Identity – A means to bypass the need for motivation

Being a teacher you sometimes question your effectiveness, the direction of the curriculum, summative assessments, a whole host of things. In fact there are always job-related difficulties and doubts, that are shared by others in the profession. So I wondered, why do we do it? Why do we dedicate ourselves to helping students develop academically, emotionally and behaviourally? Why do we spend hours outside the classroom preparing for lessons, correcting papers and engaging in non-classroom related activities?

And, after years of research, I think I have an answer. I see myself as a ‘teacher’ and this is what teachers do. In other words, being a ‘teacher’ is an identity that I have accepted for myself and the norms and values of being a ‘teacher’ dictate the choices and actions I make.

I know this exists in other areas and arenas too. Athletes, firefighters, school students, club members all have a set of norms and values they adhere to that reflect the identity they’ve created and their selected social grouping.

So this made me think, could this idea of identity be used in other areas of my life? My research has led to the following discoveries.

An identity can bypass the need to motivate yourself

Ask an athlete to wake at 6am, train hard in the gym and then go to work – no problem. Ask a firefighter to enter a burning building – no problem. Ask a racer driver to fly around a track at speeds in excess of 250 km/hr – no problem. Most importantly, none of these groups of people need motivators to do these things. Their identity allows them to by-pass the need for motivation.

So if I create a new identity then this ‘new person’ can succeed in whichever field I want, right!?

Short answer, yes. But it’s not that straightforward.

Situational dependence

Current research (by Daphna Oyserman and her team) on identity indicates that we select different types of identities, and the behaviours that go along with them, during different situations. In other words, we wear these identities like hats, and are able to exchange them as required. Putting on one of our many “identity hats” results in us selecting a range of behaviours that we consider appropriate for the identity we’ve chosen, in that place and at that time.

So, a new identity isn’t going to replace who you are or be the solution for any of your problems. Creating this identity will simply lead to a slight change in how you view yourself within particular contexts. Think aggressive professional fighter coming home after training or from a fight and being a loving doting father.

Reacting to challenge and obstacles

Interestingly wearing a particular identity hat also effects your attitudes and how you react to difficulties and obstacles. If you’re wearing a hat that views challenge and difficulty as a chance for growth then it’s likely you’ll push through the challenge. If your hat tells you the challenge isn’t worth the effort then you’re going to need some motivation to complete the task and overcome the challenge. In short, your identity hat allows you to place a value on the challenge and react according to those values.

Where do these identities come from?

The simple answer is everything you are exposed to, but the main influencers are your friends, family and the social group(s) you perceive as being important to you. More specifically, the behaviours these people and groups have modelled and the values they expound. So, if you’ve been raised in a family that values education (or sport, or social relationships) then it’s likely you’ll develop an identity associated with this because you’ll understand and have absorbed the values, motivators and actions considered important for this identity.

As you life experience increases, and you meet more people and situations, we learn to develop different identities and we learn when to wear these when appropriate. Consequently, we can become more effective in a variety of situation as we become familiar with them.

So what does this mean for you, and how you learn?

If you understand that the motivational problems you’re facing may be because you do not see yourself as the “type of person” that can succeed in that area then you’ve taken the first step in remedying the problem. So, if you think you can’t do something because you’re not ‘sporty enough’, you’re not ‘smart enough’, “you’re not eloquent enough” etc. then you can change this by developing strategies to develop a useful identity and overcome your difficulties.

The next step is to see your future self as the type of person that can overcome these difficulties, and sell yourself the importance of this new identity by visualising what this new identity would mean to you in the future. Understanding this aspect will later allow you to create the values, goals, motivation and actions, guided by this identity, that will allow you to excel in your particular area or arena.

Finally, you will need to consciously cultivate this identity to grow a new ‘identity hat’ for use in relevant situations until it become automatic.

Easier said than done!

Admittedly this will take some time and effort. You’ll need to know which attitudes, behaviours and actions are important for you to succeed. So you may need a mentor or role model. Alternatively you could imagine or visualise how a mentor or role model would feel, act, think in the situation. Ask yourself what you would need to do to have your behaviours and attitudes become more like them. What values do they hold? And, is there anything else they do that sets them apart? After this you simply need to act like they would! Do this repeatedly, from simple to more complex actions, until it becomes automatic.

Over time your understanding of the identity will become stronger as it is cultivated, honed and ingrained within you. These repetitions will build a unique identity for you and the previous difficulties you faced will simply become enjoyable challenges to overcome. Engrain the identity deeply enough and you’ll find these challenges just become part of the process of improvement within your field. You’ll move beyond negative thoughts, the need for motivation, and feeling like the activity “isn’t for you”.

In addition, it’ll become easier to identify values, goals and actions that are important for you to succeed in your area or arena.