6226236104_9dfc50d44a_zI recently read an article about a high school dropout graduating from Harvard with a Ph.D. Similarly, Albert Einstein struggled in school and was thought to be mentally disabled by his teachers. Steven Spielberg was placed in learning-disabled classes in high school and then dropped out but later became one of the most influential personalities in the history of film. These men and many others with questionable starts have gone on to accomplish great things.

The longstanding belief is that high achievers like and do well in challenging situations requiring their utmost performance while low achievers have a hard time even getting motivated to start. Rather than someone being labeled a high or low achiever, science is showing that motivation and achievement depend on determining what motivates your gray matter and makes you tick.

In his book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo tells of studies conducted by William Hart at The University of Florida which show, as you would expect, that participants with high achievement motivation did better than low achievers on specific tasks when they were reminded of those values. However, when a task was presented as fun, the same, high achievers often did worse than those who were less motivated to achieve. When the low achievers were primed with words causing them to perceive a task as fun, motivation, and ability improved.

DiSilvo writes:

The point is that lacking a hard-wired desire to ‘achieve’ does not mean you can’t achieve, or even that you’re ‘achievement handicapped.’  The research indicates that you just need to be a little more creative.  In doing so, the fight to reach your goals becomes less arduous and might even become something you like taking on.”

Researchers have found that motivation is also affected by the number of total competitors, for example, when interviewing for a job or taking a test, and refer to this as the N-Effect.  An inverse correlation exists between the number of test takers and scores: the more people taking the test, the worse the scores. Test takers even finished faster when competing against smaller groups.

The best way to combat the unconscious influence of the N-Effect is to recognize and dismantle it before succumbing to it by exerting more rational conscious thoughts. DiSilvo illustrates this by suggesting that you are interviewing for a job. Upon walking into the lobby and seeing six other candidates waiting their turn to interview for the same position, your mind starts racing downhill. “If there are THIS many applicants on THIS one day at THIS time, the whole interview pool must be huge,” you think. All of the sudden, you don’t feel so good about your chances anymore, and, intimidated, your motivation plummets. You can stop this from happening with your conscious thoughts. Ask yourself “What’s really changed?”  Nothing. Except for your awareness of the total competition and your thinking.

Performance feedback has also been found to impact motivation. As expected, some are motivated by positive feedback while negative feedback dampens it, but, conversely, an argument can also be made for negative feedback increasing motivation because it presents a challenge. Either may motivate you.

Surprisingly, when a person expects to receive feedback influences motivation. DiSilvo tells of research, where participants anticipating more rapid feedback scored significantly higher on tests. In the same studies, those who predicted they would perform the best actually performed the worst, and test takers, who predicted they’d perform the worst, did the best. From these results, DiSilvo concludes:

When you’re about to face a test of performance (in any walk of life), imagine that you’ll receive feedback right away and act accordingly.  The proximity of potential disappointment will keep you sharp and ready to perform.  And don’t feel bad if a bit of pessimism slips in to help you brace for impact.  It’s best to view that pessimism as your brain’s way of alerting you to the possibility of failure – an unpleasant jolt to cerebral happiness.

By figuring out what kind of achiever you are, the role of the competition, and the effect of feedback timing, you can consciously learn to motivate your gray matter better.

image credit:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/tosmura/

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  1. This explains so much, Debbie! It also really shows you how to get a handle on competitive situations. The mind is so much more flexible than we ever imagined. It’s just a matter of knowing how to work with it! Thanks for the insight.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Good to hear from you, Sandra. 🙂 We can understand and work with ourselves so much better with a little basic knowledge about how the brain works. I know, for me, being able to say “That’s just my brain’s natural reaction” allowed me to have so much more compassion for myself instead criticism in many situations.

  2. Why did you have to kick the thing off with the erroneous “Einstein was bad at school” myth that any one can google and find out is untrue in 10 seconds. Was looking forward to the article and now can’t motivate my grey matter to read further

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Wow, Paul! Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I’ve heard that story about Einstein for so long that I just accepted it without ever questioning it. Thanks for the good reminder to be awake and question everything.

      After some research, it appears as though Einstein was very slow at learning to talk and did poorly in school when he was young. His parents worried that he had a learnining disability. His social skills were not on par with his age, and he had severe temper tantrums. He was smart, but didn’t flourish in his strict, rote, Munich school and dropped out at 15 years old. Upon taking the entrance exam for the Polytechnic Institute, he failed the first time. After studying, he did pass the exam and attended the school where he did graduate, but continued to struggle as a student.

      So, I’m going to say that the information presented in the post is not erroneous and, again, your comment was a good reminder to not just accept everything. 🙂

  3. Hi Debbie,

    Very interesting post. It highlights again the fact that any ‘sheepdip’ approach will not work for all. Something employers frequently forget! I think I am definitely the type that needs good feedback – I can give myself enough negative feedback 🙂


    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Keith, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s such a shame that employers, the education system, parents, and many other societal foundations recognize very narrowly defined types of intelligence and motivatation. This has got to change to realize that everyone is intelligent, in their own way, and can be motivated with a little creativity!

  4. Sounds like it does help to know what kind of achiever you are in life in order to be at your top motivational form, Debbie. Before we can handle the circumstances and issues the world presents us with, it makes sense to look within, acknowledge and understand how we perceive the world and get motivated. Once we do the internal work, we can’t but succeed in the external one:)

    I wish more teachers and educational systems taught this in schools!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Hey, Vishnu! 🙂 I’m with you! I wish the educational system recognized, encouraged, and even celebrated our differences in a way that allowed people to be “successful” in their own way. That means something different to all of us and will be manifested individually. We can, at least, start doing this in our own lives with children and adults alike!

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