This is all important stuff to know because, all things being equal, more people are undone by behavioural issues than by anything else. And I’m talking all people here, not just kids. Our behaviour is a reflection of our thoughts. Yet how many of us stop and consider: what am I thinking? how do I think? What influences my thinking? and the big one: why do I do what I do?
Tao Te Ching is reported to have once written:
“Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.
When you realise that you have enough, you are truly rich.”
Now, I am not a big advocate for hugging trees or spending endless hours navel-gazing. I am not talking here about “finding yourself”, nor am I encouraging self-absorption. This is about discovering what we think - what is behind our behaviours - and then determining what we need to do about it.
It can be really bloody hard to do.
It’s a fact that nothing in life changes until we change. It’s easier to wait and hope for something better, hope that your circumstances improve or that bitch in the office sees the light. But the reality is that we can’t make others change; we can only change ourselves. So you will hope in vain. Your frustration will never diminish and your worst fears will be realised.
When we find ourselves in a situation where what we are doing isn’t working, we face a choice. We can acknowledge where we are and choose to go in another direction. Or we can rationalize our behaviour and do nothing. But here’s a pro-tip: more of the same will only ever give you more of the same. How many times will you slam your head into that brick wall before you accept that your head is softer than the brick? How many times will you blame others for your happiness or frustration before you remember that you alone are the master of your own experience?
Last week I got to hang out with my dogs and some kids in a school based re-engagement classroom. It was a small but lively group and I can’t think of many better ways to spend an hour.
On this day, I had my buddy Winston with me. Winston is a gorgeous looking border collie dog who is strong, confident, loves a good fight but generally spends his days looking for a pat from the closest human. Winston can’t really see why he would ever exert himself more than absolutely necessary – unless there is a good fight to be had of course!
It’s a curious nature for a dog to have. You could always be forgiven for believing butter wouldn’t melt in Winston’s mouth, he is such a sweet and chilled out dog. But if there is a job to be done or another dog that needs telling, Winston is the first to volunteer his considerable skills.
On this day, Winston paired up with a young girl who at first wasn’t real keen on getting involved. That sort of attitude suits Winston just fine – more chance that he will get to laze about in the sun getting pats. However, as often happens, curiosity overtook our girl and she started to get involved in the training lesson and interact with Winston on a more active level.
It didn’t take long for the tell-tale remark from Winston’s young handler: “This dog is stubborn, just like me”. We discussed Winston for a bit longer and discovered that he is happy enough to go along with you if he thinks you really appreciate it, but if he thinks you don’t care or don’t recognise his effort he will just want to go do his own thing.
Hmm, curious that a young lady who spends her time on school grounds but chronically skipping classes, would make such a determination on a dog after only a 30 minute meeting with him. She is dead right of course.
When I talked to her about what she might need to do to motivate Winston, this young student really started to get immersed in the lesson. She was being handed control and she was determined to make the most of it. She talked about how Winston needed praise more than encouragement, and about how he needed to feel like he belonged, was really a part of things.
I am always unsure how quickly people recognise the parallels between themselves and the dog they are training. I wasn’t in much doubt with this one however. She was picking it up straight away.
A little while later, towards the end of the session, we talked about her school experiences and her plans for the future. I asked her about whether she planned to change her habits and actually attend classes. She told me she would because she had to – she had been told, and feared it was true, that she would get kicked out if she kept skipping class.
At this point, I took the conversation spotlight off her and we discussed the two major training theories: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Basically, I explained, in positive reinforcement we praise the good and ignore the bad. In negative reinforcement we ignore the good but punish or react to the bad. I asked her which theory she thought would work best to get Winston to do something he didn’t want to do. I asked her to think about how Winston might react if I used negative reinforcement only to get him to load up in the trailer.
Now this is an incredibly brave young lady we are talking about here. She was brave enough, in that moment, to admit that a personality like Winston’s would not react very well to negative reinforcement, as he would just think you don’t care about him. And being appreciated is his biggest motivation. Her ultimate bravery was in admitting that it was true of her too. That using the threat or fear of expulsion alone would never be sufficient motivation to get her into the classroom regularly.
We talked then about what would be good motivation for her. What her hopes and dreams were? What did going to school have to offer her? Who did she have in her life to explore those questions with? I left her with those questions to explore, after all her immediate future kinda depends on coming up with some good answers. It warrants some decent thought.
What also warrants thought, is how we respond to young people who are conspicuously not participating in life. These aren’t the kids who are sneaking off to a mates place on a school day in order to avoid a test or a potential fight. I mean those kids who are at school, usually in school uniform, but not in class. They are there, they want to be noticed, they just find it near on impossible to cross the classroom threshold. There are a lot of kids like that. And this young lady represents them pretty well – they need to feel like they belong and they need appreciation in order to feel like they can take part.
It’s a big ask – being appreciative of and including kids who deliberately behave in a way that they know makes you wish they weren’t there and certainly doesn’t inspire thoughts of appreciation in you. But there it is: human nature. We all behave poorly when our thoughts are stuck in a negative groove. Our behaviour is a reflection of our thoughts.
You gotta change the thoughts, before you can inspire a change in the behaviour.
We all have, and have always had, the right, the power and the opportunity to choose. What are you going to do with it? Your thinking, and the behaviour that is expressed by them, has brought you to where you are now. You are in control of developing the thinking and behaviour that will take you where we want to go next.
Where do you want to go next?
According to Darwin’s oft misquoted ‘Origin of Species’, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
The truth is, you don’t need to be the smartest or the strongest to win. You never did have to be. Best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. You just gotta be adaptable, roll with the punches, be able to predict how you might feel in changing circumstances and what you can do about it.
The best chance you have to win at the doing of life, is to know yourself. Knowing what you are capable of, how you react, what scares you and what inspires you. What the thoughts are that you have that translate into the behaviour you use.
There are things about you that you know, that others also know.
There are things that others know about you, that you don’t know.
Things that you know about yourself that others don’t know.
And there are things that neither you, nor anybody else knows…yet.
Plumbing the depths of human motivation is a mighty project to undertake. It’s often easier to explore the nature of your dog. He usually makes things pretty plain if you are honest and, like my young girl handling Winston last week, brave enough to go there. Be kind with what you find and see what it can do to motivate you to be the best version of yourself this week.
And as always - “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda)