How do you reverse apathy?

Leadership

March 29, 2021 Paula Kiger / leadchangegroup.com

Igniting anything takes heat, oxygen, and fuel — the three components of the fire triangle.

The idea of the fire triangle can apply to human motivation, too.

When Jane Beckett took over the dance program at The McDonald College, a prestigious performing arts school in Atlanta, she saw talent from the beginning. She brought a personal history of dance excellence with her. What she didn’t see as much of was passion. The class, she says, seemed “apathetic.”

Robert Walters was in that class. He was a ninth-grader who had ended up in the dance program (and the school itself) through a series of circumstances, not due to intense artistic goals. 

He had moved around a lot as a kid, and his parents put him at The McDonald College partially out of convenience (his sister — a dedicated dancer — was already there) and he was being bullied at his previous school. 

Robert says the middle school years were characterized by fun. He started off on the acting track, because he couldn’t play an instrument, hadn’t studied dance, and didn’t think he could sing. Acting took a back seat the day he walked out because he was going to end up in detention for not having kept his daily journal. 

He ended up in dance because the instrument-playing hadn’t magically materialized and he still didn’t think he could sing. 

Robert’s earliest dance period at The McDonald College was, like acting, mostly just enjoyable. He didn’t have stars in his eyes about ending up as a professional dancer. He was a middle-school kid who was starting to like tap dancing because it was “all rhythm and didn’t require much upper-body coordination.”

One day, everything changed

Jane Beckett took over as head of dance at Robert’s school when he was in the 9th grade. 

On her first day, jazz day, Beckett explained the importance of conditioning. 

She said only the most determined students would make it into a special club. To get into the club, she needed to see 7 beads of sweat on the floor after each exercise to prove that a student was working hard.

From that moment on, the fuel of motivation was starting to glow for Robert.

“Something she said about that stuck and I said, ‘I want to do that. Within 10 minutes, I started working more intensely in this class. 

“A few months in, I said, ‘I need to make this harder for myself and up my game. I needed to get where my classmates were quickly — they had all been dancing at this level for years.

“I started doing the entire class with extra one-kilo weights. 

“It wasn’t like she picked me to [push] me. It was her just doing her class and the things she said resonated … they made me want to do better and be better for no other reason than that I lacked the challenge.”

Robert Walters ended up as a professional dancer, performing in Hamilton as a swing in New York City and later in the Chicago cast. 

Robert is a performer whose story is all about a triangle that was in need of its third component. In his case, he had oxygen (a performing-arts curriculum) and heat (innate talent), but nothing was fanning that spark into a flame. 

Who can you be the fuel for?

How often have you wondered if you were getting through to someone? Perhaps someone didn’t make much eye contact with you in meetings or didn’t take on extra assignments.

It’s tempting to give up. It’s hard to know what is going to elicit someone’s motivation, but if you don’t provide any ignition, it definitely won’t ever happen. 

Jane Beckett says, “I still remind students that they ultimately train themselves; we as teachers are their eyes and in some cases their conscience. No matter what guidance and help we offer, every student is responsible for refining and shaping their technique!”

The end of Robert Walter’s story? There’s only one place in the world right now where live theatre is happening. That’s Sydney, Australia, where Hamilton is premiering this month … with Robert Walters in the cast as a swing.

Jane Beckett didn’t know it, but by having high standards (and not writing off a student who wasn’t the star of the class), she provided the fuel.

Think of the people with unfulfilled potential in your world. 

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