January 7, 2023 9:43 pm

Norman Eng

If you want to understand the entrepreneur, you should study the juvenile delinquent, because he is saying with his actions, “This sucks. I’m going to do my own thing.”

- Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia *

Have you ever had students who just don’t want to do the work? Maybe they’re lazy. But Yvon Chouinard, the founder of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, thinks differently. He argues that the students you think are delinquents simply don’t see why your class is useful. They would rather be doing something else. Like upgrading their car. Designing apps. Dreaming of becoming a chef.

Just don’t jump to the conclusion that this generation is lazy. Underneath the layer of indifference or defiance is someone who likely cares…about something else. Just not what you’re teaching.

So, what’s the answer to motivating them?

For your course? Maybe nothing, to be honest.

But what if you could tap into the thing they do care about? And if possible, tie that into your lesson or instruction?

I once had an education student who simply didn’t respond to my class—no matter what activity I tried. I finally took her aside.

“Why are you here—in this class, in this course, in this track?”

She mentioned something about teaching being a reliable career to go into. But she wasn’t sure it was her thing.

“So, what IS your thing?” I asked. Manga, she ultimately admitted. She’d read tons of Japanese graphic novels, watched anime, and spent all her time drawing and illustrating.  

“Well, are you any good?” I continued.

Apparently she was, although she rationalized a lot about why pursuing drawing was risky. She wasn’t wrong. But I was reminded of what comedian Jim Carrey said in a 2014 college commencement speech, which I told her:

You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

One year or so later, she bumped into me and admitted that the talk we had really resonated. She was still in education, but she was taking drawing much more seriously. She was taking an online course in anime (or whatever it was) to see if she could make the transition. That direction and sense of purpose was evident. With drawing, she had a backup plan at least.

It’s easy and understandable to let these “delinquents” go; to give them that D in your course and move on. But as I learned from Chouinard, many students—especially the so-called delinquents, just want to do their own thing.

Find out what that thing is and connect it to your lesson or help them reach that goal.

This short article is part of a new ongoing series, called Teaching Insights, where I take quotes from highly successful leaders (typically outside of education)—and apply it to the classroom. In my twenty plus years here, I’ve found that my best teaching ideas and innovations came from business, design, science, and other industries. This mindset led to my first book, Teaching College, which integrates marketing ideas with instruction. It became an Amazon bestseller in seven different book categories. 

* If you want to check out more insights from Yvon Chouinard's book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (2016, Penguin Books), get it from Amazon HERE.

(Note: This is an affiliate link, which means Amazon credits me a small percentage of the sale. Your purchase would support my blog at no extra cost to you, as well as my work to provide high-quality content about college teaching & instruction.)

  • Interesting article – I really like the quote, since it pushes us to see “delinquents” in a new way—as people who are independent minded and know what they want. I’ll keep that in mind!

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