Faculty Guest Blogger: Passion is the Key to Motivation

I find people fascinating!  The choices they make often surprise, inspire, or baffle me.  The disparate choices two seemingly similar people make lead me to question how they come to decisions.  I wonder what motivates them and why.

As a computer scientist, I like to analyze phenomena I do not understand.  I want to collect data, look for patterns in that data, create a hypothesis, and test that hunch.  However, not many people would appreciate my using their lives as experimental data.  Fortunately, I appear to be just as illogical as most people, so I can use my own experiences as a very limited data set.

Like most people, I vacillate between procrastination and productivity.   Before being asked to write this post, however, I had never analyzed why I leap with enthusiasm at achieving some goals while letting others languish for months.  Examining two of my goals, obtaining my doctorate in computer science and buying a new refrigerator, has enabled me to get a better understanding of why.

Getting my doctorate was a long, arduous process.  It’s not that the work was particularly hard intellectually, but it was different from the course work that I knew how to do really well. There were no clearly correct answers to the problems I was tackling so the triumph of achieving an A on a challenging test was non-existent.  I also struggled being a female in a male-dominated field.   Why then did I stick it out for so long when I could have left and earned more money (and been happier) working in industry?

In contrast, buying a refrigerator seems like something that should be quickly and easily accomplished.  And yet, it took me an entire year to buy a full-sized refrigerator. Instead, I lived with a small dorm refrigerator loaned to me by a colleague.  It was incredibly inconvenient to not be able to freeze anything or keep fresh produce.  Why then was I so unmotivated to simply purchase a refrigerator?  My inability to do so seems like the height of irrationality.

Anger, frustration, or fears of failure are often considered emotions that motivate people.  If I’m honest, there were times in graduate school where I was impressively productive, largely because I was either scared of failing or I was incredibly angry.  However, these emotions were not able to sustain my motivation and activity for long periods of time.  My refrigerator woes were also incredibly frustrating; I returned two unsuitable refrigerators in the first month.  Still, the inconvenience and frustration were not enough to motivate me to try a third refrigerator.

My reflections on these two scenarios have made me realize that, for me, the key to motivation is passion.  How much do I care?  Is this something I desperately do not want to live without? Do I feel this deeply in my soul or psyche as the right thing to do?

Someone once asked me why I persisted in the PhD program when I was unhappy.  My answer surprised me, but it also rang true.  I wanted to be the type of mentor for others that several of my college professors had been for me.  I wanted to encourage people to try their talents at activities they never imagined, to give them the support to both fail and succeed, to provide them with the encouragement they needed to keep trying, and to help them grow.  I knew how transformational my mentors’ influence on my life had been and I wanted to be that person for someone else.  Once I finally became aware of my goal, I suddenly found all the energy I needed to keep pushing through graduate school.  In contrast, the lack of a refrigerator was simply an embarrassing inconvenience; my self-worth was not tied up in buying one.

This reflection helps explain why I keep pushing rocks up mountains for some goals and completely ignore others. It also reminds me of what I hope to be true for my students.  I hope that all of my students keep exploring classes and activities at UR until they find something that sparks their passion.  Some topic that makes them so energized that they do not care that a class they really want to take meets at 9am on Fridays or that it demands that they put in a lot of effort to master the required skills and material.  When I see students enthusiastically embrace a field as what they want to do with their lives, I am absolutely delighted (even when it is not computer science).  I know motivation will no longer be a problem for these students.  They will work hard, excel at that work, and be happy doing so because they are doing exactly what they want to be doing.  And, it’s at this point that the choices they make inspire me.

Dr. Kelly Shaw is an associate professor of Computer Science here at the University of Richmond. She teaches courses in elementary programming, data structures, computer structures, operating systems, and theory of computation. Dr. Shaw is also doing research focused on exploring the boundaries between hardware, operating systems, and compilers in future chip multiprocessors.

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