Expressing your voice and motivation

Talking with a scholar yesterday, I was emphasizing the importance of finding one’s own voice.  I was thinking about that point in a very specific sense with respect to the writing she had shown me—especially with respect to the importance of making clear reasons to care—why did the author care? Why should anyone else care? Even a scholar who is trying to present objective research can show us why she/he chose to pursue that particular course of research—presumably because the findings would have some value. When scholars make their motivations and purposes clear in their writing, it helps the reader connect that work to larger ideas.

I was going to write my weekly blog post with respect to those issues, but this morning as I was checking headlines, I saw an article on motivation and advice that connects to these issues from a somewhat different angle—the angle of motivation as opposed to purpose.  When we think about purposes, we can think of them as a form of motivation—“I did X because I wanted Y”—but now I’m thinking more of motivation in a more primal/emotional sense—a sense of willingness to act, and a drive to take action, rather than some specific goal to be reached (some goal is needed for the motivation, but the focus now is on the drive to act abstracted from the desired ends of the action).

The article on motivation and advice reports on a series of studies that showed that people found motivation when they gave advice.  The common presumption is that people who are struggling to accomplish something should seek advice—that by seeking advice, people will be more able and likely to succeed.  The study suggested, instead, that people already had important useful knowledge, and that taking action was the crucial missing element in success.  In the study, giving advice led to the advice-givers feeling more confident about their own knowledge and ability, and thus were more likely to take action.  In one of their studies, done with students at a middle school, “Advice givers spent 38% more time on their homework than the advice receivers spent over the month following the intervention.”

The authors of the study consider a number of reasons that giving advice helps with motivation which I will roughly summarize as the power of focusing on the assets (knowledge) one does have.  When one gives advice, one “conduct[s] a biased memory search by considering one’s past successful behaviors in order to generate advice for others.” When giving advice, the focus goes to strengths and successes (the bias, from the flip side, being that one does not focus on failures).

This basic dynamic of focusing on strengths as providing motivation is related to another study I once read about (but cannot cite), which suggested that optimists were more likely to succeed than pessimists for the precise reason that they overestimated their abilities/performance and thus were more likely to persist in their efforts.  The pessimists might have been more accurate in their assessment of their abilities and performance on the small scale, but that accuracy seems to have worked against them in the long run.  Of course, when giving advice, one is not misrepresenting things (or at least…well, here’s a matter for speculation, actually: to what extent do advice givers simplify problems, thus creating an unrealistic assessment, parallel to the optimists?), but merely focusing on past successes.

Winding this back to the scholarly writer who is presenting work in a neutral, abstracted way: if what you write is scrubbed clean of your motivations and the knowledge that you have, it takes your attention away from the strengths of your own work, and frames everything in a neutral light that avoids focusing on exactly that which is most important to you.

If you are trying to write a dissertation, your work is supposed to be original. So what makes work original? What makes work original is the thing that you have observed that others have not. From one direction, we could say that “the thing you have seen that others have not” is a purely objective thing, for example, you were the first to see the moons of Jupiter (well, that’s attributed to Galileo, but the first to observe some object or phenomenon).  That objective angle might be all there is to your originality.  But chances are that part of your originality was deciding to look for that thing in the first place, or in seeing some significance that others did not observe (indeed, seeing some potential significance that others did not observe is often part of the decision to look at something that others have not examined in the first place).

In expressing your voice, you focus your attention the depth and detail of what you know about the subject. In the studies mentioned above, the advice-givers worked more after giving advice because that focused on what they did know.  This is a reasonable attitude for the scholar to take, too. After all, what is an academic text but a form of educational work? Even the highest-level scholarly works written for other high-level scholars are educational in the sense that they attempt to educate people about things that they did not know. If you are writing a doctoral dissertation, master’s thesis, or other work of independent research, you are doing original research, and so you should be giving “advice” in the sense that you are educating others.  Focusing on what you have to teach others is important from the point of view of the content of your written work.  And, if we think of that same expression of your voice as a form of giving advice, then these studies of advice giving suggest that expressing your voice will also help motivate you.