November is upon us with fine form. The Northcountry has dropped into it's pre-winter waiting moodiness, occasionally showing-off some icy choppers, but mainly just chewing at the days with a sort of calm knowing.
As I write, the most important mid-term election in U.S. history is 24 hours away from being over. By the time you read this, the election will be history, and I'll be in California smiling, I trust, in the knowledge that we've elected a new congress.
The New York Marathon was last weekend. Got to see bits and pieces of it, including Lance Armstrong and Shannon Miller. There was something really cool about seeing two champions from very different worlds dipping into something completely new. Think about seeing the world's most decorated cyclist and the nation's most decorated gymnast out of their elements as you read this month's feature, "Just Do It... Badly." They weren't pretty, and they were beautiful to watch.
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Coaster, Just Done...
Just Do It... Badly
I’m not sure exactly when it starts, but at some point, we humans develop this strange need to “get it right.”
Don’t get me wrong – there’s value in “getting it right” – it’s just that we put so much energy into “getting it right” that it becomes difficult to get “it” going at all, whatever “it” happens to be.
I see the same thing happening with children and adults, so I think it’s safe to call the paralysis caused by the need to “get it right” an epidemic. At least in our culture.
Brace for a cliché: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
The cliché only tells half the story, for such is the nature of clichés. The downside is that we weigh anchor and set sail with a boatload of expectation that borders on perfectionism. Laden with heavy cargo, riding low in the water, heading into rough seas…
Hypothetically speaking, I have some personal experience in the arena of perfectionism. I remember taking piano lessons as a kid. I don’t remember exactly why I was taking piano lessons, but I was taking them anyway. (One day we didn’t have a piano, the next day we had one, and the day after that I was off to learn to play…)
I have vivid recollections of my very first lesson. My teacher sat me down in front of a piano in a little room at the Montclair Academy of Musical Arts in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, and asked if I knew where Middle C was.
I looked down at the keyboard, found a key that looked like it was in the middle, and pushed it.
My teacher seemed very excited.
“That’s very good!” he pronounced.
Evidently, I’d found Middle C. I had executed my first musical task with exacting precision. (He didn’t ask me if I knew what Middle C was. Had he asked, the extent of my true musical genius would have become instantly apparent…)
I didn’t last long at my first musical gig. I don’t think I ever expressed interest in becoming a piano player. Most likely, my parents were following some strange idea of the era, a parenting concept that persists to this very day…
“If you buy it, they will play.”
I was far more interested in building model airplanes, looking for salamanders along the banks of the brook that ran through our backyard, and running around outside doing boy-things.
It also felt like a bad case of Either/Or.
Either I was good at playing piano, or I wasn’t.
I don’t think anyone made that rule for me – at least not explicitly. I had performed flawlessly the first time out with my Middle C, and expected, quite reasonably, that everything that followed would be just as easy.
I got to all the way to the “Volga Boatmen” in my piano book. It’s a happy little ditty about the drudgery of pulling barges along a Russian canal by hand. It seemed a fitting place to end.
I don’t recall there being much joy in the experience. What little I learned was fueled by a sense of obligation. Evidently this was something I was supposed to do. After all, a piano had appeared in our house.
My folks didn’t tell me any of that, and I don’t remember hearing it from my teacher, either – though I also don’t recall that he was ever quite as pleased as he had been following my brilliant Middle C debut.
I don’t think I’m the only person who ever had a childhood experience similar to what I’ve described. I could list a whole series of them, as I’m sure so many others could, too.
Looking back, I see that there were some key ingredients missing, the most important of which were fun and permission to fail…
Let me say those again: Fun. Permission to fail.
Here’s a bit o’ context to fill in the blanks: I spend lots of time in teaching mode these days. Between working with clients, leading training courses and raising my son, I get loads of exposure to how different folks deal with learning new things.
Dare I point to a common thread..?
Oh, but I must…
With very few exceptions, people young and old fall into the trap of wanting to get it right. That’s not a bad thing – it’s just a human thing.
It’s also a limiting thing. Not much wiggle space. No room to growth. Loads of pressure to perform…
I love watching kids in the early stages of working out the whole bipedal walking thing. At that age, they are masters of the learning game. They get up and fall down over and over again. They bang their heads on coffee tables and floors, cry for a moment, and start once more. They fail repeatedly and, since they don’t know anything about failing, they don’t get caught up in the deep, weighty implications of not getting it right. They toddle on, and we find them irresistible.
They know implicitly what we older folks have long since forgotten: A commitment to do something well demands that we be willing to do it badly at first.
Even in the age of the “up close and personal” stories of Olympic athletes who have had to overcome hardship on their path to the podium, it’s so easy for us to put performers on an impossibly high pedestal. We marvel at the final product and gasp in amazement at their super-human accomplishments.
No images of toddlers with egg-sized bruises on their foreheads. No Volga Boatmen with rope-burns on their shoulders anywhere in sight.
I have a sneaking suspicion that behind virtually every champion - in any given arena - is a person who was willing to do something badly on their way to becoming the best in the world.
As I observe people in learning situations, it’s clear that some get it and some don’t. The ones who are willing to make mistakes seem to have way more fun tackling new skills. Sometimes they fall down and, laughing a “silly me” kind of laugh, get up and have at it again. They learn with the child-like joy and wonder of a toddler. (Though admittedly with fewer tears.) They don’t waste energy beating themselves over their lack of mastery. They settle in and enjoy the process.
We bought Cai a recorder for his third-grade music classes this year. Six bucks and a hot-pink Yamaha later, he’s beginning to read music, find the proper finger positions and squeaking a bit as he learns each new song. He puts pressure on himself to get it right, and frustrates easily.
Like so many people, he wants to be instantly good at the new things he tries. Like so many people, he discovers that that doesn’t often happen. It’s a tough lesson.
I remind him, over and over again, that it’s hard to know how to do something before… well, before you actually know how to do it. I remind him that it’s OK to be less than perfect at something you’re only beginning.
My wish for all the eager learners of the world, my son (and myself) included, is that they give themselves – and one another – the gift accepting the process that learning is. It’s so much easier that way.
After all, anything worth doing is worth doing badly… until you learn to do it well.
The road of fatherhood is filled with bumps, scenic overlooks and unexpected detours. Sometimes the going is smooth, sometimes… well, sometimes it isn't!
“Love, Anger, Joy and Fatherhood” is an experiential exploration of both the personal and universal states of fatherhood.
• What kind of expectations are you facing? Do they come from within or without?
• How do you handle anger: by hiding it, denying it, expressing it, or using it as a fuel source?
• How do you want to spend your time with your children? How satisfied are you with that time?
• If fatherhood were a game, are you out on the field, or warming the bench?
• As a man, do you bring all of you to your role as a Father..?