Special Snowflakes

Number Two Daughter asked if I was writing a book. No, just my journal, I replied. It looks like a book, though: it’s bound nicely and is filling. I suppose I could write a book, but at the moment I have no ideas for a book. I do have ideas for short essays, and if I wait long enough another of the 7.5 billion monkeys will write them. There’s many a thing I’ve read where I recognize the thoughts and arguments that have gone into the work, from premise to conclusion. One of the fascinating things about history is how often ideas bubble to the surface around the same time, sometimes more than once. Sometimes they even stick.

I was told stories as a child. You are unique, they said. You are gifted. You are talented. You are handsome. You are smart. God gave you innate gifts — use them in his service.

The thing about half-truths is that they are so easy to believe. That kid is bigger than I am. His parents are bigger than mine are. He must be bigger because he was born this way. He must be stronger and faster and smarter and richer and otherwise all-around better all for the same reason. It’s no leap at all to believe that if I’m better at something, it is because of my natural talent alone. Similarly if I’m worse at something. Einstein’s a genius. Mozart’s a prodigy. Rainman didn’t need to practice math. If it’s easy, it’s because I’m good. If it’s hard, because I’m bad.

Small children know this in their heart of hearts to be true, by the time they are six, or seven, or eight.

But if they think about it, they see it’s a lie. Life is much more nuanced.

Last night at the U10 soccer practice, one of the players said, “I love the homework you give us! It’s so much fun!” Made my day. Each week along with a letter about the week’s schedule, I’ve been sending a short homework assignment tenuously tied to soccer: play FIFA, balance on the curb, run around the house, watch others play soccer. The idea being that in addition to the techniques specific to soccer, there are certain general skills that pretty much anyone can cultivate and which are necessary: attention, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and so forth.

Recently, our understanding of human performance has improved beyond the story of Conan taking his place by right of birth as king of Aquilonia. Neurology, endocrinology, psychology, and other fields have provided insight into how humans work, fleshing out previously vague assertions about willpower with details about executive function, ego depletion, and glucose; connecting the dots between illness, stress, placebo, and mindfulness; showing how learning from deliberate practice excites myelinization; how physical exertion exercises the brain as well as the body; how both muscles and learning form while the body rests after a stress; and how perspective is tied to persistence: mindset and grit.

This is something we have known before. Motivational posters have lots of examples.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. — 老子 (c. 6th Century BCE)

Practice makes perfect. — Anonymous

Slow and steady wins the race. — Aesop (c. 620 – 564 BCE)

“…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” — Not Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

My success, such as it is, was not, or not entirely, because I was gifted with being smarter, but because once I learned to read, I loved it, and so practiced reading diligently and with attentive love. I liked looking at maps, and pored over them, and so was already familiar with geography by the time it came up in school. I read the World Book Encyclopedia, because I was curious, and so was already familiar with topics covered later on in school. Later, topics caught my interest and I learned of them before I needed to, though I could more precisely say that I simply pursued my interests where they led. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn practice as a discipline.

But still the Nature vs. Nurture debate rages on, both arguing that they can’t both be right, while some people, perhaps with a naturally finer attention to subtlety, grasp that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. And this assumption, that talent is simply a gift — though perhaps it’s a confusion over the definition of the word, talent — is, in fact, my major complaint about talent identification programs, whether by parents, sports programs, schools, or employers; and the current fad of arguing over which astonishing athlete is the GOAT.

Or, to put it another way, this isn’t Highlander.

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