Originally published on April 17, 2017
I never really remember struggling in school when it came to academics. I remember that I was an average student from kindergarten through the fourth grades, but that didn’t mean that school was hard. I was always in the higher reading level and what not, but there was nothing special about me as a student. In the fifth grade I moved to New York and things changed for me. From that point forward my identity changed. Not only did I know it, but those around me knew it. My reputation for being scholarly proceeded me and because I went to a very small school, I had a variety of teachers in middle and high school more than once. If they hadn’t heard about me as a student before I had them as a teacher the first time, by the time they had me for the second time, they knew what to expect. As a result, I think that my teachers treated me like I was going to do well. I think that there were times when they didn’t scrutinize my work to the level they may have if they didn’t know me. My reputation and my prior work created an expectation that my work was above average, and, as a result, there were times when I didn’t have to work as hard. What’s more, I came to see myself as a good student and smart. Eventually, when I went to college and I didn’t have my reputation to fall back on. Not only was the work I was being assigned truly harder than it was in high school, I had to actually work harder because people didn’t already know I was smart. I had to prove myself and I didn’t really like it. I was the poster-child for a fixed mindset.
I went to Alfred University where I majored in English, and like any liberal arts college, I was required to take classes in areas that did not include my major including things like history and science but also art and physical education. I was expecting to do well in the academic courses because those were my strengths. For PE, however, that was a different story. I expected to struggle so I rigged the game. I took beginners swimming even though I already knew how to swim and I took beginners golf. For golf, one of the requirements was that I had to play nine holes of golf once or hit two buckets of balls at a driving range. When I went to the driving range, I bought a bucket and then when I went to hit the first ball, I knocked over the bucket. After that I thought, “Ugh. Never mind!” and then bought another bucket, got the receipt and left without ever actually hitting one ball. I don’t think that this would surprise Carol Dweck, the author of Growth Mindset since she writes about the inclination of those who have a fixed mindset to cheat and/or lie about their outcomes. These are people, like I was, who mistakenly believe that working hard at something means that you’re not smart rather than meaning you have an opportunity to grow.
I’m sharing this because, as I said last week, I have always had a very fixed mindset with physical things. I am not an athlete. I am not a runner. I am not sporty. But, what I’m thinking now, is that I am not YET an athlete, a runner, or sporty. In fact, that’s not my goal. I am not interested in achieving a label, I’m interested in achieving improvement in my athletic growth.
All of this is fine and good, but sometimes, it’s still not enough. Running is hard. I have aches and pains that I have never had before in my life. In fact, after months of what I thought was pain in my hip—in the winter even after I wasn’t running for a couple of months—I went to the doctor because of the pain. I told him that I started running this past summer after seeing him in February where we spoke about the fact that I wasn’t really physically active. He said, “Well, I actually don’t recommend that someone over 35 starts running.” As it turned out, the pain I was experiencing was not in my hip—it was my glutes. In other words, running gave me a pain in my ass. For real!
As much as I want to be someone who loves running and as much as I want to be someone who has a growth mindset, the truth is neither of those things are my primary motivation now for running. My motivation is my youngest son Oliver. Oliver, who has an October birthday, started school at 4. He came home last year, his kindergarten year, and repeatedly told me how much he didn’t like school because it was hard. He asked me how he could get out of going to school (I told him he had to graduate to get out of going to school; his then seven-year-old sister told him he could get detention if he didn’t want to go to school). In October of this school year he finally came home with books to read. The books he brought home were an A level—the lowest level possible—and they were hard. And we read them anyway. As we practiced his sight words, he struggled. And he practiced them anyway. When he came home with spelling words, he cried. And he learned them anyway. Here we are six months later and Oliver has gone from an A to a J. That’s two year’s growth in six months! In fact, in January he was at a level D. Between January and now he’s gone up 6 levels! I could not be prouder of him!!! Though my husband is quick to say that I am connected to Oliver’s success because Oliver and I work together, Oliver’s the one who did the work. Though it was hard and he didn’t want to do it most of the time, he did it and it paid off. I would have been proud of him no matter what the outcome was because together we embraced the idea that “When things get hard, we try harder.”
So, I figure, if Oliver can work as hard as he did to learn how to read, I can put one foot in front of the other and try to run. In the words of Jesse Owens, the Olympic Gold Medalist, “We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” I just never realized that I would learn so much about these traits from my six-year old son.