Success is Important, but Don’t You Go Cherry-picking!

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A friend of mine recently gave me an idea for an article.  Her daughter, a sophomore in high school who has struggled with learning disabilities and resulting frustrations with school over the years, had recently earned a string of good grades.  My friend was particularly impressed by how much these relatively small successes were impacting her daughter’s motivation level.  It seemed that success was breeding success, and for the moment, at least, her daughter was more jazzed about school.

When one has endured years of struggle and relative failures, it can become increasingly difficult to stay in the game and keep trying.  For years I worked with kids and adolescents with learning disabilities.  A common theme was how to help them stay engaged and find the desire and fortitude to persevere through the challenges they regularly faced at school.  Much like my friend’s daughter, these kids responded clearly and enthusiastically when they experienced even small tastes of success; they simply needed to know that their hard work was worthwhile.  A good grade on an exam or a positive comment from a teacher meant the world to these kids and often provided just enough fuel for their fires.

We all need to experience success and a sense of pride in ourselves.  We need to know that when we put in hard work with consistency and sincerity, there will ultimately be a payoff in the form of some kind of positive recognition or reward.  We need to save face, feed our self-esteem, and know that we are capable of changing outcomes for ourselves through perseverance and determination, especially when we have struggled at something for quite some time.

Diane Fu, an Olympic-style weightlifting coach at San Francisco CrossFit and Fu Barbell, often talks about how athletes should be realistic with their expectations for performance during training.  My take on this is that it is often true that for every “good day” marked by personal bests or record performances, there are plenty of other seemingly lackluster days filled with drudgery and a need to plod on.  The reality is that it is these seemingly unremarkable training days that set us up for our highs; we need to be patient and have faith that the good days will happen if we continue to put in the less exciting days of work without fanfare.  When the good days come and the PR bells ring, our athlete souls are fed just enough to survive through the next PR famine.

But what if the good days never come?  What if the PR’s and the successes are so few and far between that we can’t access enough faith to continue with our training?  What if we never get a good grade or positive remarks about our schoolwork?  What if our boss never tells us that we’ve done a good job at work, or our spouse forgets to compliment us for months at a time?  What if our kids don’t hear anything good about themselves from the adults in their lives?  Well, that would suck for all of us, wouldn’t it?  We should probably find ways to make sure such droughts don’t happen.

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know that I’m not much into shallow self-help, let’s-all-feel-good-about-ourselves talk.  Instead, I’m interested in provoking sincere thinking about how we function in the world and how we can optimize our performance as athletes and as people.  In this vein, today’s post is not about encouraging you to lower your standards, mindlessly pat yourself or your friend or your partner on the back, and constantly tell your kids they’re special and wonderful, just because.  That’s ok sometimes, but generally we need to rein in that in and keep our standards higher.  The idea is this: set goals for yourself and have high expectations that require effort and persistence, but along the way, be sure to build in plenty of opportunities for success.  Working on our weaknesses is imperative, but if that’s all we do, we are likely to burnout and feel lousy about ourselves.  Any good coach or teacher knows this; we need to give students and athletes opportunities to shine amidst their moments of struggle.  The greater the struggle, the more crucial are the doses of success.

So next time you’re feeling down or like you’re in a slump, take note of the last time you set yourself up for success.  Maybe you’ve been working too hard to obtain that one, elusive gymnastics skill and what you really need to do is to lift some heavy weight over your head and ring the PR bell.  Maybe you’ve failed one test too many in that science track you’re taking, and you need to read a good novel and write a paper about it, just to remind yourself what a rockstar you are at literature analysis.  Maybe it’s time you let your partner know how awesome he is at helping around the house or how beautiful she looks without makeup.  The point is that we all need moments of positive recognition, of success, of esteem-building goodness.  They allow us to persevere at all of life’s challenges.  If you’re not having these moments in your life, perhaps it’s time to make some changes—who you’re with, what you do for work, how you’re training for your sport.

But don’t you go cherry-picking.  Cherry-picking means you only show up when you know you’ll do well.  Cherry-picking is looking at the posted workout the night before and deciding to sleep in instead of going to the gym, because the workout plays too much to your weaknesses or is just plain hard.  Cherry-picking means never registering for the class that involves math, despite your significant interest in the other parts of the content.  Cherry-picking means avoiding all social activities with a certain group, simply because you’re intimidated by how smart or funny or good-looking (or whatever) they are.  Finding success sometimes means showing up when you feel like staying home.  You need to balance out the need to feel like a superstar and find success on the one hand, with stick-to-it-iveness and hard work on the other.  You need to take risks.  You need to be honest with yourself and not take the easy way out all the time.  Show up when it’s hard.  Show up when you know the workout will smoke you.  It’ll make something easier at some point down the road.  If you never show up for a battle, there will only ever be more battles down the road.

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Comments

  1. As I read, I am thinking of my high school students…so many unwilling to take risks at something in an area which they think they are weak. In addition to a challenge being difficult, there is the hyper-conscientiousness of the teen years which makes failure in public even less acceptable. And on top of that, that darned pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, in rapid redevelopment, which makes it especially difficult for teens to see the consequences of their actions (translated: the teen brain has much greater difficulty planning for the future, seeing long term goals, than the adult brain). Personally, when I was 15, I could not see the future beyond the weekend in front of me. A long term assignment in school was something that gave us weeks instead of hours to ignore. Now, I am much more at ease working toward an undefined end point. The owner of my gym, TJ, once asked me what my goals were. “Show up, do as I am told, suffer, and go home”, was my reply. I am not trying downplay goal setting here, but I am reinforcing Dr. Belger’s assertion that “showing up when it’s hard” is, in fact, a strategy for improvement. Out of that improvement that inevitably followed, I have been able to create and attain goals that I could not see as possible when I started crossfit (local and regional competitions). So how can we bring teens to the idea that perseverance in the face of difficulty is a surefire path to success? Still a bedeviling question, even for high school teacher of 19 years. Interestingly, however, researching around gaming (yes, that type of gaming…video games) may provide some real insight into how to entice kids into repeatedly failing at something difficult until mastery is achieved (think instant feedback, unlimited attempts allowed, increasing level of difficulty and awesomeness, accumulation of rewards of value, etc…). I have struggle a bit with the concept of “gaming” education, but if the research proves positive, then perhaps we’ll have found a key to motivating the human psyche to improve.

    • Dan,
      I love how you’re thinking so much about this stuff! Please keep me posted on your research around motivating teens. Keep the comments and insights coming!
      Allison

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  1. […] Success is Important, but Don’t You Go Cherry-picking! […]

  2. […] you haven’t checked out PsychologyWOD.com yet, you should.  They have some great articles, like this […]

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