Curiosity, Carrots, and sticks

Learning is primarily driven by Curiosity, Carrots, and sticks. Self-image and expectations also play a big part, and it affects all three.


Sticks refer to verbal or physical punishment for the work not done.

While popular, it doesn't work all that well, leaves physical and mental scars, and is bad for long-term motivation.

Since this motivation is coming from the outside. As soon as the sticks stop or stop to be a threat, we see a sharp decline in performance.


Carrots are external rewards for completing a goal. For e.g., a candy, a car.

Carrots are better than sticks but still a lower form of motivation as the motivation is coming from the outside, not the inside.


Curiosity is the internal motivation to learn without any external pressure.

In an ideal world, a child would be curious about everything that you want to teach them.

Won't that be nice?

Well, it's not going to happen anytime soon.

Children are naturally curious. Wherever possible, we should use that curiosity to propel their learning. Some children are curious about one thing, and others about different things.


You should try to generate curiosity about what you want to teach.

So try this...

If you want to teach someone something, don't just start lecturing.

Instead, start with a question - some sort of puzzle - which can only be resolved by learning what you want to teach.

This will engage students, improve focus, and lead them to learn faster and deeper.

However, this is difficult. It requires creativity and effort on the part of the teacher/parent. 

So here's an example to help you think about it: if you are going to teach gravity, it would be fun to ask students to guess the time for objects to fall, then do the experiment, and only then go to the formulas.

If you have any more examples, please mention in the comments.

Self-image and expectations

We do things that are consistent with how we see ourselves. If you can do and say things to a child which builds their self-image as a learner, it will go a long way in their learning journey.

When a child sees themself as someone who likes to learn, they will grind it out even when they don't feel like it; and doing things when they don't feel like doing them takes people farther than most other qualities.

Similarly, people do things that are in line with what people expect of them. So, if you can your child/student that you expect great things from them, they will act accordingly.

Some things you can say to develop self-image and high expectations:

  • I am proud of how hard you work.
  • You are a good girl. You are so focused.

Even if they aren't behaving as you want, you can still show the expectations in form of:

  • You are such a good kid. I didn't expect you would do something like that.

Additional reading:

An excerpt from Robert Cialdini's "Presuasion" which demonstrates the power of curiosity:

"I saw evidence of the force of the craving for closure born within mystery stories after I began using them in my classroom lectures. I was still inexperienced enough that on one particular day I got the timing wrong, and the bell rang, ending the lecture before I’d revealed the solution to a puzzle I’d posed earlier. In every college course I’d ever taught, about five minutes before the scheduled end of a class period, some students start preparing to leave. The signs are visible, audible, and, consequently, contagious: pencils and notebooks are put away, laptops closed, backpacks zipped. But in this instance, not only were there no such preparations but also after the bell rang, no one moved. In fact, when I tried to end the lecture there, students pelted me with protests. They would not let me stop until I had given them closure on the mystery. I remember thinking, “Cialdini, you’ve stumbled onto dynamite here!” Besides mystery stories being excellent communication devices for engaging and holding any audience’s interest, I encountered another reason to use them: they were instructionally superior to the other, more common forms of teaching I had been using, such as providing thoroughgoing descriptions of course material or asking questions about the material. Whereas descriptions require notice and questions require answers, mysteries require explanations. When I challenged students to engage in the process of providing explanations to account for states of affairs that otherwise wouldn’t make sense, their test scores went up. Why? Because that process also provided them the best chance to understand the lecture material in a meaningful and enduring way."

The quality of your life depends on the reasons behind the decisions you take. If they are internal reasons, for yourself, you flourish. If reasons are external, you lose control and feel frustrated.

Your happiness will depend on the things you do when there's no one standing behind you, when there's no deadline, no sticks, and no short-term incentives.

If you just wait for the deadline to come near to start work, wait for your doctor to recommend you to exercise, wait for the next stick to prod you into learning something new, you will never catch up.

Instead of doing work for yourself and doing things that make you happy, you will be responding to the largest carrot and biggest stick. We all know how it feels. That's not the way we imagine our lives to be. It's a shame we live that way.

How do you live your life? How do you plan to?

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