the hardest thing i’ve never done

In kindergarten, it seemed like all the other kids had gone to pre-k and were already best friends and had played on a soccer team and that it was too late for me. I felt like I had already fallen behind.

In kindergarten, they told me I was smart. My teacher, Mrs. Killian, recommended that I skip 1st grade. But my mom didn’t want my younger sister and me to be far apart in grades.

In 2nd grade, I started taking piano lessons because Laurel told me I was a natural. After a few lessons, I switched to her piano teacher, Morton Estrin. I always dreaded piano lessons because I hadn’t practiced the week prior and would just fake it during the lesson. Mr. Estrin always knew.

After a few years, I was supposed to put on this fancypants recital at Hofstra University with another Asian pre-teen prodigy, but I was wasting away my discounted lessons and nowhere near ready for performance. Mr. Estrin said I could either pay full price and start practicing or he would have to drop me as a student. I was relieved.

There opened up to me the glorious world of quitting.

Such has been the pattern all my life:

I try something new.

  • Option A: I’m good at it. Not surprised. I stick with it until it requires effort. Then it becomes too hard. I guess I’m not good at it anymore. I quit.
  • Option B: I’m not good at this. But aren’t I smart? If I’ll ever be good at this, I need to be good at it from the start. I’ll never be good at it. I quit.

My freshman year of college was a big transition from my small public high school to an elite private institution, where expectations were higher and it seemed like everyone was destined for great things.

It kind of felt like kindergarten all over again.

I felt like I had already fallen behind before I even tried. I truly believed I couldn’t do my homework. I couldn’t read five books in one week. I couldn’t finish my classes. I couldn’t take my comprehensive exam for my major requirement. I just couldn’t. I barely graduated.

Then, during a typical study break of procrastination, I read this article about pyschologist Carol Dweck’s research on the inverse power of praise:

Dweck sent research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Since I was little, I grew up thinking I never had to try.

From a young age, I was frequently told how gifted and talented I was, and I assumed that i should only pursue those endeavors that came naturally to me. Unfortunately, I ended up not learning how to try, or rather, learning to not try.

I look at my sister and I’m in awe. Growing up, I always thought of her as “the cute one.” In full disclosure, I never considered her to be smart until she was in college. That’s when I realized she was accomplishing things and learning multiple foreign languages at the same time and receiving fellowships and still finding the time to be nice and loving to everyone. She does all her homework. She tries. And she does.

I took the GRE this morning. I didn’t do very well, but at least I passed the minimum for my master’s program. I tried to study this past month, but a week before the test, I still hadn’t prepared. I’m done making excuses, but it is so challenging for me to break what has become my lifestyle and just study.

I want to put consistent effort into long-term goals and stay motivated in light of delayed accomplishment. Or in the absence of immediate praise. It truly is the hardest thing I’ve never done, or at least never done well. Yet.

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2 comments

  1. I find this VERY interesting…and I wonder how/if it relates to birth-order in any way. Let’s talk about this sometime, shall we? I have ideas better suited to private conversation than public discourse.

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