Although I said last week that I would write about the Australian education system, I found that I had to take a step back and write about motivation first.

Both my husband and I have parents who grew up in Malaya during or after World War II. Our children have grown up in Australia. The circumstances that shaped our parents are vastly different to the circumstances that shape our children. In this context, I consider the question of motivation.

My mother-in-law used to quilt. 

The first M of motivation: money.

Sometimes we say no when our children ask us to buy things. If they show their disappointment, my husband will sometimes say: When you earn your own money, you can buy anything you want.

My husband is the youngest of five. My father-in-law was a clerk in various government departments, including the Sarawak General Hospital. My mother-in-law cycled to construction sites around Kuching, selling snacks and drinks to help support her children through university. My enterprising husband and his cousin cornered the snack market in their Primary Four class. When the older children graduated, they helped to support their younger siblings.

For many years, money was tight and my parents-in-law could not give their children all things they wanted. In this context, the refrain – when you earn your own money, you can buy whatever you want – propelled each to work hard and make their way in the world.

Mum-in-law used cloth scraps in her quilts.

The second M of motivation: mastery.

Motivation took on quite a different form for me because my family was comfortably middle-class. My father had his own civil and engineering consulting business. He used to sit across the study desk from my sister and me, studying law to learn how to resolve construction industry disputes which he came across in the course of his work.

‘Don’t say a problem is difficult,’ he used to tell me, ‘say it is challenging.’ Another motto of his was: Aim high, work hard, and accept whatever you get. I’m sure he didn’t mean I should accept defeat or failure, but rather, don’t be filled with regrets. He sat for his law exam finals three times before obtained his LLB and became an arbitrator.

As I saw it in him, mastery was motivation. To apply yourself until you are very good at something is a particularly sweet sort of satisfaction.

Mum-in-law made this in NZ, featuring the native bird, the pukeko.


The third M of motivation: meaning.

Some time ago, I met up with one of the people I interviewed for my book, Josie. She recommended the film The Music of Strangers, featuring an ensemble of musicians from the Silk Road, brought together by world-renowned cellist, Yo Yo Ma.

I watched the DVD a few nights ago and was deeply moved by these musicians, some of them refugees. Together, they are creating a new music type of music, melding eastern and western traditions. It occurred to me that Yo Yo Ma, who has, without doubt, achieved mastery of his instrument, and has gone further, to find purpose, cause, and meaning, in bringing the people of this world together through music.

First quilt made with store-bought material, a definite sign of improved financial means.


As living standards improve, I think motivation should move from money to mastery and meaning. It’s one thing for a son to see his mother cycling in the sun and to realise there is no money for a new pair of shoes, but quite another for me to say, ‘Son, I think your current pair of shoes are fine, and it’s character building to learn to wait for what you want.’

After all, when our basic needs are met, and when we have achieved a degree of mastery in our field, we, too, as adults, need to see beyond ourselves in order to find meaning in what we do.

How do you motivate your children? How do you motivate yourself? Do share in the comments below.

    2 replies to "Motivation: money, mastery and meaning"

    • Rhonda Pooley

      As I have come to expect from you, this is thought-provoking. I think that all too often in the West we motivate, and are motivated by, the spur of personal satisfaction and enjoyment: if you aren’t better than Johnny/Joan at tennis/gymnastics/guitar lessons etc then drop out, even if subs have already been paid for a whole year; if you’re bored with that after school job/weeding the garden for dad/keeping your room tidy/ then you shouldn’t have to continue; if you’re not in the top three in Math/English/Business Studies, swap to Drama because, anyway, you intend to pursue a career in entertainment and be world famous by the time you’re 21. Over-generalised, perhaps, but as a mature-age student, former teacher & grandmother, I have seen a fair number of examples.

      • May Kuan Lim

        Thanks so much for your thoughts, Rhonda. As a parent I have often struggled with the very things you write about.

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