03 outubro 2011

I’m not a natural. I work hard.

"I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence." ~ Ayrton Senna

I don’t have any idols. You know that kind of person that makes you worship the floor they walk on? I’ve never had that. Now, looking back to when I was a kid, there is one person I always admired: Senna. Man, how I loved to watch him race, to watch him pass his opponents, to watch him get those unbelievable victories under pouring rain.

When talking about him, lots of people say he was a natural. A natural. What does that even mean? I don’t know, but I would guess people mean to say that he was the best because he was born that way, that the gods somehow blessed him with talent beyond what others (mere humans) could accomplish.

The other day, while talking about kids and parenting, I got a nice compliment: “you are a natural (at parenting)”. I believe the intent was similar to the one I mentioned above, minus the godly parts, to mean that I have a talent, a gift one shall say, in regards to parenting.

I thanked the compliment and replied that no, I’m not a natural. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I’m a great parent. My average day consists of questioning most of the decisions I make in regards to my daughters. Was I too tough? Was I too soft? Is it good that I’m trying to get her to learn this now? Am I crazy to think about these things this early in her life? Am I doing the right thing for her?

I spend a lot of time reading: articles I find through Twitter, magazines, books (including listening to audiobooks, which I love), etc.. The other day I stumbled upon this old article from Malcolm Gladwell about “The Talent Myth”, and one piece caught my attention:

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Columbia University, has found that people generally hold one of two fairly firm beliefs about their intelligence: they consider it either a fixed trait or something that is malleable and can be developed over time. Five years ago, Dweck did a study at the University of Hong Kong, where all classes are conducted in English. She and her colleagues approached a large group of social-sciences students, told them their English-proficiency scores, and asked them if they wanted to take a course to improve their language skills. One would expect all those who scored poorly to sign up for the remedial course. The University of Hong Kong is a demanding institution, and it is hard to do well in the social sciences without strong English skills. Curiously, however, only the ones who believed in malleable intelligence expressed interest in the class. The students who believed that their intelligence was a fixed trait were so concerned about appearing to be deficient that they preferred to stay home. "Students who hold a fixed view of their intelligence care so much about looking smart that they act dumb," Dweck writes, "for what could be dumber than giving up a chance to learn something that is essential for your own success?"

After reading this, I sent an email to my wife with this segment, questioning how much of our own daughter she saw in this passage. Just a few days before reading this article I had had a talk with my daughter about her taking dance classes. Her reply to me: “I already know how to dance”. Uh oh. Yellow alert. Yes, I know she was (and is) still very young, but an alert flashed in my mind and we had a talk about how we can always learn to be better at something, about the importance of practice, about how I spent a huge chunk of my life reading and studying and I still don’t know much, even on subjects I care about.

Reading about Dweck’s research made me think about my daughter regarding what lessons she is learning on life. Coincidence or not, this past week I started to listen to the audiobook of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, only to realize that the author of that book is Carol Dweck herself, and the book is a full treatise on the ideas expressed briefly in Gladwell’s article. In this brilliant book, Dweck tells very interesting stories about many sports legends that have worked really really really hard to get where they got, even though people tend to think of them as natural.

I’m half-way through the book, so I don’t know if she talks about Senna or not, but if she did had done research him, she would find out he was definitely one of those brilliant sportspeople that always believed in hard work. I will never forget the story about how he got to be so good at racing in the rain. When he was still very young, it rained during a race and he lost complete control of his kart. Upset for driving so bad in the rain, from that day on, every single time it started to rain, he would be at the race track practicing, to make sure that next time there was a race under rain, he would be prepared. And prepared he was for every rainy race for the rest of his life.

As Senna did with the rain, so am I with my daughters, constantly practicing, studying, trying new things and adapting. I don’t have all the answers about parenting, but I sure as hell read a lot, pay close attention to them and reflect about the kind of women they will be when they grow up. There is no talent here, just hard work planning cool things to do, following their progress or even simply having some fun time together. Some people work hard at their jobs, and I do too, but I work harder at home, with my family, because they have the prime spot.

That’s why for me, if you want to be good at something, then you have to work for it. There are no shortcuts in life.

And next time someone says you are a natural at something, stop right there and make sure you tell them how much effort you put into it.

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