Friday, March 4, 2011


"What is the matter with the pessimist? [...] I think it can be stated, without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend. And what is the matter with the candid friend? [...] I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back -- his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. [...] [H]e is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, 'I am sorry to say we are ruined,' and is not sorry at all." -G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I recently read a book passed on to me by a wise friend concerning the topic of intrinsic motivation. The thesis was that the typical "carrot-and-stick" method of discipline was rather soul-crushing. The author instead advocated granting a level of ownership and freedom to employees or students and letting their natural creativity take hold. The basic conclusion was that rewarding and punitive motivators for rudimentary tasks such as assembling fast food or stacking papers was effective. For tasks requiring more originality or flair, they became a dismal failure. The take-home for me as an educator was that children are intrinsically motivated to learn. They really do want to learn. Therefore, do not lord over them with deadlines, tests, or projects. Give them as much ownership of the material as possible and they will astound you. It all sounds like the premise for a made-for-TV movie about some Teacher of the Year in a drastically under-performing school.

Would that it were true.

The unfortunate reality both in the classroom and in life is that there are genuinely people who crave failure, not success. I most eagerly believe that at some point everyone was intrinsically motivated to success and not failure. I also grant that most likely at some point a soul-crushing instructor or an over-bearing employer or a cruel coach quenched any lingering thirst for achievement. Perhaps they learn to anticipate failure and find it a twisted form of success to assure all listeners of a disappointing performance and bend over backwards to deliver. Diagnose as you please; the honest observer must admit that there are people in the world who really do relish failure.

They are those truly toxic people in the world. They predict heinous outcomes to all ventures. Should the endeavor prove fruitful, they shall shrug and chalk it up to the Law of Averages while already yearning for the next triumph of the Law of Murphy. The very next iniquitous try (no matter how far separated from their last failed dire prediction) is a private triumph. In layman's terms, I think the optimist's favorite phrase is, "It's not so bad." The pessimist's is, "I told you so."

It will always be true that there are small men who enlarge themselves in their own minds by casting the first stones. I find the modern sophisticated, urbanite, twenty-something to be the best example of the classic pessimist. They live lives chock full of irony. They make snarky remarks about Bush and Obama on the same issue in the same breath. There are only a few movies they enjoy, mostly the ones by nihilistic or European directors with an equally jaded outlook as theirs. No book is as good as Catcher in the Rye or some nonsense by Foucault. They believe in Nothing. It's not that they don't believe in anything, it's that they put their stock in Nothing. They love the Nothing. They stared into the Abyss and found something wonderful in all the horror. And the more movies and politicians and songs and ideas and heartfelt yearnings they can reduce to Nothing, the happier they will be.

In the end, the pessimist sees all too well that misery loves company. Nevertheless, he is blind to the fact that company can hardly stand him.

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