Intrinsically motivated

At the time of writing these words, nine months have passed since Montessori Child became a part of my life. During this period Andrew and I have encountered many new tasks and challenges. We have exercised a very organic and ‘DIY’ approach to our retail ‘learning journey’. I stepped into our new challenge with a true Montessori mindset; “teach me to do it myself”. I didn’t want to rely on consultants or external support, I wanted to learn the skills and tools myself so that we can be self-reliant and self-sustaining. It hasn’t been a perfect process but the mistakes I make are my own, and so they help me learn. In some cases we were able to seek advice from peers and from family but we also did a lot of Googling, experimenting, problem-solving and self-correcting!

There were many new skills and processes that we encountered on our learning journey. Some were quite familiar, while others were completely foreign. Writing about Montessori was nothing new to me – that’s part of my day-job already so sharing my words with the online community just felt like a natural progression. Managing our own accounts on MYOB felt a little less natural, but I was helped along by some (slightly foggy) recollections from a year of Accounting Studies in high school. Then, at the ‘completely alien’ end of the spectrum, was the art of photography. 

I’m not pretending that I’ve never held a camera in my hand, or suggesting that I’ve never shared a snap on social media. I’ve just never had to do this with a “retail” mindset. I’ve used a camera to capture a million memories of my niece, but in my eyes she’s perfect so I’ve never felt the need to edit the images! I’ve preserved images of Pre-school children, deeply engaged in their explorations, but their parents have always cared much more about the innately beautiful content than the technical composition! It turns out that taking photos for the express purpose of representing a resource in an online store is a completely different experience!

So for nine months we made do with the best we could do with the tools and skills we already had. We took photos that were functional but not particularly ‘professional’. I wasn’t satisfied with the presentation of our photos but there were so many other tasks I was trying to master. I knew that eventually I’d need to purchase editing software (and learn how to use it!) but I just didn’t feel ready or able to do it.

Then, all of a sudden, my brain decided that the time had come to make a change. Investing in photo-editing software had been on the To-Do List for a long time, and nothing about the situation had changed in an external sense, but something inside me just clicked. It was, without a doubt, the right time for me to take action on this task. 

I can’t stress enough that for nine months straight this task was already present in my ‘prepared environment’.  I had the camera, the computer, the stock, the website. All the elements were there, and so was the awareness. But the intrinsic motivation hadn’t arrived yet. It wasn’t because I didn’t care – I’m a perfectionist at heart so my amateur photos definitely bothered me. It was because there were other things that I had to do first to be ready for this particular challenge and it was the furthest out of my comfort zone. Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I reached my sensitive period for photo editing! 

I had the flash of motivation on a Friday, but circumstance prevented me from acting on it until a Sunday. So when Sunday afternoon arrived I pulled up my list of software comparisons and decided on the one that was right for me. Then I hopped in the car and drove to Officeworks (one of my favourite stores – they know me by name there!). I arrived, went to the software aisle, picked up the case for my chosen program and walked to the counter...where I was met with the news that it was not in stock. 

So just to recap before I go on – I’d been running the business for 9 months and had survived that long without photo editing software. There was absolutely no external deadline requiring me to have the program – no boss demanding a submission, no funding that was about to run out. It was entirely a self-imposed task. So nine months without it, no tangible or ‘logical’ need for it, but just a very strong internal motivation. That was the situation – and I am a mature adult – but when I was told that my chosen program was not in stock … I almost cried.

I’m not exaggerating. Sitting here now I am having an extremely strong ‘sense-memory’ of the way that heat started coursing through my body as the tears stung my eyes and a lump rose in my throat. On a Sunday afternoon, in the middle of my local Officeworks, I almost cried because a computer program was temporarily unavailable.

Now let me be clear – I wasn’t being spoilt or demanding. I didn’t complain to the worker or throw a tantrum because I couldn’t have what I wanted. That’s not what it was about. I was just extremely affected by an immense sense of disappointment and fear; disappointment that my internal motivation and my external environment were out of sync….and fear that the light of my inner fire would fade before I could rectify the situation.

The very helpful Officeworks staff offered to order the program in for me – but it would take a few weeks. I was genuinely concerned that by the time it arrived the ‘moment’ would have passed again. I thought my motivation would be gone and it would be another 9 months before it returned (if ever). In hindsight these are probably irrational fears – the task would have stayed on my to-do list and when the software arrived it probably would have spurred me to start the project. But I knew that by that point I’d be doing it with a sense of duty, not a sense of enthusiasm.

So I took a big breath, readjusted and decided that I would dip into my personal savings account so that I could afford to buy the ‘Premier’ (read: expensive) version of the program I had chosen. It comes with some extra features that I might use in the future, but didn’t need at that moment, so I hadn’t planned on making this bigger financial investment. But at that point in time there was no doubt in my mind that it was worth paying more to be able to capitalise on my intrinsic motivation. And it was – in the weeks since then I have worked diligently and joyfully on learning this new skill. I’m not perfect but I’m getting better and, most importantly, I am really enjoying the process (even though the finished ‘product’ of my edits aren’t quite perfect yet!). I am absolutely glad that I made the decision to seize the moment and buy the more expensive but available package. The financial cost did sting a little but it was absolutely worth it in terms of the value of being boosted by my innate motivation.

But here is the crux of it all; a child can’t always make a choice to overcome the limitation of their environment. If a child’s innate motivation does not match the external surroundings then usually they do end up in tears (as I nearly did!). And adults look at these teary-eyed children and think they are misbehaving or throwing a tantrum. But they are just expressing the devastating frustration and disappointment of finding that every ounce of your soul is driving you towards something, but the world around you won’t let it happen.

The experience also made me think about the importance of trusting a child’s unfolding timelines. A child might spend 9 months in a Montessori classroom without ever touching a number activity, just like I spent 9 months running an online store without purchasing photo editing software. Then, suddenly, without warning or logical reason there can be a spontaneous explosion of interest. The child suddenly finds himself (or herself) irresistibly drawn towards numbers – almost compelled to engage with these counting experiences, just as I felt the irrepressible urge to finally tend to this element of my new life. What if someone had tried to force me to learn to edit photos one month into my work with Montessori Child? I’ll tell you what would have happened – I would have done it reluctantly…and badly! I would have been cranky about it and I would have resented it. I’d have felt it to be a drain and every minute of editing would have felt like an hour. Instead, because I waited until I was ready, I relish the challenge and Andrew has to drag me away from my practising! I’ve started editing unrelated photos just so I can repeat and revise!

The other issue that springs to my mind is opportunity cost. If someone had forced me to start editing photos 9 months ago then, as I said, it would have been a chore and would have taken longer (or felt like it!). In this alternate-universe I would have been drained by the forced experience, and it would have taken more time because I would be doing it reluctantly….so what would I have missed during these reluctant, crawling hours? I would not have had the time, energy or headspace to focus on many of the other elements I had to master. And in reflection I realise that I had to master some of these other things first in order to build my confidence and readiness for the photo editing. Just as a child in a Montessori classroom might need to spend eons working on Practical Life activities in order to build confidence and readiness for the more ‘academic’ tasks.

Almost crying in Officeworks has reminded me of one of the incredible importance of one of the most fundamental lessons of the Montessori method; to follow the needs of the child. The experiences are more effective, meaningful, joyful and impactful when they happen because the child is internally motivated. This experience (slightly embarrassing though it may be!) has reminded me how vital it is for me to ensure that I create an environment that is in harmony with the intrinsic interests of the child at the right time for that individual. I need to have the obstacles removed and the tools in place – I have to make sure that the proverbial software is in stock at the moment when a child is suddenly and inexplicably ready!
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