea. It is called “turning toward.” Instead of trying to ignore discomfort, we turn toward it, investigate it, get curious about its qualities even. And, remarkably, when we do, our awareness expands to make more room for whatever may be arising. It is not that the discomfort goes away, but rather that our relationship to it changes.
I wanted to bring this same lesson to my students. So I started using the following trick whenever students were dreading their homework: I would invite them to start working, just for a few minutes, and to observe how awful their work actually was. I would then ask them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10.
The results were surprising. What I found was that no matter how much a student had been dreading doing work, their rating was never higher than a 2 or 3. Realizing this for themselves helped students see that the actual experience of work was not as bad as their imagined version of it.
I once employed this technique with a junior girl who came into my office looking absolutely deflated. She sat there, slumped in her chair. “I don’t want to do any work today,” she said. “I have no motivation whatsoever.”
So I challenged her to try my experiment, to see how awful her work really was. She barely had enough energy to do even this, but fortunately she was willing to try.
Sure enough, once she started working, she quickly found that the reality of her experience was nowhere near as bad as she had imagined. In fact, she got so involved in her work that she never even bothered to rate her experience and instead just kept on working for two hours straight. The session turned into her most productive ever.
And when her time was up, not only was she relieved to have gotten all that work done - work that had been hanging over her head for days - but she was extremely thankful too. She had been stuck and didn’t see a way out. She hadn’t been resisting her work intentionally, she just didn’t know how to get herself going.
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While this approach served my students well, I realized I could take it one step further while watching a video by Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, which combine traditional Buddhist insight with modern neuroscience. In the video, Hanson discusses two kinds of happiness, one called hedonia and the other eudaimonia.
This distinction is extremely useful in distinguishing between experiences that are merely enjoyable (hedonia) and those that are meaningful in a deeper sense (eudaimonia). Both aspects of happiness are valid, but they are achieved in different ways and satisfy different needs. All too often, teens try to maximize their hedonia while unknowingly minimizing activities that lead to eudaimonia.
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Which brings me back to the freshman boy I mentioned at the start of this piece, the one who was falling further and further behind in school and didn’t know what to do about it.
What I explained to him was this: almost everyone has it backwards when it comes to work. I told him that most teens think, as I did when I was in high school, that work is something to be avoided, and the real goal in life is to have fun and hang out with friends. I pointed out that engaging fully in our work brings us another, often deeper, sense of happiness.
To my surprise, this resonated with him immediately. He even gave me an example of this at play in his own life. He happened to be a competitive boxer, which involved a ton of hard work. He explained that there were times that he only reluctantly went to practice, but that once he was there he felt great and was always glad he had gone. The key was recognizing that it was not in spite of the hard work that he enjoyed himself, but because of it.
I then pointed out that school was no different. That the act of working hard would be rewarding in a similar way -- if he could just allow himself to fully engage in it.
Instead of telling him to work harder, I helped him see for himself that hard work is inherently meaningful and rewarding. And sure enough, as I mentioned before, when he returned the following week he got right down to work and stayed focused for the entire session.
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Helping others shift their attitude is not always easy. It requires nuance and skill. All too often, attitude is confused with how we feel about a situation, or reduced to putting a “positive spin” on something. But changing our attitude involves more than simply changing how we feel. Rather, it has to do with deepening our understanding of, and, ultimately, our relationship to a situation. And on the deepest level, it means choosing to see ourselves not as victims of circumstance, but as empowered individuals who can meaningfully shape our own lives.
In any difficult situation, we can choose to hold onto our frustrations and limitations or we can accept things as they are and marshal our energies toward finding a solution. When we do this, we do end up both feeling better and speaking more positively about whatever challenge we’re facing. But these changes are the results of a deeper shift in attitude. Helping others in this way empowers them to step into better versions of themselves. And that's what education is really about.