Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Motivation Factor

There is a great scene in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama, The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. As Eliot Ness, played by Costner vows to capture and prosecute Al Capone, Chicago police officer Jim Malone, played by Connery, asks him “What are you prepared to do?” Ness is a law and order kind of cop, a United States Treasury officer, so he hesitates at Malone’s insinuation.

“Anything within the law,” Ness replies.

“And then what are you prepared to do?”

“I have sworn to capture this man with all the legal powers at my disposal and I will do so,” Ness says.

“Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?”


“Good,” Malone says, “because you just took one.”

I like this scene for many reasons, but the main one is the line: what are you prepared to do? When faced with a difficult climb, it is always good to ask yourself what you are prepared to do to succeed.

I also use this line on my students when they talk about where they wish to go to college and what they want to be in the future. What are you prepared to do to reach these goals? They often make promises—to me, to themselves—and I often remind them of their answers in the successive years. Once graduation comes, the opportunities for choosing a college die away. The future has been decided. The time has come to deal with the consequences of failed plans, stillborn dreams, and create new goals to struggle toward in the years to come.

I have noticed a disturbing trend in some of my students. They lack motivation. The most common excuse I hear when they begin to slip is: “It’s too hard.” Yeah, life is like that. But difficult things are often the ones most worth doing.

I remember a teacher I respected in my undergraduate years wrote an essay that appeared in the newspaper where he said that if a student were serious about succeeding in school, he would not waste time working a job and put all his efforts into studying. Sacrifices would have to be made, but studying must go on. I was really angered by his views; at the time, I was working a forty hour week, carrying a full load in school, and supporting myself. I was burning up my strength and willpower like a raging forest fire. I was sick, tired, broke, depressed and devastated. I had been paying my own way in school since freshman year of Catholic high school. I literally had no other choice. It was pay the freight or drop out.

I never spoke to him about his essay. He mentioned in class that he had angered many people with his views, so I figured he had already heard whatever argument I had to offer, plus I was so damned tired, I had no strength to fight against his position. I just kept working.

Nowadays, if I could do it over again in a magical world, I would always have plenty of money to devote my energies only to study and the life of the mind. But that is the alternative universe of the “might have been.”

What I did vow to myself that year was should I ever become a teacher, I would not make judgments about what my students had to do to survive in their personal lives. One must walk in another’s shoes to fully understand his life, but here I am, doing just that—making judgments about people who come to me and say everything is so hard.

I am not wrong. Very few of my students face the kind of hardships I faced. They drive cars that cost my yearly salary or more. Many can wait until the end of senior year to get a job. Many do not work at all. They have a computer on their desk that gives them access to a wealth of information that would take me years in the library in the old fashioned way. There are some disadvantages they will encounter, but most are not faced with the kinds of dilemmas that defined my student years: should I write a bad check for my books and risk getting my records and registration held back, or run to the library and try to check them all out before some other student beats me to it? Should I pay my car registration and insurance on my five year old car, or pay my tuition? (No insurance meant no driving privileges in California during those years, so when the cop stopped me, I had to continue to drive illegally for another couple of weeks until I had the money for the fine and the insurance.)

Achievement takes sacrifice. The jagged edge of the pursuit of a dream cuts to the bone and you bleed. Sometimes it’s worth it: you succeed. Other times, you just bleed.

I wish I could tell my students it will be easy. I would be lying, and many of them would not listen anyhow. Like most young people, they believe they have everything all figured out. The people I hang around are middle aged now. None of us has it all figured out. I am wondering if we ever will.

You can’t be in a fight and not get hit. Life is what it is, and hard choices have to be made, and you have to absorb the blows and protect the body.

Life will not get easier, that is most certain, and the test never ends. The fight goes on and on and on. There is no time for excuses, for cries and wails that life is too hard, or that life is unfair. Life is guilty on both counts, but that’s the way life is.

Like Odysseus longing for Ithaca, we will all get home some day, but that is not the point. Constantine Cavafy summed it up best in his poem: Ithaca is not about the destination but about the journey. “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage. Without her you would have never set out on the road. She has nothing more to give you. And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you. Wise as you have become, with so much experience, you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.”

In this life, on this journey, what are you prepared to do?

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