Monday, February 24, 2014

The Habit of Achievement

Two of my grandchildren (I know, it's shocking to me too) are competitive swimmers. They swam this past weekend in the Georgia State Championships and did well. I was talking to my son Grant, their dad, and saying how great it was, and he said it was nothing compared to the news that same day from one of my other sons about his grad school plans. Grant was just being generous, and modest, but it struck me that what he said wasn’t true. What his little swimmers were doing in that noisy pool, among the excitement and commotion of parents and peers, was as important as anything they would ever do. They were laying a cornerstone in the foundation of character: the habit of achievement.

The next day I was talking to my oldest son, whose children are budding musicians, one a pianist the other a violinist. He said his daughter’s violin teacher has a patient way of emphasizing a step-by-step approach. It made me think of something a recent Olympic gold medalists (Mikella Shiffrin, as I recall) said about her approach to slalom racing: she focuses on the process, each movement, step and turn. The cumulative result takes care of itself.

I read a piece in The New York Times recently that, in the old debate over nature vs. nurture, came down on the side of nature. Recent studies suggest genes are destiny. Which leaves me with mixed feelings: oh, good, I couldn't have screwed them up too badly by denying them video games and dispensing occasional ranting lectures; vs., what was the point of all that diligent parenting, anyway?

Well, it was fun. That's one thing. I know that because I miss them. And when they achieve something cool, I, like presidents and governors, always give myself a lot of credit, even though I know I don't deserve it. I know this because I never even did their homework for them. But now I've come up with something to hang onto, something that, now that I consider it, I wish I had thought more about before: my pack-mule role in helping my children develop.

Achievement is up to the child, but enabling and facilitating a habit of achievement is something a parent can do. It's something we do out of love and perhaps some kind of instinct, like a mama lion teaching her cub to hunt for food. We get up early to take them to swim practice; we hang around soccer fields and chess tournaments; we go to their plays and concerts; we remind them to practice; we tell them not to give up when they get discouraged. We help them get started, and we help them persevere. Sometimes it takes a while for them to find the thing that lights their fire, but we keep taking them back to the metaphorical activity store. We rent pianos and saxophones, we buy balls and rackets of all types, we hire coaches and senseis.

Do you remember the feeling of realizing for the first time that you were good at something? Anything. It doesn't matter. Sports. Spelling bees. Magic tricks. Do you remember how empowering it was? Hey, I can do something, and do it well. It makes you proud. It makes you confident. It makes you willing to try other things. It makes you willing to take risks.

DNA may be the car, but it needs a driver. It's not going to go far with one who is too cautious, too unconfident. And it's likely to crash with one who lurches from point to point without mastering driving skills along the way. That's what achievements are: driving skills. Although, I kind of hate to think of it that way when I remember my moments terror as I taught them actual driving skills and tromped on the brake that did not exist on the passenger side of the car.


  1. Another wonderful piece! I have always believed strongly in nature being 90% and nurture 10%, and felt it got me off the hook if my son ever really screwed up. Of course, I couldn't take credit for all the wonderful things he accomplished in life either. And he was a competitive swimmer from age 5 through college-- but all I did was drive the car. Always love reading your writing and hearing your "thoughts." Carol

  2. Mac, I enjoy your take on achievement as something energizing and fun for children, in addition to being a building block for their future. It's good to place this in counterpoint to the over-emphasis on achievement in so many communities, especially affluent ones. I think what you're saying is that going step by step will give a child confidence and courage to go further. The child IS in the driver's seat, actually, then -- or grows into it! Maybe the parent models how to drive, in his or her own life.