Why do you think most college entrance forms require a written essay?

Partly to assess the student’s linguistic aptitude, but primarily to measure motivation. Motivation, after all, is perhaps the single biggest determinant of academic success. Obviously a reasonable level of cognitive processing and memory recall are required, but beyond that, motivation (or lack thereof) dominates.

Many studies show a fairly strong correlation between GPA/SAT scores with first-year college success. But underlying those numbers is whether a student is motivated (or not) to put in the effort required.

A recent article in The Journal of Educational Psychology suggests that personality traits such as drive, self-image, and stick-to-itiveness carry much more weight than previously considered.

Even more noteworthy, traits such as motivation can be dramatically enhanced. One genius certainly understood the human potential to achieve:

One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.

– Albert Einstein

And this is the essence behind sustained motivation – having stretch goals that are meaningful yet require a certain amount of ardent effort.

People are motivated differently. Some respond to the challenge of mastering a particular subject or domain of expertise. Others are motivated by rewards or helping others, while some by a desire to avoid failure or other painful outcomes.

Research suggests that if we find ourselves in a rut or looking for motivation, a good start would be to set a meaningful stretch goal. After that, an important follow-on is to develop a plan to achieve the goal – consisting of several very achievable steps along the way. And if you are motivated by rewards, then tie rewards to each step. If mastery is meaningful, then bask in your newfound knowledge or capability at each step.

I once worked with a shy, introverted technical engineer who really wanted to be a team leader. While she was super intelligent, she was extremely nervous speaking in front of groups. Even in one-on-one conversations she spoke so quietly that I had to lean way in to hear what she was saying. But she set a goal for herself to eventually become a group manager and broke her plan into many very small steps, including leading a brief meeting that consisted of just two other people. As she accomplished each small step, not only was she getting closer to her overall goal, but her confidence continued to grow. Sure there were setbacks along the way as well as times when she questioned whether she really had the grit to achieve her plan. But having that goal in front of her, visible every day, regularly brought her back to center and kept her on her path.

Of course, you probably know where this ends. Not only did she become a group manager, she subsequently went on to become a division manager and then a hotshot group director. To what does she attribute her success? Stretch goals that carried a lot of meaning for her, along with a plan to progress toward those goals – all of which fed her motivation to succeed.

So, next time you are down and looking for a way to break through, try setting such a meaningful goal with a basic plan to achieve it – and then get going.

Successful and unsuccessful people do not vary greatly in their abilities. They vary in their desires to reach their potential.”

– John Maxwell (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership)