The bell rang. I took my seat next to my buddy as my middle school teacher passed back our grades for the Algebra test. My score? “110” including extra credit. My buddy sitting next to me, who didn’t do so well, saw my grade and said, “Man, why you so smart in math?”
Something about those words sounded false.
I replied, “Naw dude, I just do my work.”
You see, in second grade, I did so poorly in every subject that the teacher called my mom in for a conference. I don’t know what was said in that meeting but my mom came out of it single-minded.
She told me that I needed to complete 2 hours of homework with her every night. 2 hours of homework in 2nd grade! Luckily, she sweetened the deal by offering to play with me after we finished. Chutes and Ladders, tic-tac-toe, Uno. I still look back on that time as some of my fondest memories with my mom. She cared enough to create an intervention and spend all that time with me.
And…all my marks went up. I mean, way up. It was an early life lesson that taught me regardless of where my starting point was, I could always get better at something by doing the work.
And this belief still stands at the very center of my teaching philosophy today. You can and will get better if you do the work. It may not be as fast as you would like, and you may not be as good as someone else already is, but you will undoubtedly improve. Everyone has different starting baselines in any given skill.
That’s why the only metric worth a damn is how your today-self compares to your yesterday-self.
When I first taught myself to play the guitar, my fingers didn’t have the physical strength and dexterity to practice longer than ten minutes at a time. Facing my limits was frustrating, but I remember thinking that if I could endure the physical pain of the metal strings carving into my finger tips, I’d eventually get better.
Then there were the finger-pretzels I had to form with my left hand to make a tune. And when I got to trying the G-Chord, I thought, how the hell am I supposed to do this?! I tried to force my fingers to flex as far as they could to make the shape, but when I strummed with my right hand…no music. I practiced every day and wondered if I was making any progress. It wasn’t getting easier and it didn’t feel like anything was happening. But for some reason I kept believing that something was developing under the hood. I trusted the practice.
Then. One day, my fingers felt strong and the dexterity opened up long enough for me to strum that G-Chord tune for the first time. I couldn’t do it consistently or reliably, but I proved I could do it. It kind of seems silly now to say, but I truly remember feeling that moment and thinking to myself, “It worked!”
I had wanted to give up cause it sucks to suck. The gap between where I was and where I wanted to be was so frustrating.
Still today, I haven’t bridged that gap, but I can play that G-Chord without a hint of exertion. And the lesson the endeavor taught me has stuck.
Keep practicing. Even if you feel there’s no indication you’re improving. Trust in the practice.
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Every other Tuesday, I share 4 Visuals: Interesting | Design | Enchanting | Analogy.