The Dot

I was recently introduced to a book written for young kids called, “The Dot”, written by Peter Reynolds. It is a short read with lots of pictures, and, maybe, a few hundred words total. It seems remarkable that a simple, short, children’s bedtime book is capable of offering wild amounts of wisdom.

A friend of mine who is President of a company that owns a network of optometry clinics throughout the country was to speak at their company’s Annual General Meeting. He had the stage in front of over 300 medical professionals and business owners. He was slotted to discuss financial performance and had three hours of presentation time. This is a long time to hold any audience’s attention. Doing so while detailing financial information no matter how frothy it might be is tough. Sprinkling in some strategic direction in the presentation can only fight off the after lunch blahs for so long. He was a fan of “The Dot” and planned on reading it to his audience part way through his session. His board thought he had lost his marbles, and weren’t sure that the “adults in the room” would be interested.

The story involves a young child struggling in art class. She lacks both an interest in the subject matter and confidence in her own abilities. The child’s “disinterest” in drawing is largely a shield protecting her from her lack of confidence in her own abilities. The teacher says just the right thing at the right time and the child is slowly exposed to the idea that they can actually create some art. As the child becomes recognized for the outcome of her efforts, her confidence builds. A virtuous cycle spiralling her forward and forging her new identity results.

The difference a thoughtful, caring, and interested teacher/mentor can make cannot be understated. This teacher encourages Vashti to take the smallest step, one requiring virtually no effort or intent, just make a dot, a mark on the blank page. With this outcome then being recognized and admired as art by the same teacher, our student’s eyes are opened. She begins to think, ok, maybe art isn’t impossible, maybe I can do this. The feeling of pride she feels from being recognized by the teacher fuels both her self-belief as well as the idea that art is something that matters. It feels good to be recognized for drawing, this matters to me.

Vashti’s self belief builds as more of her artwork is displayed by her teacher. Vashti internalizes that if someone she likes and respects thinks her work is good, then it must be ok. Maybe, I can do this. Let’s try a little more. Her work becomes more prolific and more recognized by others outside of just the teacher. Vashti’s identity becomes that of her work. She is now an artist. All of this output now the product of effort fueled by identity driven self belief sparked by a kind teacher’s contribution.

One useful takeaway The Dot helps us see is what lies at the heart of motivation. Motivation isn’t some outside force falling from the sky that magically appears. Too often we put off doing things because we either feel like we don’t have the skills or resources to actually tackle a task or that we’ll just wait a little while for motivation to show up and inspire us into action. Neither are effective. Both are excuses. We have far greater control over our own motivation than we give ourselves credit for. At its essence, motivation is the by product of two factors: knowledge that something is important, that it matters to us, coupled with a belief that we can make progress at it. Our confidence in our competence in an area that matters to us spurs us to take action. Recognizing this, we can seek to cultivate both of these for ourselves and others.

If we’re struggling to get going on something, we can cue ourselves to review either or both of these factors. Is it that we don’t care about the task we need to do? Do we not think this matters? Why don’t we think it matters? Or is it that we don’t believe we have the skills to manage it? 

In future notes, we’ll take a deeper look at what we call the Engagement Equation that considers the factors for motivation and how we can seek to cultivate it in both ourselves and others.