Expectations, Failure, and Persistence

A friend from work shared a link today to this article: The Trouble with Bright Kids. It describes some research on the kind of positive, praising feedback we get when we succeed, and how that can influence our chances of success on future attempts. It’s also interesting to read how girls/women and boys/men are affected differently.

It really rings true for me. Or hits a nerve. Or maybe it’s both. I was one of the “high ability” kids (possessing an innate quality, as opposed to making a “strong effort”). I went through school accompanied by a litany of desperate admonishments by my teachers: “You’re one of the brightest students in the class. You should be getting better grades.” Mind you, no one in the school system did a thing to help me learn how to do that, they were just constantly disappointed in me.

It wasn’t until college, when I took Cognitive Psychology, and Psychology of Learning & Perception, and put the principles into practice, that I figured out how to succeed in school. Went from Cs and Ds, and academic probation, to all As, on the Dean’s List.

What I realized after reading the article, and thinking it over on the way to the dojo, was that the whole issue is skill-area dependent. Or at least it seems that way to me.

No one ever told me I was athletically gifted (in spite of being a very physical, coordinated kid). I was never on any teams, or competed at anything. And here I am being patient with myself, and sticking to it, learning Aikido in my late 40s, and loving it.

I hear about people who have gotten the message (I would assume) that they are physically talented – like people who have been very successful in team sports – who get discouraged quickly when they try Aikido. “I’m supposed to be athletic, but this is difficult for me, I must really be a failure.”

I would guess it would be the same kind of pattern with anything: music, art, math… If you start out thinking something should come easily to you, it could be easy to feel like a failure for doing merely ordinary work – or worse, finding it seriously challenging. But if you expect it might take real effort and time to achieve even basic proficiency, then it’s not a disappointment to have to make that effort, and it’s easier to let it take as long as it takes.

For teachers (academic or martial arts) it’s something to keep in mind when working with children. And it’s something to consider when judging our own “failures” harshly, and something to look at when we’ve given up on ourselves. 

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