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What If You Don't Have a Long-term Goal?

11/17/2013 10:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I love that Angela Duckworth is expanding the conversation about success in education and other arenas beyond IQ. In doing so she follows other great thinkers like Howard Gardner who brought us the concept of multiple intelligences. Or Daniel Goleman who talked about emotional intelligence. And as a researcher who studies media and social learning, and a mom of two children, I know how important it is to look beyond just academics when helping children develop skills for success.

But I also worry that framing the conversation around helping children develop Grit, the passion and perseverance for sticking to very long-term goals, could oversimplify the issues.

For example, what if you don't have a long-term goal? Long-term goals require vision, perseverance, role models, and an ability to focus amongst life's daily distractions. The fact is that long-term goals are extremely difficult for many people to hold in their minds. Take a minute and try to think of your own five- and ten-year plan. Don't have one? Then how can we expect children, especially earlier in their development before their pre-frontal cortexes are fully developed, to be motivated by planning that far ahead.

Moreover, long-term goals, while eminently admirable, feel too challenging when some are just trying to live day to day. 16 million kids lived in food insecure houses in 2012. 20 percent of urban kids feel unsafe in their schools. If you are hungry or don't feel safe, you will not be able to focus on the person in front of you in the classroom, let alone a future that may seem intangible.

I am not knocking long-term goals, I just spent the last four years working towards a doctorate degree and that definitely required envisioning a future. But think of how many people never finish their PhD programs, and you begin to understand that even in the best of circumstances, many of us are challenged to think that far ahead.

I do however fervently agree with Dr. Duckworth that motivation is a crucial underlying aspect for achievement. Solve the motivation issue, and more children, and adults for that matter, will succeed.

But it's critical to remember that motivation is multi-faceted, and comprises of many different elements, with long-term goal setting being just one way to motivate. Here are a few of the mechanisms that help people be motivated:

1. A desire to master the subject

2. Public recognition or other extrinsic rewards

3. A focus on effort and hard work

4. Sugar

Were you startled about the last one? Although those with toddlers may not be surprised that sugar can motivate, there is actually a body of work that a bit of sugar replenishes one's ability to self-regulate.

Given the many different findings, it seems to me a more useful approach would be to focus on the circumstances that might allow one to develop motivation towards a variety of goals, goals that vary from person to person, and might be driven by context, individual differences and opportunity.

This approach would entail the following.

1. Find out what gets a child excited

2. Help them devise a plan to get to this personally relevant goal

3. Make it seem realizable, in other words focus on SHORT-term goals

4. Guide them to the understanding that the power to achieve the goal rests within them, their efforts can make all the difference.

Oh yes, and if all else fails, you can always add a bit of sugar, and grit, to the mix.

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