Finding Motivation in Tough Times

NASFAA
8 min readAug 14, 2020

By Justin Draeger, NASFAA President

Financial aid administration is hard, even in normal times. But every few years, what is normally a tough job becomes nearly impossible. Ten years ago, we faced enormous implementation challenges with year-round Pell Grants. Six years ago, we were crushed under the weight of gainful employment regulations. This year, we’re facing the struggle of implementing brand new programs — along with a pandemic and a recession that’s testing the mental and emotional health of our students and each one of us. This is one of those years that makes even the most dedicated aid professional ask: “Why am I doing this?”

The Challenge:

In years like these, day-to-day challenges that carry their own stress become exacerbated. Keeping up with student questions, managing institutional compliance risk, being a resource to those within your school — and the greatest stress of all, meeting the ever-growing financial need of students — become more acute. Heaping on are occasional “tips” and critique from those who have never set foot in, let alone worked in, a financial aid office. Unfortunately, some of that critique occasionally comes from within our own institutions, from those who should be our most trusted partners.

It’s no wonder that I’m seeing more and more expressions of desperation from the financial aid community. It’s palpable. The challenges seem overwhelming, and our ability to meet the tasks at hand feel impossible. Consider just a few of the comments I’ve seen from practitioners.

“Every August is hard…but in true 2020 fashion, this one is being extra.”

“I feel defeated this year.”

“I worry about my staff getting so worn down right now.”

“I am so overwhelmed with everything. Really considering another profession.”

Ouch. But is it any wonder why someone would pause in the middle of this figurative hurricane and ask: “What for?”

Frankly though, I’m not worried. In fact, a periodic assessment of where we stand relative to our values and goals is a good thing. Before anyone in the financial aid community throws in the towel, I suggest a few steps:

1. Pause and Reflect

In the midst of a whirlwind, it can be difficult to carve out time to ground oneself. But setting aside time to take a breath and gain perspective is never more important than when we feel we’re drowning in a swirl of challenges. Today’s challenges are unique, specific to right now, and are temporary. Rushing to make a career decision in the midst of a truly unique set of circumstances can be detrimental, not to just us, but our students.

Scottish philosopher, skeptic, historian, and scientist David Hume was known for valuing empirical evidence and rational thought over emotions. But he also acknowledged that rationality alone cannot always motivate us to rise to meet the challenges we face.

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions,” he wrote. In other words, it is our emotional ties to what we do and the people we help that can provide some of the greatest motivation in our work. As one essayist wrote, “Reason by itself gives us no motivation to act, and certainly no principles on which to base our morality.”

Where do we connect to those motivating emotions? When are we able to put things in their proper perspective? During quiet periods of reflection and meditation.

2. Cultivate and Guard Your Intrinsic Motivation

It’s in times of crisis when students need us most. There aren’t very many people in this profession who set out to become financial aid administrators. Often I hear our profession described as less of a career, and more of a calling. That’s because those who last in the profession are those who make financial aid part of who they are.

We know that financial aid work isn’t just accounting or compliance work, it’s social justice work. It’s anti-poverty work. It’s the work of cultivating citizenship and living proof that societal programs can give others an opportunity to help themselves.

I could tell you how appreciated you are. I could tell you how vital you are to the operations of your university, and how many students’ dreams you help achieve each and every year. And all of that is absolutely true and can periodically help us weather challenging times. But the long haul requires us to treat our motivation as one of our most important assets, and not something to be influenced by the whims of others.

The ancient Roman philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius primed himself for mistreatment each day, to fortify himself against defeatism.

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance,” he wrote. “But for my part … none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.”

In other words, why should we give other people control over one of our most important assets — our feelings and motivations?

The question is not whether we can appreciate our students (and parents), but more specifically whether we can stay motivated to appreciate and empathize with them even when they are frustrated, impatient, thoughtless, critical, or downright disrespectful. Of course, most students are neither effusively grateful nor denigrating. They are silently thankful as they go about the stress of obtaining a postsecondary education.

The pandemic highlights this point. I wonder how many of us gave much thought to the (recently recognized as essential) workers who often go overlooked in our society. I’m embarrassed to admit that until the pandemic, I had not given much thought or thanks to those who kept my local grocery store stocked and operating. And while I’ve since looked for ways to thank those in our society who keep me and my family fed, fueled, and safe, I often give my thanks silently to those essential workers.

It’s too easy to take so much around us for granted, especially when life gets busy, or stressful. It’s no wonder that most students feel appreciation for what aid professionals do, but don’t always find time to express it. But those expressions, or lack thereof, are outside of our control. And while appreciation can be a great motivator, our motivation is intrinsic to who we are and not dependent on the reactions of others.

3. Help Others Find Their Own Motivation As Well

While I’ve personally found that long-lasting motivation must be cultivated from within, there are times when someone just needs a boost. Being the person who can provide that boost to someone else not only helps them, but can help us as well. Humans evolved to be social creatures, and even the most introverted among us still desires connection, acceptance, and support. As one neuroscientist put it, “The key to our success is not the survival of the fittest, it’s the survival of the friendliest.”

For managers, there’s an acute need to appreciate and recognize staff, and to do so by spending a little time getting to know how our direct reports prefer to be appreciated. Do they prefer public recognition, or do they prefer quieter, sincere words of affirmation? Perhaps they appreciate a little extra time off after a hard week, or maybe they prefer quality one-on-one time with you over a (virtual) happy hour or lunch with a larger group.

I’m skeptical that I can motivate anyone to do anything over the long-term, but I do believe as a manager I can always do a better job of creating an environment that at the very least doesn’t crush motivation. According to the Harvard Business Review, managers can cultivate space for motivation to grow by doing the following:

  1. Allow some form of employee self-expression.
  2. Create a safe place for experimentation (and occasional failure)
  3. Ensure that people understand their purpose, and the purpose of the organization/department/institution.

A person doesn’t need to be in a position of corporate power to express appreciation, either. Some of the most touching notes of appreciation I’ve received over the years are from the very people that I manage. Appreciation — as long as it’s delivered specifically and sincerely — is not something that we should keep in short supply.

Bring It On!

Motivation is not linear — it’s self-reinforcing, according to best-selling author Marc Manson. He explains:

Most of us commit to action only if we feel a certain level of motivation. And we feel motivation only when we feel enough emotional inspiration. We assume that these steps occur in a sort of chain reaction, like this: Emotional inspiration → Motivation → Desirable action. The thing about motivation is that it’s not only a three-part chain, but an endless loop: Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Etc. Your actions create further emotional reactions and inspirations and move on to motivate your future actions.

That motivation helps us overcome increasingly difficult challenges. In fact, some research shows the harder the challenge, the more opportunity there is for job and life satisfaction. In one classic study, people who were able to choose their own goals often chose stretch goals that were outside their comfort zones. One might expect this sort of goal-setting from overachievers, but studies show that even less-motivated people tend to shoot for difficult objectives, as long as they are committed and supported.

In other words, you are up to the task!

I travel in lots of different higher education and business circles and this is the one I choose to call home. It’s where I fit. I’m proud to be counted among you and I appreciate what you do for our students and our nation. Collectively, we have and will continue to accomplish great things!

How and where do you pause and reflect to cultivate your intrinsic motivation? How have you helped others find their motivation? Let me know @justindraeger.

Final Note: Seeking Professional Help: I am not a psychotherapist or psychologist, nor do I pretend to be. People who find themselves facing mental health challenges, depression, or who are struggling with substance abuse should seek the help of a trained professional.

Justin Draeger is president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to shape the future by promoting student access and success in higher education.

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NASFAA

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators: Shaping the future by promoting student access & success in higher education. www.nasfaa.org.