Extrinsic motivations in the context of cultural experiences

She has two main points here: 1) Learning is not fun and 2) It’s important to make kids dependent on praise and admiration.

One of the problems I’ve faced throughout life is that I’m kind of lazy, or maybe I lack will power or discipline or something. Either way, it’s very difficult for me to do anything that I don’t feel like doing. If I try to force it, my energy disappears, and I hate life. Furthermore, not only were my parents not Chinese, but they had five kids, so there wasn’t time for Amy Chua’s style of parenting. I kind of had to figure it out on my own.

I think a little bit of context helps. I ended up reading an excerpt that said it better than I could at the moment:

“[my parents] pushed me because they knew, from their own experience, that being good, really good, and smart, better-educated than most, and working-harder-than- almost-everybody was very often…not good enough. Because being good and smart and better educated and a hard worker didn’t mean that you wouldn’t still be poor, treated like a fool, underemployed, shit on, chased off the road by rich white kids in cars while riding your bike, and forced to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door because you had to put day-old bread on the table for you and your kids, even while you held a Ph.D. in Physics. I get now why they raged against our mistakes and poor preparation; mistakes were what made your brother miss the last boat out and left him to fend for himself in a war-torn country at age 14, poor preparation landed your grandmother in a labor camp.”


The ethos of working hard didn’t come from nowhere. My parents have experienced some variation of discrimination before as well. So in turn, they’ve always told me that I’ve need to get the “A”. Because in America, where it’s meritocratic in spirit, if you get the “A”, then people have no excuse not to let you pass, even if they really didn’t like you.

As a personal anecdote, I skipped a grade in science (bio) in Jr High. It was mostly as a result of circumstance since we moved around as a kid. But my parents didn’t want me to spend another year learning the same stuff over again, so they petitioned to the principal to let me skip a grade in science. They were reluctant, but came up with a solution that if I could pass the final exam for the biology class I was skipping, then I could skip it.

I didn’t really prepare for it, since I wasn’t told when it was going to be. But the next day, I was simply pulled out of class to take the exam. I ended up passing it with a B or a C (can’t remember). The teacher’s evaluation was that if even after a year, I could remember that stuff, then there’s no reason for me to take the course again. The principal could do nothing.

I was allowed to skip the class and take the next science course one grade above.

When we immigrated here, my parents had very little friends here, not to mention no professional connections. Their college degrees also didn’t count for much since they were Taiwanese universities unrecognized by employers here. They took jobs lower than their capabilities because they had no choice. But they did it anyway, because they wanted to make it so that their children would be better equipped for the world. But they knew that they couldn’t do all the work. We’d have to work hard as well, and sometimes that manifested itself as discipline that we didn’t always understand the reasoning for.

But if I was in their shoes with their experiences, would I have behaved any differently? When you don’t have the benefit of doubt by society at large, all you can do is work hard at the things where there are level playing fields.

However, the world changes fast, and in the context of growing up in America as a 2nd generation American, there’s always a discord between what your parents believe is the path to success and what you feel you should do for yourself, now that you have the luxury of having advantages that they didn’t have in this society.

When I quit my job to go do startups, looking back, I was frightenly naive. Throughout the last 5 years of doing this, my mom has sent me job ads from her work, or encouraged me to go get a job. I’ve mostly just ignored her. It wasn’t until recently that when there’s been external validation that I was doing something worthy that she relaxed a little. This is mostly because she doesn’t understand it, so like any one, she looks for social proof. Come to think of it, this is mostly what investors do.

It’s natural to like doing something in which you’re good at, however. I didn’t read the excerpt Paul quoted to mean that you necessarily need extrinsic validation of your progress. On the other hand, once you’ve boosted yourself to like doing something because you’re good at it, intrinsic motivations go a much much longer way.

Something Bill Watterson (of the Calvin and Hobbes fame) said that’s always stuck with me:

“In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of my dorm room…

The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn’t finish the work until very near the end of the school year…The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and it seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, flowery English poets didn’t seem quite so important, when right above my head God was transmitting the spark of life to man…..

My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that we decided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, the housing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaborate picture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out…..

Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli-sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism. It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness.”



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