A recent Marketplace interview by Tess Vigeland of Matthew Syed, who wrote a book called Bounce seemed worth blogging about. The main take-away: perseverance is way more important than talent.
Syed was the U.K.’s top-ranked table tennis player, and the fact that a number of his mates from the same street also ended up as top players got Syed thinking down some Malcolm Galdwellesque directions to ponder what makes for excellence.
The short answer: practice, practice, practice. Agreeing with Gladwell’s notions of an activity requiring the magic number of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice for one to achieve mastery, Syed also draws from recent research to support the importance of praising kids for their hard work rather than for their talent. While there is certainly room for debate about whether Forest Gump sawing away on the violin for ten-k hours will make him into Mozart, it certainly would seem to make for a better world than if he did those same hours on a violent video game.
In one experiment at Stanford by a research psychologist named Dwek, kids were given puzzles and half were praised for being smart and the other half praised for working hard. When subsequently confronted with markedly harder puzzles, the kids who had been lead to believe they were already smart, gave up quickly when the going got tough (presumably not wanting to lose their “smart” status by failing) while the kids who had been appreciated for being perseverant did much better—figuring that a hard task was another good opportunity to demonstrate what hard workers they were.
In a culture where we make much (probably too much) of natural talent, accelerated learning, and generally competing to appear impressive, it seems that we arm our kids much better by coaching them to be hard workers… and we potentially improve the well-being of the group. Especially with gen-WTF (I lose track of X, Y, millennial etc.) the reports from the work-front seem to be trickling in to suggest that younger workers tend to lack initiative, need to be told what to do and also seem to need a lot of love and comfort in order to feel appreciated at work (and often leaving their older bosses appearing as insensitive to their needs).
If praise for hard work builds resilience and a little grit, then it seems like a good idea to incorporate this into our parenting. We try to be positive, but maybe our over-eagerness to see our kids as “special” or “gifted” ultimately gets in their own way. My bias probably trends toward helping kids see themselves as part of a larger group and community, my hope is to move away from the hyper-competitive ethic that leads to hollow success and mid-life despair, not to mention a potentially cruel and polluted world of everyone in it for just themselves that has lead to an overall ethic of cheating, corruption, entitlement punctuated by the occasional feel-good televised rock-concert for an important cause to remind us that we’re actually all pretty nice.
While Bounce is about “the science of success,” I was hoping that we could steal a couple of ideas and harness them toward a non-scientific, soul-inviting attitude of hard work, perseverance and compassion leading to lives richly, and connectedly, lived for us and our kids. I have noticed that when people have trouble growing up and taking responsibility, trouble finding a path, the best cure for stuckness is often work itself—and this is all the more reason to help kids see themselves as able to stick with things.
Learning to work as a way of contributing and engaging the world (rather than some sort of fast track better mousetrap path to the day when one need no longer work at all — as an emblem of ultimate success) may itself be a path to happiness and a sense of community and purpose. Along these lines I think that we can view parenting, not as an Olympic sport where we’re competing against each other for the gold, but as wholesome work in which we are motivated/compelled to put in our 10,000 hours and gain, if not mastery, at least a sort of confidence in ourselves and the happiness of doing something we can believe in. By my calculations, if one were to parent on average 8 hours per day, (it’s more in the beginning, but diminishes over time) it would take about 3 ½ years to reach the master-parent level. While parenting is difficult, I find that most parents seem to find it highly motivating to get as right as they can, thus I see parenting as an organic path, not to “success” as our society defines it, but nevertheless a route to success as I would define it: being kind, caring and soulful. Thus we parents don’t need more expert advice, we just need to practice (and we find ample opportunity if we are blessed to have children in our care). And if we do get good at “parenting?” Wouldn’t it seem that it leaves us mature and ready to do wider-level “parenting,” maybe parenting our own creativity, or our community, or our friends, or our wanderlust, etc.
Maybe there is a bit of magic in not just what we tell our kids, but in what we tell each other and ourselves. Maybe we are generous, maybe we just need to be told that we’re good enough and that we’re good parents and that we try awfully hard and that we don’t need to worry so much about being our best Selves as parents… we just need to know that we’re not giving up.
Maybe we need to tell each other that we’re here for each other and each other’s kids and really mean it and live it. In my year of blogging mindfully I sometimes fear that I’m becoming a better writer, but not a better parent. Soon I’ll be tapping the breaks on the blogging, but in the meantime I encourage you to trust that you’re serving the world better than I by actually parenting (I’m still just learning how to be—and I’m far short of 10,000 hours of that). If nothing else I am intuitive, and I sense you the reader in this strange netherworld, showing up to read through these often lengthy posts—I truly do sense that you work hard as “parents” in the broad sense of that word, that you care about our world and that you don’t give up. One day perhaps we’ll all more clearly and overtly join together in working to make this more the world we want to live in together—I do believe that we’re on a sincere path.