Put aside your grief for a moment and you can likely bring to mind an iconic image of Lance Armstrong driving himself toward the finish line of yet another long and grueling race. We are compelled by great athletic achievement because it shows us what is possible. Your sympathy for Armstrong may be low right now, but only obstinate denial will keep you from remembering that there was a point when he was bald, bedridden, and facing death. You may decide to cast your stones now, but who had the stones then? The greatness of a successful athlete is not due to having a true moral compass -- as we might like. What is required of our athletes is the true grit to accomplish personal goals. Lance doped because that’s what it took to win the Tour De France. The real difference between Lance and the other riders on tour wasn’t the dope, it was the dopamine -- a chemical in the brain now implicated in motivation.
Let me suggest that what we all want -- what we need, really, to participate as persons in the world -- is the leverage to move ourselves toward what is of value. The term for that leverage is agency. Further, despite wishful thinking to the contrary, agency isn’t a birthright. We have to work for it ourselves and demand it of others. Agency is the parent of twins: freedom and responsibility. We get traction for our agency from grit. Athletes show us what grit looks like so that we can use it, in some measure, for ourselves.
Athletic pursuit operates in a specially designed microcosm so that goals are readily defined and success in easily measured. All the work that athletes put in -- all the planning, training, dieting, managing, and competing -- is rationalized by a set of explicit performance goals that generalize to “winning.” To that extent you cannot dismiss the importance of winning because it defines the index used to measure the success of all that work. We still mean it when we say “winning isn’t everything” though, because the pursuit of winning is itself in service to the greater purpose of athletics: to showcase our capacity to set and meet goals -- to prove our agency in the world.
One reason you are grief-stricken over the Lance Armstrong scandal is because the means he used to reach his goals were against the rules. Rules, however, like all other defining aspects of sports contests, are a means for establishing what competitors have to do in order to win. To a non-competitor the rule may look simple: “don’t take EPO.” That’s about as simple in bike racing as the rule: “don’t foul” is in basketball. Just like the real goal for basketball players becomes to make the greatest possible use of personal contact without getting called for a foul, the real goal for endurance cyclists is to get the most possible red blood cells without failing a drug test. Although those outside the sport are upset, my guess is that most of Armstrong’s immediate competitors at the time accepted that Lance had won at the game they had all tacitly agreed to play. Unspoken rules among athletes are subject to interpretation and change -- and of course pressure from outside. I suspect that is what is going on now.
Lance Armstrong won an unprecedented 7 Tours De France. Two questions emerge for me now that he is poised to confess his use of performance enhancing drugs. First, should these drugs be against the rules? He had to successfully take and cover up PEDs in secret for his whole career. Think what he could have accomplished if he could have used PEDs to maximum effect with the full benefit of doctors and specialists working openly! That interesting question is not the subject of this post, however. The question I’d like to consider, and I’m going to assume that most of Armstrong’s main rivals were not above doping themselves, is what set Armstrong apart? For that matter, what sets any of us apart? Even if you remain indignant and hold that Armstrong deserves no credit, will you at least concede that he was highly motivated? Lance saw where he wanted to be even when he was a long way from it. And he got there, taking large risks along the way. That’s motivation, right? I think it’s fair to say that Armstrong was sufficiently motivated to do what it took to win the Tour De France.
If you ever took a psychology class you can probably bring to mind the experiments in which rats greedily press a lever to get a morsel of food. A very general finding was that the neurotransmitter dopamine was released when the rats got the food. Dopamine is known to be integral to human experience of pleasure as well. New research continues to refine our understanding of the role of dopamine, however, and it goes a lot deeper than mediating our desires for food and sex. According to a recent study by John Salamone and Mercè Correa [The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, 2012; 76 (3): 470 DOI:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021] the neurons activated by dopamine are tasked with “behavioral activation, exertion of effort, approach behavior, sustained task engagement, Pavlovian processes, and instrumental learning.” If that sounds a little technical, I can paraphrase. Dopamine is not the chemical of reward, washing over us after the work is done, it’s the chemical of motivation -- jacking us up to do the work required. The cells that kick in with dopamine cause us to get going, to work hard, to go toward the thing we want, to stick with it, to do more of the things we find working, and to do more of the things that help us to achieve our goals. Experimental evidence suggests that dopamine circuits don’t cause us to find the destination more rewarding, they increase our willingness to do more work en route to getting there.
The neurochemistry of dopamine is important because we seek interventions for people suffering from a range of conditions from depression to addiction. At root these conditions are about motivation -- too little in the case of depression and too much in the case of addiction. A stark and unsettling implication of this research is that one could literally take the measure of the brain chemistry of any group of individuals and quantify a range of motivational states. Some people are more motivated than others. I’m sure one could similarly take the measure of a single individual over time and find a similar range of motivational states. We are more motivated at some times than at others. Biological determinism rears its ugly head. Are we just puppets pulled by the firings of nerve cells that have too much or too little of the chemical needed for motivation?
That is not the kind of question broached in the standard fare of education literature. Michael Horn authored the book Disrupting Class to describe his system for motivating young learners. In his blog on Forbes he posts this synopsis with the title: Building Motivation, Instilling Grit.” [See: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2013/01/10/building-motivation-instilling-grit-the-necessity-of-mastery-based-digital-learning/] In it he argues that technology now provides the means for all students to work toward mastery individually at the appropriate level and pace. All that is required is the intrinsic motivation to get there. I was right with him until he went on to describe (as the title suggests) how we should instill the grit needed into seemingly unmotivated students. How, I wanted to know, can you “instill” something and it also be intrinsic to the person? Never mind the chemistry -- whose motivation are we talking about here? If it is intrinsic, it has to be the student’s own. If the educator does the work, it was the educator who was motivated. Can a teacher work to get students to do something? Of course! Call and order pizzas for students who finish. But if that is what moved the student it was extrinsic. Remove the promise of a pizza and the student will stop working.
And before you correct me, I realize that in a real classroom the dynamic is considerably more complicated. Maybe I ordered pizzas just because I’m a nice guy and I like my students. Students like me because I’m a nice guy and because I like them. Kids do the assignment, therefore, because they like me, even if I don’t always have a pizza waiting for them. Psychoanalyzing a group of kids is fraught with peril in any case -- you can’t always know why they do what they do! The point I hoped to make is more definitional. Behavior that is motivated intrinsically doesn’t depend on someone else making you do it.
More perplexing still, Horn insists that all young people are equally motivated to pursue what is of value. The reason some students appear more motivated than others, he says, is that schools haven’t made the case that all students should buy what schools are selling. Few things are as aggravating to me as the assumption that differences in student performance are best explained by differences in the effort of teachers and schools. That implies that improving the performance of students requires teachers and schools to be more motivated. Grit doesn’t work that way. Grit is the real traction given a person to pursue what is of value -- to him. It takes work: stepping toward the problem, confronting it, and sticking with it until one has achieved the thing of value. No one can do it for you.
That the chemical transactions in your brain likely differ from those in other brains might cause you to view your own agency as limited or absent. With that view you are as doomed as the student waiting to be sufficiently motivated by his teacher. In the meantime I suggest you continue to watch and revere those who do not shrink back in the face of apparent obstacles to their own success.