Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation. Which means to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about practicing.

The truth is that motivation, or the lack thereof, drives everything we do. It is the primary force behind how and why and even when we work or play. It is a term tossed casually around on early morning news segments and in pop psychology books. Some people spend their entire careers studying motivation and all its variables. But the further I dig into the subject of motivation, the more complicated and confusing it becomes.

Take the issue of rewards. According to educational psychology experts, using rewards or bribes is a bad idea. Employing rewards to motivate behavior is thought to encourage extrinsic motivation and squash intrinsic motivation. In other words, we shouldn’t practice the piano (or clean the bathroom or take out the trash) to earn a gold star. We should practice the piano because we want to practice the piano. Intrinsic motivation is considered to be superior to extrinsic motivation. It probably is superior, but it isn’t that simple.

So often the line between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is so blurred the two become one and the same. For example, I love teaching. I have loved teaching from the very first lesson I taught, as a fourteen year old giving beginning thirty-minute piano lessons to neighborhood children for five dollars a lesson. Although I love teaching and have great intrinsic motivation for the work, getting paid—a classic extrinsic motivator—is equally valuable to my attitude about what I do. Motivation is a messy, complicated subject. I know this because on a daily basis I watch my own motivation ebb and flow from hour to hour depending upon the task at hand. I know this because I teach Peter.

Peter is seven. Peter is seven years old and wiggly. Peter is the third child in a family very committed to music education. There is, of course, no question that Peter will take piano lessons just like his older brother and sister. No one questions this. Except perhaps Peter.

Did I mention that Peter wiggles? When not playing the piano, Peter is a star gymnast, frequently winning gold medals in competitions. Peter prefers to tap out rhythms not with his hands on the piano lid while still sitting still on the bench, but while walking on his hands across my living room floor. If I allow this, this otherwise pedantic rhythmic activity gets his attention and enthusiasm. Most everything else—learning to read notes, trying to make his clumsy fingers cooperate, listening to his teacher—is boring.

And so, Peter wiggles. And wiggles. And wiggles.

One day, frustrated and grasping desperately at anything that might capture his interest, or at least get us through that afternoon’s lesson, I got an idea. “Hey Peter,” I said, “do you like to watch the Olympics?”

He brightened immediately. “What if,” I continued, “I was like an Olympic judge and we rated each of your assignments? If you get a top score, we’ll put a sticker on your practice notebook.” “How many stickers could I get?” he asked, very interested. “A lot,” I said, making the rules of the game up on the spot.

For the rest of the lesson, Peter was a model student. He carefully demonstrated the scales and pieces he had practiced and together we rated each little piece or technical exercise. He was, to my astonishment, a tougher judge than I was. “I don’t think that gets a sticker today,” he said after a poor performance of one piece, shaking his head.

Weeks went by. Every lesson became an Olympic sport, with stickers the prize. “If we get everything done, could we do extra things for more stickers?” he asked. “Sure,” I responded, thrilled that Peter and I were finally on the same page. Some days, he’d come into his lesson and announce, “This is probably not going to be a good sticker day.” “Why not?” I’d ask. “I didn’t practice so good,” he’d admit. He became very accurate at assessing his work. He could tell me before we had begun what was likely to get a sticker or not, demonstrating quite advanced meta-cognitive skills. “Amy,” he said one day, “I think that stickers are really working for me.”

Could it be that Peter was motivated to work hard and to sit still by the promise of a mere sticker? A sticker? Why would a seven-year-old boy care about a sticker?

The reality is, he doesn’t. Stickers are merely symbolic. What feeds our enthusiasm and good behavior is the tangible and immediate feedback for a job well done. Or not. And the truth is, we could all use a gold star now and again. I have pulled myself out of countless slumps by employing such bribery as a new book or plant if I will just clean out the back flowerbed or finish up my taxes or meditate for ten days in a row. It is humbling, really, to recognize how effective such tricks are, regardless of how old or how wise we might be. We can debate the merits and downfalls of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation all day long, but the bottom line is, when we are stuck and need a boost, the proverbial gold star is a powerful tool. Just ask Peter.

After months of Olympic piano lessons, where the very texture of our work together had changed and evolved into something new, I realized that Peter was no longer talking about the stickers. He had, it seemed, moved passed them. “Hey Peter,” I said, “what about the stickers?” He shrugged. “I don’t care anymore.”

He had, at least for the time being, found the play in his practice. I suspect that this steady level of motivation will not last forever, and that the wiggles will return again in some form or another requiring another burst of gold stars to bolster up our work together. That’s okay, I’ve got plenty of stickers. And despite what the experts say, needing such support from time to time doesn’t make our work less worthy.

It only makes us human.