Motivation is hard enough to find at the best of times, but when you hate the subject? It can seem impossible. Look, it’s a truth well accepted that all subjects are not created equal. Which exact one is The Beast varies from person to person, but the one thing that remains constant is that there is always a Beast. And finding the motivation to tackle it is a nightmare.
Me? I had two. One was Maths, which I just wasn’t good at- or so I told myself (more on that later)- and the other was RE, which just had an absurd amount of content to learn. I feel like these are two pretty good categories to split Beasts into, as they tend to come in one or other of these two forms. So, here is my wisdom, long-won from years of teaching and also learning, on how we can tackle these two hurdles and help you find the motivation to get started.
The twin beasts of Fixed Mindset and Content Overwhelm
Motivation for The Beast of Fixed Mindset
I’m not sure I’ve explained this before on the blog, but the concept of Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset is super important when we’re thinking about motivation. It certainly was for me with Maths. I had an incredibly Fixed Mindset about Maths, which basically translated to “I’m not good at Maths. My brain just doesn’t get it. I’m never going to be able to do it.”
The thing was, I had been good at Maths in Primary school. I’d had excellent teachers and always done really well. But I forgot all that when I went to Secondary school. I was at a Grammar school, which meant I’d had to sit and pass an entrance exam to get in, and also meant that I was surrounded by other people who’d also had to sit and pass an exam to get in. So they were all brainiacs. And, while I was pleased to discover I could still shine in English (my best subject), there were tonnes and tonnes of people at the school who absolutely clobbered me in Maths. I was put in the third set.
This was a massive blow to my confidence, and translated immediately into “Well, I can’t do this. So I’m going to just accept I’m rubbish at it and sulk for three years, not trying to improve.” My motivation to do any work was at rock-bottom. Look, I was proud, arrogant and very bloody stupid (as Year 8s often are). I’d never really come up against anything like this academically before, where I just couldn’t do it, and I had no concept of the idea of the Growth Mindset. See, while the Fixed Mindset believes that either you can or you can’t do something and there’s no way you can change whatever gifts were bestowed on you at birth, the Growth Mindset rightly rejects that as utter nonsense.
Look, it is scientifically impossible that you can be good at stuff without learning how to do it. Think about babies. They don’t come into the world speaking in full sentence and drawing diagrams of Pythagorean Theorems on walls while tap-dancing. They have to spend a full year screaming in frustration, piecing together tiny bits of language until they can communicate in rudimentary child-speak. They have to wriggle on their bellies for months before beginning to laboriously crawl on all fours. They have to learn to wield a pencil in those tiny little fingers and guide it across a page for years before their random scribbles turn into writing.
But we forget all this as we grow up. By the age of about ten, we feel pretty sure we know what we’re good at and what we’re not. Me? Reading, writing and horses. Not me? Running, maths, cooking. My mindset was fixed. I couldn’t do these things, so I wouldn’t.
A Growth Mindset is the opposite- it believes that you always start off being rubbish at something, and you only get good at it by doing it a lot. This makes sense to me now, as an adult, and actually it wasn’t the Maths problem that taught me this- it was the running.
I was a fat kid. I’ll admit it. I didn’t like exercise, I was always bottom of the class in PE and I never learned stamina. But in my Year 10, I took hold of this; not the exercise bit, the fat bit. I decided it was time to lose some weight, I signed up to Weight Watchers (hey, what a cool fifteen-year-old!) and I started puffing my way around the park for twenty minutes every morning. Don’t get me wrong, I hated it. I basically couldn’t run for more than one minute at a time when I started. But I was competitive enough that I wanted to get on those scales every week at weigh-in and have lost more weight than everyone else in the room (seriously, I am very competitive) so I kept forcing myself to do that twenty minutes of hell. To my surprise, by Christmas I could make it all the way around the park without stopping. By February I could do it twice. And in June I ran ten miles. No joke. TEN MILES. ME.
The side-effect of this was that I suddenly shot to the top of the class in PE. My school report, which had always been underwhelming to say the least, was glowing. My teacher was astonished at the change in me; I could run further and faster than the girls on the cross-country team, who’d been brilliant at running since Year 7. I won the prize for PE at the end of Year 10. Me- the PE champion. Who wasn’t even on a school team. Utterly ridiculous. I just wanted to lose a bit of weight. (Which I did. Six stone. Yeah, I was that fat.)
So, anyway, this was where I learned about Growth Mindset, and I started to apply it to my studies. Where I found the motivation to tackle Maths, which I hated, was from what I learned from running. I realised that if someone like me, who at the start of Year 10 was genuinely the worst PE student in the year, could do twenty minutes every day and rise to become the PE Prizewinner at the end of the year, something there had to equate to Maths. In Year 11 I got help. From teachers, friends, parents, and I made myself do twenty minutes of Maths every day. I hated it. I HATED it. But, let me tell you, I didn’t hate it as much as I hated running. Every time I started my twenty minutes of Maths, I kept saying to myself “At least you’re not running. At least you’re not running. At least you’re not running.”
And you know what? That tiny bit every day paid off. I went from being predicted a D in Maths to getting an A at the end of the year. Growth Mindset, kids. Believe that you only get good at something by practicing it. And make yourself practice it, no matter how much you hate the process. Maybe even take up studying a subject you hate at the same time as doing something you hate even more, like running. Maybe you force yourself to clean the bathroom for twenty minutes every morning. Then the twenty minutes of studying Maths in the evening won’t seem so bad, believe me.
Motivation for The Beast of Content Overwhelm
This one requires a little more cunning. It’s one thing to trick yourself into finding the motivation to do something you think you can’t do by doing something else that’s worse at the same time. It’s another game altogether to trick yourself into trudging up a mountain of content in a subject that just requires you to know lots of stuff.
Thankfully, I developed a pretty good system for this when I was at school, one which I perfected over the five years I spent as a Professional Opera Singer (no joke) where I had to learn full operas off by heart every six weeks- words, music, the lot.
It really does depend on how you learn, but the key is maximising your time and learning when you don’t realise you’re learning. Some people do that visually, by making massive mind maps and sticking them all over the house so they kind of can’t avoid looking at them when they’re lounging around. If you’re a visual learner and you like lounging, let me tell you, this works. My mum put lists of Spanish verbs up in the bathroom when I was doing my GCSEs and back then we did not have smartphones. So when I was in the bathroom, I had nothing better to do than read those Spanish verbs. I got an A*. Pro tip: another good place to put these up if you’re a family that does chores is in a location where your boring chore is based. If you have to do the washing-up, stick a mind-map or list up on the wall in the kitchen. If you have to pair the socks or do the ironing, put it in the utility room. Maximise your time.
For me, the key was audio, and it still is. It’s way easier for you guys now, because smartphones all have voice memos and everyone is basically carrying a Dictaphone around with them the whole time, but back in the day I actually had to buy a device. I got a dictaphone off the internet, which genuinely recorded sound onto actual tapes (look those up if you’ve never seen one). I sat in my sitting room one Sunday afternoon- I remember it vividly- and I chose some totally bland classical piano music as the backtrack of my recording. The reason I picked this is because I didn’t know the songs, which meant my brain couldn’t latch on to them and ignore the words I was about to record. It was just nice background noise, which would make the whole experience of listening to the tape much less painful, but which wouldn’t distract me. Then I got out my absolutely massive book of RE quotes (I swear to God, we legit had to learn Luke’s Gospel off by heart) and I spoke the entire thing into the dictaphone, over the piano music. It took about an hour and a half.
Then, on my way to school (about 45 minutes) and on the way home from school (about 45 minutes) I would listen to the entire hideous tape every day. I grew to hate it so, so, so intensely, but it did seriously make my life easier. I did no other revision for RE apart from this for about a month, and then when I picked up those books to actually start working I swear to you I actually knew about 60% of the quotes already. It was like they were coming to me in a dream or something. Or like they were the lyrics to a song I knew. It was magical, man.
So, those are my tips to get motivation for subjects you hate. First of all, decide if you hate them because of a Growth Mindset issue (I’m just really bad at this) or because they have a terrifying amount of content (I can never learn all this) and treat accordingly. Growth Mindset hates need to be forced into twenty minutes a day, possibly in conjunction with something significantly worse so they don’t seem so bad, in order that you assume the mantra that practice makes perfect. Content hates are vanquished by maximising your time and learning when you don’t realise you’re learning. Either this is tackling some of the content lazily as you do chores or lounge or go to the loo, or it might be recording the content and listening to it when you’re on your way somewhere and have nothing else really to do.
We hope this helped. For more information on motivation, check out Monday’s blog here or subscribe to our Podcast “The Space Station” on Apple Podcasts or on SoundCloud. This week, my co-host Millie and I are answering your burning questions about finding motivation, and we give you some more clever tips and tricks and mind games to get you kicked off on your subjects. On Friday, I’ll be blogging here about finding motivation when you’re tired (which I’m sure you all are). See you then!