From Accomplishments To Setbacks

A Theory Of Motivation Promotes Lifelong Well-Being
By Lisa Stein

Photo by Jim Ziv.


From the moment of our birth until our last breath we are driven to shape our own development.

This motivation takes many forms: infants who instinctively embark on learning a language; young adults who gravitate toward careers that suit their talents; retirees who continue to contribute to society through volunteering. While our culture tends to focus on the seemingly boundless energy of youth, the motivation to learn and lead rich and engaged lives does not end with the advent of middle or even old age.

But what, exactly, impels people to initiate a certain task? How do they sustain an activity over the course of decades? How do they know when to move on to something else?

These questions are of great interest to Alexandra Freund, assistant professor of human development and social policy and of learning sciences, who arrived recently at the School of Education and Social Policy from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Freund has studied motivation and its implications for individuals' lives from adolescence through old age. In her research she applies a model called "SOC," which breaks down development across the lifespan into three processes—Selection, Optimization and Compensation.

According to Freund, the SOC model is quite useful in analyzing how people choose and accomplish goals, as well as how they try to overcome obstacles. In other words, SOC has real-life applications in investigating what makes people tick.

Paul and Margret Baltes formulated the SOC model in 1990 as a way to understand strategies that people use to foster development and well-being in old age. Together with Paul Baltes, Freund has expanded the model to include stages across the lifespan. "Most motivational theories focus on college-age students and neglect the long-term aspects of individual development," Freund says. "We wanted to look at it from a longer perspective."

Selection, as its name implies, describes how people choose goals. Selection is traditionally associated with young adulthood, when most people are figuring out what career path to follow and what kinds of personal relationships they would like to have. It involves determining how they will spend finite resources such as time, energy and money.

" As part of Selection. we have to think about the things that really matter to us in life, so that we can focus our resources," Freund explains. "We can't have it all."

Freund points out, though, that narrowing choices is not necessarily a negative thing. "There wouldn't be any development without selection because you need to have a certain goal in order to reach your potential."

People don't always have complete control over the process of Selection. In learning a native language, for instance, each of us is born into a certain linguistic environment that is predetermined. In other cases individuals must respond to a loss of resources and refocus their goals.

Take, for example, the famed Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. Soon after being ordained a Catholic priest, he found he was unable to conduct Mass because of a chest condition, most likely asthma. Vivaldi then turned his attention to composing and performing music, which at the time lay in the domain of the Roman Catholic Church. The rest, as they say, is history.

Setting goals later in life may also involve refocusing one's priorities. When the novelist John Irving was asked in an interview how growing older had changed him, he responded that he had become acutely aware of the preciousness of time. That awareness, Irving said, led him to place spending time with his family and writing at the top of his priorities.

Freund emphasizes that Selection is only the first step in development. "Selection alone will not do much for people. They have to invest means into achieving these goals."

That's where Optimization comes in. Optimization describes the commitment and use of resources required to attain a given goal. Freund says that the most obvious examples of optimization in our culture can be found in the enormous amount of time and effort one has to invest to excel in such areas as sports, music or professional endeavors.

But Optimization is also required in other areas of life, such as relationships with spouses or life partners. "When it comes to relationships, there is not a lot of explicit training," Freund observes. "Most of us learn this, usually unconsciously, by looking at successful models. If your goal is to have a relationship, on some level you have to ask yourself, 'What can I do to make it work?' You have to invest time and energy into a relationship to succeed, just like anything else."

How people cope with the inevitable losses and obstacles they encounter while working toward their goals is the province of Compensation, the third SOC component. It focuses on how people use limited resources to maintain their goals, or, alternately, how they decide it's time to quit.

A prime example of Compensation can be found in the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. As a young man, Hawking was diagnosed with the debilitating disease ALS, which left him paralyzed and unable to speak. Hawking has continued his brilliant career by using compensatory strategies. At first he devised a method of raising his eyebrows to communicate, and then he adapted by using a computer program that sends his typed messages through a speech synthesizer. In this way Hawking has completed three books and dozens of scientific papers.

Another example of Compensation might be a gymnast who finds in her 20s that her body is losing the flexibility it had in adolescence. She may compensate for a while by increasing the duration and intensity of workouts, but eventually she must accept the fact that she won't be able to compete with younger, more flexible gymnasts forever. She may choose to move onto another, more suitable physical activity.

" At some point people realize that Compensation doesn't work any more and change their priorities," Freund says.

Compensation requires a sort of balancing act between not giving up on a goal or activity too early and being able to let go of goals that have become unattainable. "On one hand, if people give up whenever there's a setback, they will never be good at anything, because they will encounter setbacks and losses throughout life," Freund remarks. "On the other hand, people have to realize when their goals are permanently blocked. Otherwise they spend their resources on something they will never achieve, and those resources won't be available for other activities

For many people Compensation comes into sharp focus in old age. "A lot of resources, such as time and physical strength, are diminished," says Freund. "There are often physiological changes in hearing and sight. The number of friends people have generally decreases. Only those who are able to cope with such losses will be happy in old age."

Despite the downside, however, old age can also offer new potential for growth. Time previously devoted to raising a family or building a career is freed up, and might bring a lifetime of experience and expertise to exploring subjects that interest them. This explains the popularity of Northwestern's continuing education programs—the Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR), the Alumnae's Continuing Education Program and Alumni College. These programs help participants broaden horizons through study, writing, travel and discussion with like-minded individuals.

Although most research into motivation neglects compensation as a life strategy, Freund believes it is fundamental to attaining well-being. "I think in general there is a focus in Western society on optimization that doesn't recognize the importance of compensatory processes."

One study that Freund conducted in Berlin illustrates how older adults use Compensation to their advantage. She asked younger and older adults to complete a task twice, under two instructions: the first was to complete it as efficiently as possible; the second was to overcome to the best of their ability glitches that she had purposely included in the task.

Freund found that while the younger group worked longer and better under the first condition, the older adults worked longer when they had to overcome an obstacle. "Young adults are trained to focus on getting better all the time. Older adults have learned the importance of persistence when things don't go as smoothly" as anticipated, Freund comments.

Although SOC separates the three discrete parts, Freund says that in real life these components occur simultaneously. Her research also has shown that the motivational strategies can be learned. "We all have the potential to strive for and realize growth at every stage of life," she asserts. "People have the power to shape their own development."

Lisa Stein is a freelance writer.


By Lisa Stein