Economist and education expert Sharath Jeevan talks with Juanita Bawagan about the importance of igniting an inner spark from a young age.
Juanita Bawagan: What motivated you as a child?
Sharath Jeevan: My parents immigrated to the UK from India. In my family, there was very much a mindset of deferred gratification. It makes sense, because as immigrants the first thing you’re concerned about is gaining a sense of security as you come to a new place. School was seen as the way up the ladder. But this mindset is common among families from many countries.
I followed the path my parents laid out for me, getting good grades, going to a good school, but it wasn’t until later in life that I discovered what truly motivated me – helping organisations and individuals solve deep motivational challenges.
“When I say that it can be useful for kids to ignore their parents, I’m really encouraging children to find what interests them.”
JB: You’ve suggested that kids should sometimes ignore their parents, which seems counterintuitive. Could you elaborate on that?
SJ: We’re doing more and more for our kids – we’re spoon-feeding them, acting like “helicopter parents” and clearing away every obstacle. We’re making it really hard for them to define their own purpose and achieve autonomy and mastery. They don’t develop the motivational muscle and growth mindset they need. Motivation, intelligence and ability are malleable, like a muscle.
When I say that it can be useful for kids to ignore their parents, I’m really encouraging children to find what interests them. This can happen in school or at play, but no matter what, children need to develop a desire for lifelong learning on their own.
“When school systems penalise mistakes, it can make students fear failure.”
JB: You recently published your book Intrinsic: A Manifesto to Reignite Our Inner Drive. What is intrinsic motivation?
SJ: As an economist, I’m very familiar with extrinsic motivators – money, status and rewards. Extrinsic motivation is when we do something because a reward is promised, and it’s contingent on an external outcome. If you think of it like driving a car, extrinsic motivation is like diesel fuel. It will get you where you want to go, but you may not experience the most pleasant ride. Intrinsic motivation is about doing something that’s inherently fulfilling so that you enjoy the journey in and of itself.
The more we can move towards intrinsic drivers, the more likely we’ll be fulfilled and successful in the longer term.
JB: That’s an interesting perspective, because children seem to be naturally curious.
SJ: All of us come into the world with curiosity. Children have a pretty high level of intrinsic motivation; I very rarely see kids who are not curious. The cultures and systems around us change that, mostly because the pressures put on children by parents and the school system erode their natural motivation.
When school systems penalise mistakes, it can make students fear failure. We need to nourish their natural curiosity rather than stifle it. There were a couple of teachers in my life who did that for me. Nowadays it’s almost seen as an indulgence to explore what you’re curious about – who has time for that, when you have to jump through the hoops of the school system?
“Teaching needs to focus on developing capacities such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and adaptability.”
JB: What changes could be made in classrooms to help students develop their intrinsic motivation?
SJ: In our classrooms, we are suffering the costs of inaction. When kids are not really curious and deeply engaged, what is that costing them? Inaction could lead to decreased performance or students who are disengaged altogether. And even if they excel in the classroom, if they’re not truly engaged they may lack the inner drive necessary for challenges in the real world. Asking this question prompts teachers to change their way of teaching, see what works, and then try the next thing. It’s about taking a series of steps, working towards a snowball effect.
When you focus on outcomes like grades, people try to game the system because they are under such pressure. But the best way to achieve an outcome is not always to target that outcome directly. Instead, teaching needs to focus on developing capacities such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and adaptability. All of these things will make students more successful as they tackle the next problem in their lives or careers.
Sharath Jeevan is the Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs, which supports organisations all around the world, from governments to leading UK universities and high-profile corporations, as they address motivational challenges. Sharath founded and served as CEO of STiR Education, which is widely regarded as the world’s largest intrinsic motivation initiative. He was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2014 and recognised as one of the UK’s ten leading social entrepreneurs in 2019.
Sharath holds degrees from the University of Cambridge (First Class BA/MA in Economics), the University of Oxford (MSt) and INSEAD (MBA with Distinction). He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Roehampton University for his contributions to the field of education, and was invited to serve on the high-level steering group of the Education Commission, the pre-eminent global think tank founded by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
His first book, Intrinsic: A Manifesto to Reignite Our Inner Drive, is available now.