Motivation to Learn


“Effort is felt only when there is a conflict of interest in the mind.” William James, The Principles of Psychology

We have been thinking a lot lately about how to motivate people to learn.  The reason for this is that we know that financial education is not a topic where a common person wakes up thinking, “I am going read today about high yield savings instruments.”  Financial education is a dry topic, but, it is an important topic.

If you are on a mission to assist people in becoming financially secure, how do you incite an appetite to learn this path?  A contributor on Forbes and marketer Sujan Patel says that there are three main deterrents from being motivated to do something; in this case mastering financial education.  The first deterrent is the notion that we “have to” do something.  We’ve all been there, we see the mountain of dishes on the counter and they aren’t going to wash themselves.  We “have to” wash the dishes.  This fairly trivial task freely balloons in our minds.  As a teen, choosing to simply focus on one dish at a time minimized the task and forever changed my perception on doing the dishes.  Instead of looking at dishes as a “have to” I “chose to” dissect the chore.  The mental shift was all it took and while I still need to remind myself at times to “chose to” do the dishes, it has been easier since.

The second deterrent in the Sujan Patel article is thinking that “we don’t feel right about something.”  If you have children, you hear about this one daily.  You get home from work, have dinner with the family, and for a few minutes before bedtime the house needs some clean up.  You assign one of your children the family room.  What is there objection?  “None of this stuff is mine, this is Mom’s or Dad’s or anyone else’s.”  The child’s efforts are crippled because they create a moral dilemma in their minds; they simply won’t justify their responsibility for another’s crimes against cleanliness.  The fix is a realignment of the view of the task.  Understanding that Dad is cleaning the toy room, that none of the toys are his, and all members of the family are simply pitching in, cleaning up after one another for the greater good allows a departure from the mentally crafted moral dilemma.

The last deterrent is thinking, “I can’t do this.”  In other words we feel unequal to the task.  Your boss asks you to perform a public speaking engagement and you detest public speaking.  You can’t do it.  Wait, can you really not do it?  While many fear public speaking more than death,  let’s use another example.  Your boss asks you to build a rocket to take to outer space.  Unless you are an aerospace engineer, you are probably thinking you really can’t build a rocket.  Rather than dwelling on what we can’t do, if we recognize that it is our efforts that create excellence, we start thinking about how the task can be accomplished.  If you’re interested, apparently YouTube can teach you how to build a rocket or at least connect you with an open source project to build a rocket.

We now have a general idea of the obstacles to learning and the mental reframing used to overcome those obstacles, and maybe that is enough to motivate some, but how do you “market” learning?  Researcher and author Annie Murphy Paul has spent some time on this line of thought.  She suggests starting with a question rather than the answer.  Great.  Easy enough, “how do we encourage financial inclusion and financial security for all?”  This is a huge question.  Just a few years ago over half the world’s population was living on less than $2.50 per day.  Over 80% of the world was living on less than $10 per day.  If we are among the privileged 20% living on more than $10 per day, we should probably be putting more thought into solving the world’s poverty than those in poverty, I think they call this social responsibility.  Solving this problem begins with solving the problem for ourselves but immediately transitions to solving it for others.  Do we now start a non profit that markets to those living with enough with the question, “how do we encourage financial inclusion and financial security for all?”  That’s a rhetorical question, we have all seen something similar to that before, right?

Annie Murphy Paul makes a few other suggestions that can help to govern our thoughts on motivating others to learn financial literacy, she says we should connect abstract learning to concrete situations (refer back to the post It’s Not the Drill That You want, it is the Hole for a recent attempt at this), make the learning process social, and “go deep” on the subject matter.  We have never had better tools to make a learning process social.  For the sake of putting forth an example, I just went through my Facebook feed.  In order of appearance this is what I learned:

  1. Jennifer Aniston says, “The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing.”  My Facebook friend comments that Aniston’s actions speak louder than words citing photoshopped magazine covers contributing to the mentioned objectification.
  2. Bernie Sanders was the last chance at having a representative president according to a Facebook friend.
  3. Stabbing in Japan leaves 19 dead and 45 injured.  Facebook friend scoffs at the gun control argument saying that governments should look at “knife control.”
  4. Video on how to cook fresh tomato soup.
  5. Video on how to take making spaghetti to the next level.

I should say that I am not making any moral, political, or cuisine endorsements here, I am simply citing the most recent learning related posts in my feed.  My point is that the tools for making a social movement to financial literacy are present, and literally at our fingertips.  We can share virtually whatever learnings we desire across social media today.

In order to “go deep” as Annie Murphy Paul suggests, we first need to plunge through the surface.  This concept is important once we have our target market’s attention, but it doesn’t solve the problem of motivating others to get in to the topic of financial literacy. How do we “market” this message of financial literacy?

Drawing on a conversation I had with an accomplished marketer recently, he said that he thought financial education is something that people don’t know they need.  In a case like this it is best to make a comparison to a product that is already used, such as comparing digital cash to cash, or stevia to sugar.  We know that people add more value to society and their communities when they educate themselves.  There is a fair amount of information that supports this notion, we are going to use the most myopic and probably least significant measure of value:  income by level of education, see below.

income by education

(Table by Baum, Ma, Payea,

Just as higher education increases earning power, financial education increases your ability to retain what you have earned.

We are going to leave this post as an open item.  Clearly we have not explored the topic enough to draw meaningful conclusions.  Please comment and share your ideas on how best to incite desire to become financially literate.

Paul Proctor



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