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Month: January 2014

Be Bad At Something…Until You’re Not

Be Bad At Something…Until You’re Not

Recently, I’ve been reading the book Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Social Psychologist and Associate Director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation and Science Center Heidi Grant Halvorson. The book is full of interesting thoughts and sage advice, but I’ve been focusing on one chapter in particular as it relates to my current crop of second semester students.

The chapter is titled, “Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good,” and it speaks to the thoroughly debunked yet pervasive notion that our aptitudes, personalities, and personal strengths and weakness are fixed. How many times have you heard someone say (and perhaps this someone is you): “I’m just bad at math.” Or, “I’m a slow reader.” I do this all the time even as an adult. “I’m good with faces,” I say to the person whose name I’ve forgotten again, “but so bad with names.”

While of course people’s brains think in different ways, and while we are usually “naturally” better at some things than others, this is no way means that we cannot get better at the things at which we struggle. A large and growing body of research has shown that abilities are, in fact, profoundly malleable. In the words of Halvorson: “embracing the fact that you can change can lead you to make better choices and reach your full potential.” While I agree with almost all of this statement, I’d like to take a moment to disagree with the idea of “full potential.” The phrase “full potential” insinuates an end point, a point at which we could not get better or go further if we tried for a million years. It seems to indicate a finite universe in which limits of time, space, and energy exist. For better or worse, I do not believe in such limits. It’s the blessing and the curse of being human. We cannot possibly achieve it all (a reality that can frustrate us and at times make it seem as if all of our striving is for naught), and we cannot possibly achieve it all (the absolute best thing there is, for it leaves another adventure always beyond the next horizon!). However, Halvorson’s main point is that we can change even the things about ourselves we believe to be fixed, and that the first step to enacting change is understanding that it is possible.

With my students, I first try to take them back in time. “When you were two years old,” I ask some of my athletes, “were you good at basketball?” They laugh. The question is absurd. “Of course not!” Then I ask, “when you were in 7th grade, were you better at basketball than you were when you were two years old?” Now it’s starting to make sense. “But when you were in 7th grade, did you think that you were the best you would ever be at basketball just because you were better than you were when you were two?” The answer to this question is a universal no.

I also remind them of something they already know because they are experiencing it: when you are inexperienced or new at something, the odds of making mistakes are naturally higher. Learning something new- whether it’s a killer jumpshot or string theory or the art of time management- can be hard. It doesn’t feel good to be bad at something. It feels bad! It can be frustrating and intimidating and at times overwhelming. But you have a choice. You can take those feelings for what they feel like– a sign that a certain skill or concept is unlearnable or simply not for you- or you can take them for what they are- the natural but temporary discomfort that comes with being a rookie.

I’ve had students who find themselves in a course that is much more difficult than anything they ever experienced in high school. They don’t understand the lectures. They don’t understand the reading. They’re scared and intimidated and they feel like giving up. So we talk about “getting better rather than being good.” Perhaps next class they get a handle on one of the concepts being discussed. Better! Perhaps they schedule a meeting with the professor or a tutor to go over the material. Better! The pressure to get it right the first time often results in many more mistakes and a far inferior performance than allowing yourself to be bad at something until, well, you’re not so bad at it anymore.

And you know what? The message is being received. Since 2007, the success coach program at my university has seen over 700 students walk through our doors. And every year, more and more former students and upperclassmen spread the word to freshman as well as older students who find themselves struggling. All of my students this semester knew about the program before our first meeting. They knew friends, classmates, or teammates who had worked with a success coach in the past, and this kind of word-of-mouth support for the program has basically erased any and all stigma that could be attached to needing academic help. Students entering the program now see it for the tool that it is: a headlamp, a compass, a rope thrown down to the bottom of the well.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Overcoming Setbacks

Overcoming Setbacks

For all of us, setbacks are a natural, unavoidable part the process of achievement and success. For most of us, this fact is as difficult to remember as it is true. When we find ourselves smack in the middle of a failure, disappointment, or delay, we fear that this is it. All of our hard work and all of our best efforts have led us here- and “here” is exactly where we did not want to be. Of course, that’s because in these moments when we feel the most demoralized, the most like giving up, these brains of ours that studies have shown are naturally more hard-wired towards negative thinking than positive don’t call the events we are experiencing “setbacks” but “failures.” While a setback is temporary- a boulder in the road- a failure feels permanent, a dead end.

The first thing, then, that we must do in order to help students overcome setbacks is to change the language. To remind them that this disappointing “here” is a temporary place. With my students, I often use the examples of athletes or other famous people they know and respect who overcame serious setbacks only to go on to achieve great things. We talk about Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team. We talk about Thomas Edison who once said of inventing the light bulb, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Sure, some setbacks are larger than others, and here I am reminded of the classic board game Chutes and Ladders. Remember how there were chutes and ladders of varying sizes, but there was one really big ladder and one really big chute? We can think of that big ladder as akin to something like the young actor who, on his third day in Hollywood, nails the lead in a blockbuster franchise that catapults him to overnight success. The big chute, on the other hand, is like the entrepreneur who scrapes and saves, invests carefully through the years in the growth of her business until one day, due to a crash in the market or perhaps a natural disaster, she loses everything she’s built over decades in the course of a day. But just as that actor’s meteoric rise is never the whole story, neither is it the end game for the entrepreneur.

Next, I remind them that setbacks are normal. They are an unfortunate but inescapable part of the deal, I tell my students, so the fact that you are experiencing one means that you are just in that part of the process right now. Once students see that what they are experiencing is normal, even when the particular circumstances in which they find themselves could have been prevented, they begin to let go of the guilt-induced stress of past mistakes and are therefore better able to give all necessary focus and energy to the present challenge.

Finally, I make sure my students know that my door is always open even after they leave the Success Coaching program. I frequently get drop-ins, calls, and emails from former students who find themselves experiencing a momentary setback. Sometimes they ask for information that will connect them to resources that can help, sometimes we talk through a particular problem and map out a plan together, and sometimes they just need a pep talk. In any case, they know that if and when the going gets tough again (and it will, over and over, until the end of this miraculous thing we call life), I’ll always have their back.

Last night I attended a men’s basketball game on campus, and on the bench was a student I had at least a year ago. The fall semester of Eddie’s freshman year had been an utter disaster (much like the player in Chutes and Ladders who lands on a chute on the first roll), and when he came to me he was defensive, his mask of bravado seemingly impenetrable despite (yet obviously due to) his dire situation. Quickly, I noticed that, although his math grades were the weakest of the bunch, he was registered as a business major. After going over the data with him I asked, “are you sure you want to be in this field?” He told me that he didn’t really know what he wanted to do and that he had decided to major in business largely because some of his friends were doing so. “Well, would you be interested in changing your major to one that better suits your strengths?” His eyes widened. “I can do that?” he asked. We got up and walked to the office of the advising specialist right then and there. After the game last night, Eddie came up to me brimming with pride. “I made a 3.0 in the fall!” he exclaimed. Now majoring in criminal justice, Eddie has only two semesters left until he graduates, and in the midst of all of this academic striving has managed to become nationally ranked by the NCAA in track and field.

Game. Setback. Match.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.