A few weeks ago I had an interesting experience, which made me reevaluate the way I speak about achievement, the way I look at my own goals, and the way I talk about these things to my students and my daughter.
At the end of February, I went to teach a two-day art workshop at my old high school. I’d be teaching a group of very academically-inclined kids. Many students in this program are aiming for Ivy League educations, and I think that is amazing! The kind of diploma they’ve been working for requires a certain number of CAS hours (Creativity, Activity & Service) in their community. My youngest brother Peter is a senior in this program and asked if I’d be willing to come teach a portrait drawing class to help the students log more creativity hours.
The student officers (my brother and a few others), voted for ten academic/cultural icons who they thought best represented the spirit of this program, and they wanted me to teach them how to draw portraits of these individuals. The list included people like Nikola Tesla, Malala Yousefzai, Pope Francis, Maya Angelou, Stephen Hawking and Barack Obama. The officers decided they would vote for the ten best drawings to hang in the school office. They put up a little signup sheet for any students who might want to take a stab at it and log some more CAS hours.
Twenty people signed up for the workshop, so I taught ten people on the first day, and ten others came on the second day. This meant each of the icons would be drawn twice. The first day I taught there, only 1/10 kids in the class belonged to this advanced academic program. The other kids heard about the workshop in their art classes at school and wanted to check it out. Everyone left their egos at the door, came in and did a spectacular job. They asked a lot of questions. They were humble and eager to get direction. They learned something new, and I got to teach them something I love to do! It always makes me really happy to see timid people learning to draw, and surprising themselves at how well they did. I love to plan and teach simple observational drawing steps for beginners, which layer upon each other and build up beautiful drawings.
Students from the first day built up some truly lovely portraits.
The second day I came to teach, 9/10 of the kids who came belonged to the advanced academic program. Immediately upon their arrival, I noticed a bad vibe in the room. At first I couldn’t understand why their manners were so unbelievably rude. I heard loud comments between them like, “This is a waste of time,” and “Why am I even doing this if yours is going to be better and mine won’t be hung up in the office?” While I was doing a demo drawing on the board, several of their chairs were turned away from me while they talked to each other. One student ignored the project altogether and kept interrupting me to share a sketchbook full of cartoons she had drawn. At one point my brother Peter stood up and nearly shouted, telling them to show me some respect.
I was shocked by the feeling in the room and unsure of how to turn it around. I just kept going with the lesson, and the students who were quiet and made an effort completed some wonderful drawings. For the ones who said “this is a waste of time”… they made their own statements come true.
Until Peter walked me back to my car, I didn’t have time to ponder the difference between the two class days. He apologized for his classmates, and we started to dissect the comments and body language that happened in that classroom. While we were talking, it started to make sense.
These kids are used to being at the top of the class. They’re used to winning. They’re used to high test scores and prestigious scholarships. They’re used to being called “gifted.”
And because they’re used to being the best, trying something new (which they might not immediately be good at) was absolutely terrifying.
I can relate to that in a different way, and I think most people can. The thought of looking inexperienced in front of others is scary. People are embarrassed by this feeling. If I walked into a dance class, I know for a fact that I’d feel awkward and be nervous.
It’s pretty easy to turn that discomfort around and get defensive. One might be tempted to put other people down or act completely disinterested in order to save face. But you know what? That’s cowardly and immature, and if this is how we’re going to live then we might as well cry ourselves to sleep every night because nothing is worth trying unless you can flawlessly perform it for an audience and receive endless applause. Plus, if you don’t get 100,000 likes on Instagram, you’re a loser. Whoops, that kind of escalated quickly!
If a dance class is an environment where I feel uncomfortable because I am inexperienced, does that mean I should I tell everyone I think dancing is for idiots? Should I not ever go to parties? Should I troll talented dancers on the internet and tell them they look stupid? NO.
The saddest thing about this defensive, confused attitude about achievement and happiness is that it totally prevents us from having any adventures. If I want to have a fulfilling life with some great connections and some creative problem solving, then I’m going to have to stand up and try new things even when I’m scared of looking bad. It’s my choice if I’m going to try. If I learn something new, it will not have been a wasted effort.
I need to make sure and clarify that I think academic efforts, and determination for excellence in any aspect of goal-setting is really awesome and important. Achievements, awards, and promotions should be celebrated! But when these things are the only focus of any effort, there is no inner satisfaction and we are totally at the mercy of whoever else is judging.
Pep Talk (and “Real Talk”)
This might come across as bossy, but I’m not going to beat around the bush. Only doing things you know you’ll be good at, so that other people will watch and praise you is not only shallow, it’s just not satisfying in the long term. Even within a talent that may naturally come easy to you, there is always room for experimentation, learning, individual discovery, and adventure. But that requires you to move past the idea that “looking bad” makes you a failure.
Also… you don’t have to post every single thing you do on social media (actually, you shouldn’t because that is a prison sentence for your self-esteem). We should all have a personal life that is truly personal. Take the pressure off yourself. Don’t invest time in activities because you think other people will applaud… try challenging new things that you want to try and invest in yourself! Plan new learning adventures for your own sake and embrace the process.
Even if you decide not to be defensive by attacking others, being defensive by repeatedly putting yourself down (even vocally making fun of your own inexperience) is almost just as damaging. There’s laughing at yourself and then there’s bullying yourself. This is a weird metaphor since young children are usually fearless and don’t care what they look like, but imagine you were a little kid learning how to walk. And every time you tripped you just inwardly told yourself “I look SO stupid!” And you thought, “My mom must think I look so stupid, too!” Yeah, I know… a little kid would never think that way. But if you are thinking that way, where is that going to get you? You’ll just quit and then watch everyone around you having the kinds of adventures you didn’t let yourself have.
“Everyone Gets a Trophy for Trying”
Gag… I do not love this motto. People do need to learn about failure. We need to learn that we are not always going to be the best. We shouldn’t fall apart at the idea that we won’t always be the star. That’s not healthy! You shouldn’t need an audience following you around telling you you’re amazing. The reward for trying should be an inward reward — you let down your guard, you tried something difficult, and you learned something. Awesome! This was new for you. Pat yourself on the back. Yeah it was hard, but did you like it? Did you have fun? Then keep practicing! Doesn’t really feel like something you want to spend more time on? Okay, that is fine, too. Go have another kind of adventure! Take what you learned and be proud of it.
I thought more about the historical heroes these students chose to draw and realized the one thing they all had in common was their willingness to try and fail. For the students who were intimidated and defensive in my drawing class — I want these kids to know that part of what makes a wonderful leader, or a truly successful pioneer of any career industry or cultural movement, is the attitude that amazing results only come from trial and error. The people who make a truly lasting difference do so because they choose to be brave. They will not be stopped by the fear of failure.
As a teacher, and especially as a learn-as-I-go mom (I AM TRYING), I’m going to do my best to praise my daughter’s/students’ progress more than I praise their achievements. I never want to make a child think that if they’re not the best, their efforts were wasted. We have got to teach upcoming generations to STOP being so threatened by each other. Achievements and awards are not important or fulfilling compared to the hours and hours of practice, progress, gained knowledge and joy that come from the adventure of trying new things. We can start teaching younger kids how to think this way, but they’re not going to catch on unless we start being brave, too.
You are not stupid for trying. If you are willing to try, ESPECIALLY when you don’t know what is going to happen, and you push through and keep trying, then you are the definition of brave. You don’t have to be the best (or even good) at everything. And you also don’t need to be threatened by other peoples’ successes. It’s possible to cheer someone else on and be genuinely happy for them. We should chase the things we feel passionate about, fight to develop our talents, and still cheer for the people whose strengths are in our weak places.
Who is your favorite example of “trial & error bravery”? Is it a famous figure from history, or just someone you’ve had the pleasure of meeting? I want to hear your story in the comments!