The Co’s Katherine Gougeon explores social and cultural details that have an outsized ripple effect. Follow her on Twitter @kgougeon


Last week, I caught an article in The Washington Post about why cereal consumption is plummeting among young people. Because pouring the cereal, adding the milk, and cleaning the bowl is too much work. In seemingly unrelated news, I also finished Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg’s guide to using the science of productivity to succeed in business and life.


The two topics got me thinking about whether the same habits hardwired into the world’s most efficient decision-makers could be used to help young people self-motivate.


As mom to both a teenager and a six year old, I was intrigued by the chapter on the Marine Corp general who struggled with his recruits’ lack of direction and drive. “All they knew was doing the bare minimum. It was like working with a bunch of wet socks,” he lamented.


The general became fascinated with research indicating the most successful Marines were those who believed they could influence their destiny through the choices they made. When they were successful, they’d attribute it to hard work versus luck. And when they fell short, they took full responsibility, refusing to blame the failure on external factors beyond their control.



 credit: Jezebel


Inspired, the general set about exposing his recruits to a stream of situations that demanded decision-making. They were ordered to clean the mess hall without being briefed on where to find the cleaning supplies, how the industrial dishwasher worked, or what to do with leftovers. They were challenged to cross a pit the size of a football field without touching the ground, using only planks and ropes. “Once recruits have taken control of a few situations, they start to learn how good it feels,” the general explained.


Of the methods used by his training officers to reinforce this progress, a few struck me as ideal for home use:


Praising effort over natural ability: An athletic recruit is never complimented on a good run. Only the shy guy is recognized for stepping into a leadership role. “We praise people for doing things that are hard,” noted a sergeant, “That’s how they learn to believe they can do them.” Parental takeaway: a hard-won B-minus in Math is more commendable than an easy A in English.


Linking the mundane to the uplifting: When engaged in an activity that seems boring, difficult or impossible (like crossing a pit using planks) recruits are encouraged to ask each other Why? This one-word question keeps them focused on the big picture and allows self-motivation to emerge. They’re not crossing the pit to get to the other side. They’re doing it to become Marines and build better lives for their families. Parental takeaway: When I ask my daughter to help tidy, it’s not so the family room can sparkle. It’s so she can have friends over for playdates. Eye on the prize.


In subsequent chapters, Smarter Faster Better delves into why some people can succeed with so much less effort than others. Good to know. Especially if your kid has stopped eating cereal.