Jonathan Mooney has dyslexia and didn’t learn to read until he was twelve years old. He graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in English and received the distinguished Truman Fellowship for graduate study in the field of learning disabilities and special education. He co-authored the book, Learning Outside the Lines, and speaks to groups of students, parents, and educators nationwide about living with learning problems. We recently spoke with him about his experiences with goal setting and motivation.

What would you say motivates you the most, both personally and professionally?

Unequivocally, what motivates me most is passion. I always emphasize this point when I speak to groups of students: Figure out what you care about and let it motivate you. Research has shown that passion contributes to people’s success. People often ask me, “What is the magic bullet?” or “What pill did you take to succeed?” My answer is always the same: It’s passion!

It’s important for parents and educators to help kids develop what’s called intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation develops from within oneself and is based on one’s true, individual passions and interests. External motivation – such as earning a gold star or top grades, conforming to the goals other people impose on you – will, at the end of the day, fail you. Adults who work with kids should encourage them – through dialogue and support – to discover their intrinsic motivation.

Another motivating factor is anger. Anger can be quite energizing, although it tends to have diminishing returns. I admit that anger motivated me early in my college career. As a freshman I told one school official I wanted to major in English literature, which is my passion. After looking at my records and test scores, he smugly told me I should major in something “less intellectual.” His attitude really angered me. I had a choice of what to do with that anger: either turn it inward and let it destroy my self-esteem, or take positive action. I chose the latter and promptly enrolled in four literature courses! I earned a 4.0 GPA that semester. The drawback of anger – of trying to prove others wrong – is that if you continue to run on anger long-term, you can lose yourself in the process.

As you struggled with traditional education, was there a mantra you repeated to yourself to stay motivated?

Unfortunately, my mantra as a little kid was, “You’re stupid, crazy, and lazy…” This tape ran in my head constantly. In speaking with kids who have learning differences, and their parents, I find this is an almost universal mantra for kids who struggle in school.

By high school I was able to repress that mantra, but it was still there lurking in the background. As I worked with my mom and teachers who understood my learning difference, a more positive foundation began to form. My mom and “Mr. R.,” my third grade teacher, told me, “This isn’t your problem, Jonathan. It’s our problem…You don’t need to be fixed. We’re looking at a broken educational system that needs to be fixed.” Mr. Starkey, my high school English teacher, always told me, “You struggle with writing not because you’re dumb, but because your mind moves quickly and in 3 or 4 dimensions, and text is only 2 dimensional.”

In your book, you demonstrate a strong sense of who you are, what you care about, and what you’re capable of. How did you achieve that?

I believe strongly in developing metacognitive skills, or “thinking about thinking.” By the time I was in sixth grade I was forced to actively explore my mind to understand how I work and how I don’t work. Through that process I gained great self-awareness. By the time I entered Brown University, I recognized my own abilities and my weaker areas. This self-knowledge has helped me tremendously in school and can be a huge advantage in the workplace. When you can communicate with others about your learning style or working style, you have a better chance to succeed and avoid misunderstandings.

I urge kids and young adults who have LD or AD/HD to view their struggles as an opportunity to learn about themselves. When being tested and evaluated for learning problems, it helps to view the process as a chance to learn about one’s strengths and weaknesses.

I encourage parents and professionals engaged in evaluating kids to be open with kids, not secretive about the process. They can help kids start to understand their abilities along with their struggles.

Did setting structured, traditional goals, such as a creating a 5-year plan, ever work for you?

I don’t think 5-year plans are effective for many people. A big turn in my life was going to Loyola Marymount University. I got through high school by being a jock, by focusing on sports. But in college I knew I had to make it academically as well. So I set my own goal to transfer to a “Top 10” university within one year. I started by focusing on that goal and worked backwards to outline the steps required to reach that goal. I’d need to make good grades, apply for an internship, and research and apply to top universities. But the motivation and the specific goal had to come from within me. If another adult had forced me to set that goal, it would have turned me off.

So I encourage students with learning differences to set their own goals and be realistic and organized about reaching it. It also helps to be flexible and understand that the journey may not take you along a straight path. You may need to adjust your goal as you move along. I recommend using goals as guiding principles, not rigid rules.

What advice would you give students with learning disabilities who are researching colleges and universities? What should they look for in a school?

  1. First and foremost, find schools you care about. Start making a list. I don’t believe in choosing a school for its learning support program. Instead, search for schools that have the right “vibes” and academic programs you feel passionate about.
  2. Next, look at that list of schools and determine which of them have well-run, accessible learning support programs.
  3. At the same time, evaluate the academic culture of the school. For example, Brown University spent less money on learning support, but it’s academic culture values self-directed learning, independent study, and diversity. That allowed me to thrive. I also tell students to look for schools that integrate the concept of LD into diversity.
  4. Find out what the curriculum requirements are at each school. Some may be too strict or rigid for you. For instance, if I had been required to take Latin in college, I’m pretty sure I would have failed it!
  5. Go beyond the learning support center and do a reality check by talking to faculty in the departments you’re interested in. Talk to other students, too. Remember that learning support centers will often give you a sales pitch. They’re there to follow the letter of the law, not the spirit of the ADA, which is to integrate learning disabilities into the college culture.

A word to parents about college: Adults should accept that not all kids – including those who are self-aware – will choose to go to college. Some will opt for trade school or other non-collegiate venues. As long as this choice is based on self-awareness and not the fear of failure, it may be the best choice.