Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Measures of Success

Like everyone, I came into this life with a specific set of natural strengths. Unlike many, my natural strengths - organization, reading comprehension, attention to detail, intuition - dovetail nicely with the established norms of our public education system. As a result, I put very little effort into learning as a child. I listened to the teacher, did what was asked of me in class and scored very well on assessments (excepting math). I did very little studying or practicing.

Over the years, I occasionally came across challenges outside the realm of my natural talent: organized sports, foreign languages, musical instruments, the aforementioned maths. My experience with these tasks all followed a very predictable pattern. At first, I would feel excited and confident, sure I was about to join the ranks of the other natural athletes or musicians I knew. For the first month or so, I’d gather information and learn the basics. Things would progress nicely as I learned the details and organization of the task. Then, I’d hit a wall. Suddenly, I’d reach the steep incline in the learning curve, the point where you have to take all the rules of the task and practice them over and over until they become automatic (perfect example of this, check out this you-tube video about Collin Burns, Rubix Cube single-solve champion). Unless you are born with an innate skill for the task at hand, you must fail repeatedly so your brain can differentiate between the right way and the wrong ways to do it.

Because I learned so many things quickly during the first decade of my life, I had very little experience with failure. I didn’t know how to respond to my own lack of ability. When you’re an infant, failure is the norm, a necessary and oft-repeated step toward success. But when you forget that failure is a form of progress, or worse, convince yourself that the lessons inherent in failure are unnecessary for you, it morphs into something different. Failure becomes a trauma to be avoided.

To avoid the embarrassment and frustration connected to the trauma of failure, I learned to quickly walk away from activities if I couldn’t scale the steepest parts of the learning curve effortlessly. I didn’t play softball or volleyball with my classmates. I quit piano after a combination of overconfident song selection and reliance on last minute practice resulted in a horrific recital experience (there were public tears … I still can’t think about it without flushing in embarrassment). I learned the letters and basic vocabulary of the Russian language quickly, but gave up when I couldn’t immediately formulate fluent conversations with them. Most disappointingly (and having the most lasting effect on my future), I developed psychosomatic symptoms - headaches, stomach aches, hot flashes - whenever I walked into a math class.

Instead of facing these challenges head-on, I ran from them, hiding my insecurities behind the facade of my natural abilities. I barely passed my math classes in high school, but nobody seemed to notice or care because my natural talent for reading, writing, and intuitive test taking allowed me to shine in all my other classes.

Fast-forward to my adult life and you can see the same patterns emerging. Fortunately for me, intuition and a talent for language arts often fool people into thinking you know more than you really do. They also form the foundation for my chosen profession, teaching. (I’ll never know if I was drawn to teaching because it came so easily to me or if teaching was easy because I was so motivated to do it well.) Life progressed for a number of years.

Then, life changed, as life has a habit of doing, and I found myself looking for a new calling. Given my penchant for reading and writing, I’ve always toyed with the idea of being a writer. Here was the opportunity. Writing well enough to be successful in life and writing well enough to be successful as a writer are two very different things, however. It wasn’t long before I found myself face to face with a learning curve so steep it looked like a wall.

So I stopped. I dabbled in other things. I lounged around. I watched Grey’s Anatomy in its entirety. Twice. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much I wished I could be a writer. But when I actually wrote, I saw an impossible chasm between my ability and my desire. Ira Glass describes this perfectly:

The thing is, I’ve slowly realized that I need to write. There is a catharsis in writing that helps me recognize and confront the demons of my life, past and present. Just as I felt called to teach in my earlier years, I feel drawn to write, to express myself, to shape my thoughts into a specific pattern of words and commit them to paper.

It’s been five years since I first decided to try writing “for real”. I’ve spent more time avoiding writing than I have actually writing. Whole years have passed without me writing anything because “I’m busy” and “I have responsibilities” but mostly because I’m terrified of failing at something I want so desperately.

My periods of focus and progress have gradually lengthened. More importantly, my periods of paralyzed inactivity have gotten shorter. Life continues to present obstacles and distractions. My family’s needs loom -- more important, or simply more insistent, than my own -- sometimes for weeks. Once the external interruptions have passed, though, I return to the work. Internal barriers no longer intimidate me in the way they once did. I face the agony of sitting in front of a blank screen until the dam breaks and the words flow.

I am learning to see failure as a learning experience instead of a trauma.

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