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Linda Samuels, CPO-CD®

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« Linda's Top 10 Motivators | Are You Motivated to Let Go? »

Ask the Expert: Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

It’s time again to share our popular “Ask the Expert” interview series that connects you with dynamic thought leaders. This year we’ve spoken with Harold Taylor about time management, Erin Rooney Doland about clutter, Francine Jay about letting go, Todd Henry about next steps, Dr. Debbie Grove about change, and Joshua Becker about fresh starts. For July, I’m excited to have with us prolific author, speaker, and learning and human development expert, Dr. Thomas Armstrong to share his insights about motivation.

I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas almost two years ago when he spoke about Neurodiversity at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) conference in Denver. He’s a fabulous presenter who is knowledgeable and engaging. My gratitude goes to Thomas for taking the time from his busy travel schedule to join us. When we communicated this past spring, he was just returning from being away for a month lecturing in Abu Dhabi. Before we begin, here’s more about him.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, an award-winning author and speaker, and an educator for forty years. Over one million copies of his books are in print on issues related to learning and human development. He’s written fifteen books including The Myth of the A.D.D. Child and 7 Kinds of Smart. Dr. Armstrong has given over 900 keynotes and workshops in 44 states and 23 countries. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blog or website.


Linda Samuels:  How has your expertise in neurodiversity and multiple intelligences influenced your ideas about motivation?

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.:  It’s clear to me that students are much more likely to be motivated to learn if they have an opportunity to learn using their most highly developed and/or most highly preferred intelligences.  Similarly, if a student has special needs (LD, ADHD, Autism etc.), they are more likely to be motivated in school if they are helped to learn using their strengths, rather than their weaknesses.  By focusing on words and numbers in the schools (rather than pictures, the body, music, nature etc.), we’re cutting off natural motivational channels for many kids.  And by employing a deficit orientation for kids with special needs, rather than a diversity perspective, we’re making it harder for these kids to get motivated.


Linda:  What motivates us to change?

Thomas:  I’ve always liked Abraham Maslow’s schema on motivation, which he shared in the chapter ‘’Defense and Growth’’ in his book Toward a Psychology of Being.  He says you become motivated to change when a) you minimize the dangers of making a change, b) you maximize the dangers of not changing; c) you maximize the advantages of making a change, d) you minimize the advantages of not changing.  It’s a simple, elegant formula that anyone can use to develop a willingness to take a new job, exercise, not smoke, learn a new language, enter a new relationship, and so forth.


Linda:  What is one common motivation obstacle and a strategy for overcoming it?

Thomas:  Fear or anxiety seems to me to be the primary hurdle. There are many good strategies for overcoming fear/anxiety including meditation, strenuous exercise, psychotherapy, progressive relaxation, visualization, and yoga, just to name a few. I’ve used all of them, and to good effect.


Linda:  What has been your biggest personal motivation challenge?

Thomas:  I’d prefer not to dig that deep into my past, but one very big personal challenge for me in the past several years has been my desire to write a novel.  I started sketching notes for a novel in 1990, began in earnest on it in the early 2000’s, and have been working intermittently on it ever since.  I’ve had to confront my own self-doubts about my ability to write fiction, my own difficulty in moving over from my left hemisphere (non-fiction) to my right hemisphere (novel), and my general difficulty in facing an empty page and moving into the unknown. I’m happy to report that I completed the first rough draft of my 120,000-word novel just last month while I was working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I celebrated by having lunch at Hemingway’s, a restaurant at the hotel dedicated to one of America’s greatest novelists.  Now, on to the revisions!


Linda:  What is your most surprising discovery about motivation?

Thomas:  That you have to keep on re-motivating yourself. Motivation is not just one long surge. At least for me, it comes in spurts, and in different ways, and I guess, surprisingly for me, through dreams (which really helped motivate me to write my novel).


Linda:  What else would you like to add?

Thomas:  So many parents ask:  how can I motivate my child to learn?  This is the wrong question. Your child was born with a natural motivation to learn, otherwise our species would have gone extinct. The question is, how do we re-motivate our kids, how do we reconnect them back to that intrinsic love of learning that they were born with. Here’s a hint:  tests, grades, ‘’rigorous’’ and demanding coursework, labeling, tracking, a standardized curriculum – these are not the ways!


Thomas, I love the positive, strengths-based approach you have about motivation and learning. Working from a place that energizes us makes so much sense whether we’re a child or an adult. Thank you also for highlighting Abraham Maslow’s model on motivation and change. Those ideas along with the strategies you shared for overcoming motivation obstacles are so helpful. I’m sure they’ll resonate with my readers.

Please join Thomas and me as we continue the conversation. Share your ideas about motivation, strengths-based being, and change. What are your thoughts?

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Reader Comments (17)

Powerful post! As I work with students, this post will be helpful in re-motivating them, alleviating fear as best as I can, and focusing on their strengths. Using strengths is surprising to students as they don't often see this as a way to be successful.

This simple formula can be compelling for students too.
"a) you minimize the dangers of making a change, b) you maximize the dangers of not changing; c) you maximize the advantages of making a change, d) you minimize the advantages of not changing." It offers new perspectives about their work in school and outside activities.

This is all true for our adult clients too.
Thanks for sharing these insights.

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Delap

Ellen- Always great to have you join in the conversation. I know that you do a lot of great work with students and am so glad that some of the ideas here will enrich the work you're already doing. I too love the "simple formula" that Thomas shared. And agree that students and adults can benefit from these strategies.

July 22, 2014 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Thank you for this wonderful interview, Linda. I love the idea of teaching to a person's strength or natural interest - particularly as it applies to school. So often we focus on the 3 Rs - reading, writing, & arithmetic and forget that these skills can be taught while directing energies elsewhere. I also appreciate the notion that we have to continually re-motivate ourselves - that motivation is not a once and you're done application. This is really good to remember.

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Quintana

Really informative post. "Re-motivation is the key" how about that, love the whole idea because implies dynamism. Commonly we want to box everything and everyone in a norm, a way to do things, and dismiss the fact that every person is unique and every way to do thing has to be unique as well, flowing with the person, using the strengths he/she has.

As Ellen I do like the formula to make changes.

I recently found that urgency is a way to get motivated. We had a chest filled with almost 14 years worth of papers. We did some changes in the room where the chest was and we didn't need it anymore so the urgency of getting rid of it droves us to check and discard all documents and keep just those important. At the end we found another place for the chest, but we manage to discard several pounds of paper and everything is in order, organized and the bonus was, we have a nice empty chest to organize memorabilia in it.

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNacho Eguiarte

Thank you for sharing Thomas's brilliant perspective. It seems clear now but not obvious that motivation needs to re-ignited repeatedly. No one can be expected to stay elevated in a super-charged mode for long periods of time. or forever. If only it could be as automatic as breathing.

The notion of "re-motivation" implies a constant attention to where we are in that moment, address what we need, and how we can get there. We are always evolving and often what motivated us once before can prove to be ineffective the second time.

Just like the 'organizing' process, motivation is a journey. We travel it and we must adapt to all the unique landscape around us...both the beauty, as well as the peaks and valleys. The days that it feels much more like an 'uphill climb' are the times to to tap into Thomas's formula of weighing the advantages and dangers of willingness to change.

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Borg

Wonderful and eye-opening post in what comes to learning and being motivate, it hit home in a personal level. As I navigate the school years with my three rambunctious sons I often ask myself what are the best ways to best motivate them to explore, be curious and not just "do the work".
The "formula" for change is what I'm using for myself to stick to my exercising routine!

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHelena Alkhas

I just love his point about needing to re-motivate ourselves. Acknowledging this as normal can be very helpful, so we don't feel that we are somehow lacking when our motivation flags.

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSeana Turner

How fabulous to "hear" all your voices! Thanks so much for joining the conversation and adding your perspectives to the mix.

@Diane- The idea of re-motivation seems to be resonating with many of us.

@Nacho- Love the "chest" story… how you used a rethinking of your space to motivate you to go sort through papers that had been out of sight.

@Nancy- Great analogy that motivation and organizing are a process… not just a straight trajectory, but a journey with "peaks and valleys."

@Helena- Know you've been feeling challenged about the exercise piece. Glad to know that you've discovered a "formula" to help make the changes you desire. Go Helena!

@Seana- Great point about normalizing the need to "re-motivate." We're not lacking when our motivation wanes, we're just in need of a new boost.

July 22, 2014 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

I'm a little late to the dance here...out on business all day. Motivation and stuck spots. I see that so much with my clients, particularly one of my business clients. Big mental block for this person, and I think it's a fear factor holding this person back — maybe fear of not being "good enough" and replaying old tapes from growing up. How easy it is to squash motivation in kids with the "not good enough" spoken or unspoken messages. So, my motivation will be to look harder for those successes I can celebrate with my clients and hopefully this will jump-start the motivation that has been derailed. Thanks, Linda, for introducing me to someone new, and thanks, Dr. Armstrong, for sharing.

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Terkanian

Linda, a great interview, as always. You asked the right questions, and Thomas Armstrong's answers were insightful and practical. There was a news report today on NPR about the Workshop School in West Philadelphia, which seems to be very successfully applying Dr. Armstrong's ideas about helping young people engage through their strengths and not become de-motivated by their weaknesses. It's an important lesson for us all. Thanks!

July 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Samuels

More good stuff from this series on motivation, Linda.
I love how you zoom into the challenge, the opportunity and a way forward with your guests keeping it simple and applicable. Like Nancy B. I love Thomas' concept of 're-motivating'. When we shift the way we think (to the positive), we find ways forward.

So often things like motivation, discipline, willpower are viewed as character traits that are unchangeable. You 'got it!' or you 'don't got it'!

Motivation is like oxygen to our bodies. There is plenty around but if we don't breathe it in and convert it into something useful we feel depleted (and unmotivated). Maslow's formula is a simple way to start converting motivation into something palpable.

We need more Thomas Armstrongs spreading this message and making a difference!

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCameron Gott

Very helpful to read about motivation surges (I call them, "bursts") This info would most likely be comforting for our clients experiencing backsliding.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGeralin Thomas

So sorry to be late to the game but so happy I am here I too loved hearing Dr. Armstrong last year. His points about strength based learning truly resonated with me both personally and professionally. Linda, you knock it out of the ballpark every time. I loved that Dr. Armstrong shared Abraham Maslow's schema on motivation. It is brilliant in its simplicity. Thank you both for such a meaningful discussion.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie Josel

How fabulous to hear from all of you. You guys are so funny…there is no late to the party. It's all good. Happy to have you join us any time!

@Susan- What a wonderful takeaway: "…to look harder for those successes I can celebrate with my clients…"

@Steve- Got to love NPR, right? What a lucky bunch of students that are being encouraged to "engage through their strengths." Appreciate you sharing that story.

@Cam- Ahh…so you figured out my interview "formula." Glad you like it. Love the reminder you shared that we all have the ability to access things like motivation, discipline, and willpower. And agree 100% about the positive message that Thomas is delivering. If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, GO! He's terrific.

@Geralin- Nice language choices…"motivation surges" or "bursts." They describe so well the inconsistent nature of how we experience motivation. Very helpful.

@Leslie- Isn't it interesting how motivating and uplifting strengths-based talk around learning and being is? Too often we allow ourselves to focus on our deficits rather than our strengths and gifts.

July 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Great post Linda. I really enjoyed Dr Armstrong's presentation at the ICD Conference and was excited to see you featuring him on your blog. Like others who have posted before me, I am loving the idea of "re-motivating" and look forward to sharing it with my clients! Thank you to you and to Dr Armstrong and I hope you both have an amazing day!

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Sharb

Right before the start of ICD’s Conference in Denver last year, I had lunch with an elementary school classmate of mine who, for no apparent reason, mentioned Dr. Armstrong’s work on multiple intelligences. Then, just a few hours later, there was Dr. Armstrong asking to have his photograph taken with ME! If I had only known then that he was grappling with transitioning from writing non-fiction to writing a novel, we could have had a discussion about how I transitioned from writing legal contracts to writing organizing novels. Now, as I ramp up my writing again, having just completed my term as ICD President, Dr. Armstrong has provided me with the motivation I need. Thank you, Thomas and Linda.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterValentina Sgro

Welcome to the conversation! Great to "hear" your voices.

@Andrea- We get to meet the most interesting people at ICD conferences, right? I think the "re-motivating" idea is the clear winner here. It's resonating with so many of us. Perhaps it's that we think if our motivation wanes, there's something wrong with us. But in fact, motivation isn't consistent…therefore we have the need to "re-motivate." Normalizes our experience.

@Val- Love the interesting connections and trajectory of events! Looks like things are coming full circle for you. Now that you'll have a lot more "Val" time, I can only imagine how much you're going to enjoy getting back to your writing. Thank you for all that you've done for and have given ICD during your tenure as President. And thank you for continuing on the Board as Immediate Past President.

July 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

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