Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nature, Nurture And Fostering Greatness

There was an interesting story in yesterday's New York Times probing the connection between natural talent and superior achievement. How much are we inherently born with, how much is a product of our environment and what are the other factors that create a word class athlete, musician, artist or scholar?

The conclusion, or at least much of the current thought, credits determination, persistence and a commitment to at least 10 years of serious and regimented practice as the driving factors in rare and notable success, above and beyond God-given gifts and abilities. Malcolm Gladwell hit on the same point in his recent book Outliers.

It's one of the things we think about as parents, especially as the girls get older and more focused on the various activities they pursue. How much to push, how much expressed or demonstrated interest merits professional or structured guidance, and when to just let things run their course. Like everyone else, we believe our children are extraordinary people, and we want to make sure we're giving them the tools, training and support, on a whole host of levels, to achieve everything they want in life. We are absolutely and consistently striving to create and foster an environment of "you can do anything," as opposed to "what makes you think you can do that?"

And it's been interesting to observe their talents, natural abilities and interests evolve in sometimes unexpected directions.

On paper, Madison should have been an excellent soccer player. Lean and fast, with good coordination, she played for three or four years and never really moved beyond being the kid who followed the pack and was content to never really dig in or drive the ball. She progressively lost interest and ultimately said she didn't want to play anymore, a decision we accepted.

Around that same time, she tried lacrosse, loved it and has continued to dedicate herself to that game and develop as a player. She takes pride in it and looks forward to it in a way that never kicked in with soccer. She asks to go outside and play catch or drill, appreciates her games and any opportunity to get out there on the field. She's always been extremely verbal and intrigued by words and what they mean - writing stories and reading. As an offshoot of this, or maybe because of it, she loves acting has already done a number of local plays. She relishes rehearsals and small moments that would seem intolerable to most, spending hours working on her lines, or just watching others run theirs, anything to just be around it.

Ava excels at soccer in a way Madison never did. Understands the game, fights for the ball, leads the pack and scores goals. She recently joined Madison with a minor part in one of those local plays and enjoyed it, but her real thing is music - which seems fortunate to us because she has a beautiful voice and an uncanny knack, at 7, for coming up with lyrics out of thin air and then wandering around singing them. She rattles them off stream-of-consciousness, me sitting at the computer keyboard trying to capture the lines through my own amazement. The other night she built a song off this concept: "I fell in love with the Moon in the Moonlight."

She can't play the guitar yet but still carries her miniature acoustic all over the house, strumming along to her songs, when she's not sitting in front of our electric keyboard. Clearly there's an interest, bubbling up from some source of natural talent, and the question as a parent is how to foster it without killing it, how to provide enough encouragement and formal training without turning it into work or tedium, snuffing out the flame just as it starts to take hold and move down the wick.

Ava has lately been wanting to know how people get famous, how people wind up on Nickelodeon and on records and when she can start. We don't have great answers to these questions, because the last thing we want to message at this point is how enormously hard it is, how long the odds are, how much you have to give up along the way and how rare it is for that kind of lightning to strike. Our answers revolve around staying interested, staying at it and continuing to do the things you love and want to pursue and the rest will take care of itself. As noted above, we like to live in the land of "you can do anything," and we're committed to that approach - for confidence building and self esteem if nothing else.

The piece in the Times, and Gladwell's book, make me think that we're on the right track. If you are willing to work at it and be persistent and really put the time in, maybe doing extraordinary things is less a function of the crap shoot and breeding than many of us were brought up to believe. Rare, to be sure, but a path that can be followed by those willing to really commit themselves to something. And, as a parent, that seems better than having to credit genetics and lucky lottery tickets as the overriding factors in extraordinary success.


Blogger alisha said...


Thank you.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Tamara said...

I, too, struggle with the "how much to push" issue. At four, my son is reading phenomenally, but it's sometimes a battle to get him to WANT to. He'd much rather play with his super heroes. I see kids his age involved in team sports and wonder if we should involve him even though he's never expressed an interest. Thanks for the added perspective.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Mrs.O said...

Love this post. It articulates my thoughts and concerns precisely.

1:09 AM  
Anonymous janice | Sharing the Journey said...

There's a wee accoustic guitar in your home and a piano available; you've already given them the best possible start. I got my first plastic guitar at five. My parents told me if I learned to play tunes on it, I could get a proper wooden one. I stunned them with my tenacity and even asked an uncle for 'lessons'. I got the guitar and went on to become a singer songwriter, a teacher, a translator, a life coach and a writer - all because my parents provided the first tools, gave me small step goals and taught me the value of combining gifts with hard work. Most of all, they genuinely believed in me.

Coincidentally, I have a post up at the moment called How to Write Like Adam Lambert. My kids love his stunning talent and even though they're only 12 and 14, they can see that he's an intelligent hard working grafter and a consummate performer as well as a singer with a voice that connects straight to the soul. (I'm thinking of his version of mad World.)

Thanks for taking me down memory lane with that wee guitar. Your kids will do great, whatever they choose to do.

11:41 AM  

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