Since we were kids, people have always told us what to do. As soon as we developed the cognitive ability to follow directions, the orders started rolling in. Make your bed. Clean your room. Get your homework done. Empty the dishwasher. Take a bath. Time for bed.
We typically learn to follow directions because (if we are lucky) we learn quickly that tasks completed are followed by praise and affirmation. Good job putting those toys away. Your room is so tidy! Well done.
In school, it was the same concept. Our teachers set rules and tasks, and we adhered. We walked in single file lines and had to be quiet when the teacher said, “no talking.” That was torture for me. And if we were good, we got a gold star next to our name for the day. But if we weren’t, we got a checkmark next to our name. I was a very task-oriented kid but couldn’t keep my mouth shut for the life of me, so my name bore patterns of shiny stars and red checkmarks. I’m 48, and if you followed me around today applying the same system, the results would be similar.
Failing to comply with any of these scenarios resulted in negative reinforcement. I got spanked as a child, so I quickly learned that not doing what I was told caused pain. Pain avoidance is a great motivator, as it turns out. And for some, the checkmarks posted for all to see caused enough shame to result in compliance.
As we grow older, consequences change. Spankings didn’t have the same effect because I learned pain tolerance. Ground me from seeing my friends, and you had my attention. I learned to do what I had to do so I could do what I wanted to do. We figure this out pretty quickly as we grow and mature. Do the thing expected of you at home, school, and work, and avoid the discomfort of negative consequences.
It’s funny to me that we haven’t changed much from our five-year-old selves, who felt a sense of pride when our parents offered praise for a job well done. As adults, we get the same sensation and bask in the glow of a compliment our boss provides. “Great job on that presentation today” is the equivalent of the shiny, gold star next to our name. Although we love paychecks and bonuses, the stuff that makes us feel great comes from affirmation. So we go through the motions, get the work done, and hope for praise and compliments in addition to paychecks. Our jobs provide us with similar rules and expectations we had as kids.
But what happens when no one is around to tell us to do the thing that needs to be done? I moved into my own apartment at 17 years old, and my first revelation was that no one told me to make my bed. When you grow up, you can go to sleep at night with dishes in the sink, and no one is chastising you. The chores can go undone, and no one is looking over your shoulder, ready to apply a checkmark to your name. No one is threatening to take your phone away or ground you. You are free! You probably had to run laps in gym class and hated it. No more of that. As an adult, you don’t HAVE to go to the gym and work out. If you have a job, you have to show up, but once free from the shackles of your boss, you can lay around and binge-watch Netflix. You can stay up as late as you want and don’t have to answer anyone.
When you are done with school, no one makes you read a book and write an essay. You no longer have to be tortured by required reading.
This is all so liberating.
How is that working out for you?
If you have developed the discipline to continue doing all the tasks without being told, you are winning at life. But if left to your own devices, you find yourself falling short on your “have to do” list, you might need to recalibrate. The busy work is only scratching the surface. Maybe you knock out the chore list but haven’t made it to the gym, ingested vegetables, or picked up a book or other medium that taught you something new.
Before I give a presentation or teach a class, I declare: “You are all adults, and you are responsible for your own learning.” That means you can sit on your phone or daydream if you want. No one is forcing you to learn. No checkmarks next to your name.
Think about the power of that statement. You are responsible. Your growth in every aspect of your life is 100% optional.
You have one shot at this life. It’s not a dress rehearsal. You don’t get a do-over, and even though you believe you have an infinite amount of time in this life, I promise you it moves fast.
If you have other people for whom you are responsible, you probably tell them what to do, right? Why are you neglecting yourself?
No one will tell you what to do anymore because you are grown. You are responsible for your own choices and your own life. Are you proud of whom you have become? If not, it’s time to take an assessment and determine where you are falling short or not showing up in this life. Be your own taskmaster. Pretend your mom is nagging in your ear. Write out a chore chart and give yourself a gold star. Pretend your P.E. teacher is waiting for you at the gym with a whistle. Ask someone to be an accountability buddy. Whatever it takes, figure out methods to fuel your motivation.
Your growth is optional, and gold stars are waiting for you.