Originally written for Gulf News Perspective:
gulfnews : Enjoy what you do, do what you think.
As individuals living a fast-paced life, full of competition and ruthless rat races, we seek constant validation from the world around us. Naturally, to be respected and praised is something we all like, but to constantly crave acceptance is another matter.
We work like zombies in a quest to earn respect and money. Some of us base our actions entirely on what others might think while some of us have become ‘praise-junkies’ — people who get a high when someone appreciates them and get depressed soon after, looking anxiously for their next fix.
With the advent of social networks, the need to be appreciated and complimented has reached bizarre levels. We upload photos and write status updates in the hope of getting a ‘like’ or a re-tweet. Our self-esteem gets a real boost by the number of ‘friends’ we might have in our network and it can take an equally harsh blow when someone snubs us publicly.
There are very few among us who go about their business with true passion. More often than not it is people who work because they are naturally inclined to that are the most successful and content with their lives. They feel the most secure about themselves and praise or lack of it matters little to them.
The question is: Where does this heavy dependence on the opinions of others rather than what’s important to us personally begin? Why is it that our self-respect rests on what Tom, Dick or Harry might think of us? The answer, of course, lies in the fact that we were brought up this way.
Right from the time when we are children discovering life at primary school, many of us learn to write the alphabet because of the ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ remark the teacher might give us if we get it right.
It makes the effort worthwhile and before we know it, our self-worth rests not on the knowledge of something as necessary as letters, but on that scrap of paper which makes us believe we are ‘good’.
Throughout elementary school we are coerced into obedience and goodness not because we are allowed to feel naturally inclined towards it, but because a child whose behaviour and academics are good gets praise from his teachers, is appreciated by parents and is looked up to by peers. Then the human being hits teenage and peers become all-important. Hairstyle, handwriting, mannerisms, and, most importantly, character is formed because of what people may think.
Praise in school
As children, we were brought up on ‘Well Done!’ and ‘Bravo!’ and did things to obtain these remarks, rather than because learning and acquiring knowledge was exciting. Naturally as adults, we derive satisfaction from our respective jobs only if the people around us think highly of us. Internal contentment with who we are — without the need of having others confirm our goodness — remains elusive. The root of the problem lies in the way we were brought up.
In conventional pedagogy, students are rarely motivated by the pull of acquiring knowledge itself, in fact, it is the lure of an external reward that spurs them on. A grade, a remark, respect from peers, acceptance at home from parents, to outdo another, to avoid embarrassment — these appear to be the main reasons our children are prompted to learn something. It is rare to come across a child who understands that the geography of the world is a fascinating thing and that working with a globe is fun, and imagines travelling across the world, as though set free by his or her knowledge of the subject. Instead, a subject like geography becomes painfully laborious and students memorise facts just so they can get a certain grade.
In the words of Alfie Kohn, an author of 11 books on parenting and behaviour, “somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten to concentrate on what is being learnt and all we care about is how well it is being learnt”.
Imagine, if a child learnt to appreciate history simply because it was intriguing, would he or she not do far better than someone who is simply vying for accolades? Would the knowledge of the bygone era not prove more useful to the child who is learning about it because he wants to? Indeed, we want our children to get an education that touches their very souls and does not merely trace upon their skins like a digital airbrush.
When the founder of the Montessori system, Dr Maria Montessori eliminated rewards and punishments from her classroom, she wanted to set the children free, to enable them to think beyond a pat on the back or a ‘time-out’. She wanted them to learn that the joy of acquiring knowledge itself was the biggest reward of them all.