About a month ago, a couple of other moms and I stood in the parking lot at drop off and came up with the idea of putting on a school-wide talent show. It would be great for the students to develop acts and gain valuable experience performing in front of an audience, we told each other. Something to break up the long stretch between President’s Day Week and Spring Break. Something for the kids to look forward to.
Over the next few weeks there was a flurry of activity. We found a venue, posted fliers, and sent notes home to parents. The kids sketched out routines, and held practice sessions during recess. Some acts fell apart over creative differences, and when the tears dried, new groups were formed.
The day before the show, the same moms and I watched tensely as the student body performed a run through. Scripts were held in front of faces and lines were botched. One of the pianists couldn’t find Middle C and had to restart her piece. Equipment malfunctioned, and at one point we heard a crash from behind the stage where the kids were supposed to be waiting quietly. As we got up and down from our seats, helping the teachers with damage control, we exchanged anxious glances.
At the end of the afternoon, I leaned over to one of the moms. “Can you imagine how awful it would be watching your child perform in the Olympics?” We both laughed nervously and with some relief. This wasn’t the Olympics, it was just a Spring Talent Show. No big deal, right?
But it was a big deal, because as parents, we want our kids to do their best and succeed…always…although much of the time it is hard for us to know exactly what that looks like or how to guide them toward that goal. In a world focused on perfection and “being” the best rather than “doing” your best, how do we give our children the room to get up on stage and fail a little. Our culture seems to have the mindset that natural talent is something you are born with. If you don’t show signs of being a concert pianist or world-class golfer by the age of three, you’re pretty much out of luck.
Interestingly, current research is proving this theory to be very wrong.
According to parenting expert Christine Carter, author of the book Raising Happiness, “researchers across a wide array of disciplines have produced remarkably consistent findings: innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being good at something to being great.”
On the very first page of the new book The Winner’s Brain, brain experts Dr. Jeff Brown and Dr. Mark Fenske state that “contrary to popular belief, high personal achievement has very little to do with your IQ, your life circumstances, your financial resources, knowing the right people, or even luck.”
So, if you eliminate all those factors, what do you have left?
The answer turns out to be exactly what the kids at school had been doing for the last month: practice, practice, and more practice. Throughout the days leading up to the show, African drumming sounded from the library while students took turns using the piano in the Kindergarten room. In different corners of the classroom, kids rehearsed joke monologues and magic acts. My oldest daughter and her friend practiced a hula hooping routine to the song Rockin’ Robin until their waists were red and bruised.
Carter writes that “people who rise to greatness…devote hours to ‘deliberate practice’…and practice consistently.”
Malcolm Gladwell explores this idea further in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell discovered that what makes people like Bill Gates or The Beatles skyrocket above the rest is mostly a lot of hard work. Ten thousand hours of hard work to be exact.
Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin: “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything . . . . No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” Researchers also call this the “ten-year rule,” says Carter. “Most successful people average ten years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished.”
Seven-year-old Anastasia and her teenage brother Giacomo decided to sing a duet of the song “Blackbird” by The Beatles. Giacomo’s mother told me that her son often holes up in his room for long periods of time practicing a new song or teaching himself a new technique on the guitar. I’m sure it would interest Giacomo to learn that The Beatles, considered one of the greatest musical groups ever, were far from an overnight success. According to Gladwell, in 1960, the amateur high school band composed of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and then drummer Pete Best, was offered a gig in Hamburg, Germany. The catch: They had to play eight hours a day, seven days a week. Gladwell explains that between 1960 and 1964, “they performed live an estimated twelve hundred times . . . . Most bands don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire career.” The Beatles put in their hours to achieve mastery, and changed the course of music forever.
Our students didn’t have ten thousand hours to devote to their acts, but what they did have was passion, another key ingredient to success. You can’t practice if you don’t have passion, explains Carter, because to put in enough “deliberate and consistent practice” to become accomplished, you have to REALLY like what you do.
Caleb is a whiz with a Rubik Cube, the complicated 3D mechanical puzzle. For his act, a fellow student ate an ice cream sandwich in the time it took Caleb to unscramble the multicolored cube and then reconfigure it twice more into different colored patterns. To develop the brain pathways to solve the Rubik Cube challenges so quickly, Caleb must have devoted some serious time and effort to learning the ins and outs of this complex puzzle. And to have done this, he must have loved it.
But often, continues Carter, what you like to do might not be what you are necessarily good at initially. My hula hooping daughter has wonderful balance and athletic ability, but comes up a little short when it comes to rhythm. So much so, that when she participated in a dance program four years ago, the instructors kept moving her so far to the back of the stage, she became a row unto herself. On the night of that performance, I half-laughed, half-cried as I watched her struggle through the routine, always a couple of steps off or facing the wrong direction. But here she was, planning to perform another dance routine, her face contorting with effort as she practiced her hula hooping moves.
Writer Dorothea Brande said, “Act as if it were impossible to fail.”
Sage advice for those who are about to get up on stage, but as Carter points out, “Failure seems to be a key part of growth and eventually elite performance.”
When I think of failure, I think of the old Nike advertisement featuring Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time. In the commercial he says: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The nervous energy of the kids the night of the Spring Talent Show could have powered the spotlights, but regardless, they got up, one-by-one, and shared their acts with parents, grandparents, and friends. There were a few missed notes, a few forgotten lines, and an occasional technical difficulty, but there was also much laughter, wild applause, and spontaneous bursts of loud cheering. As each act took the stage, every member of the audience leaned forward a little in their seat, as if we could help each of them give their best effort.
Carter explains that the most important thing we can do for our children to ensure their success is to praise their effort rather than their achievements. As T.S. Eliot says, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” It is crucial to celebrate our children’s courage when they try something new–stretching their wings and leaping into the unknown.
The hula hooping act went well, even though the girls rushed a bit and midway through they had to wait for the music to catch up with their routine. Emma’s face contorted throughout the performance, but she won the crowd over with her around-the-neck-up-one-arm-back-to-the-neck hula hooping trick. (You have to see it to believe it.) After the show, a member of the audience stopped me and said, “Your daughter’s expressions during her act were priceless. I have never laughed so hard in my life. She just made my night.”
All in all, it was a spectacular show. Each student shone in their unique style. As far as effort goes, I think the award should definitely be given to Elizabeth. Freckle-faced with untamable light brown hair, Elizabeth finds sitting still and focusing for even the shortest amount of time a difficult challenge. Since she had changed her act several times, I was unsure what to expect when she climbed onto the stage alone and approached the microphone. But with what must have amounted to a Herculean effort, Elizabeth stood perfectly still, eyes round with terror, and sang a song from memory. Her performance was sweet and flawless.
When she returned to her seat, my mother leaned over and told her what a good job she had done.
“Did I?” she asked. “Did I really do a good job?”
Yes, Elizabeth, you did. Your effort was not only outstanding, but inspirational. You put forth your best, and that makes you a success.