Thursday, January 27, 2011

Childhood lessons in perseverance

My kids are freakishly good with computers, no surprise with two engineers for parents. For a math assignment, My 10-year-old, Spencer, chose to create a computer game that would generate fractions on domino-like tiles that the user then drags into place, ordering them from smallest to largest.  The game then tells the user which are right or wrong. The algorithms behind the movement of the tiles, making comparisons to determine ordering, and comparing user input to the correct sequence are complicated. Most freshman engineering students I taught at Virginia Tech would struggle.  He probably spent 24 hours over the course of a week on this project.

After much trial and error and consulting with my husband he was ultimately successful. At that moment, he was spilling over with the pride and joy that comes from struggle, perseverance, and ultimate victory!  It was a beautiful thing to see. So check out his Domino Game. (he warned me it's really slow online)

I asked him if he ever had doubts that he could do it and he admitted that he did, but said he had faith he could eventually figure it out. Where did that confidence come from?  Had it been nurtured or is it hard-wired?  I think it's some of both.

It is so important to learn these early lessons of perseverance and to feel the success that comes from consistent commitment.  I had that parental light-bulb moment where I realized one of my jobs is to help my children experience that so it carries into their personal life and work life, helping them to find meaning and satisfaction in life.

Reflecting back, I see where I got my own ideas about it.  Growing up I was a member of the United States Pony Clubs, which has a hierarchical rating system and defined learning objectives.  I spent years working my way up the ladder which required a lot of self-directed learning and there were many opportunities for success as well as failure.  As an adult dressage competitor, I had another opportunity to train and work up through a system of levels with judge evaluators at every step along the way. Of course my master's thesis and PhD dissertation were each a lesson in fortitude too.

Each of these experiences has contributed to the athlete I am today. I am steadfast in my commitment to consistent training, with my best effort brought to each workout. I've been called fanatical or OCD, but I disagree. I just know what is required to be my best: hard work, long term view, and an ability to overcome setbacks (as is the current situation). The payoffs come in fun and success (as defined by me, not races).

I see many adults who lack "grit" as Jake calls it. Earlier this week, a colleague who I had not seen in years was at the gym having an initial workout with a trainer.  She teasingly remarked that she wanted to look like me "in a week." That struck me.  I wouldn't want results in a week, and neither should she!

So the things I'd like my kids to discover through their own endeavors (currently Karate for Grant, cello and CrossFit for Spencer) are:
  • DO bite off more than you think you can chew!  The things we do outside our comfort zone are what are most rewarding.
  • Recognize that struggle is a part of great achievements. Approach it as a problem to be solved, another opportunity to learn something.
  • Take a long-term approach to some of your most important dreams (it's relative - could be weeks, months, or years)
  • Seek out and be open to teaching, coaching and criticism. Learn to suppress your defenses and open your mind to the possibility that someone else is right.

Spencer and Grant, whatever you go after, I will be there as your BIGGEST cheerleader for the highs and the lows. I'm enjoying watching your lives unfold!  Love you guys!!