POEM: Success Can Be Trying

She was not a success
Nor was she even a failure
For failure has a prerequisite
Trying
Not reaching
The successful cobble
The stones of failure
So becoming
The rode integral
Too success
Finding that success can be trying

The people who fail the most are usually also those who are also the most successful.  Exceedingly few people succeed on their first try.  First comes trying.  Then, comes practicing, or trying something different.  As my daughter was growing up, I remember us watching Olympic figure skating, and she asked, “How do they do that?!”  I answered, “Lots of practice.”  I repeated, practiced, this response with her over the years.  When she was about ten years old, she talked about wanting to play the guitar.  Her Grandma got her a junior-sized guitar for her birthday.  She picked it up and held it in a similar fashion as she had seen the folks she had admired play it.  She immediately exclaimed, “It doesn’t work!?”  The guitar didn’t play.  She had thought that somehow just holding the guitar would somehow draw music out of her.  I don’t think she even tried after that.  Not to worry, my daughter has tried many other things since then, and persistence is one of her strongest traits.

In trying, there is great wisdom in knowing the difference between when to hunker down and keep practicing the same thing and when to move onto something different.  Some of this depends on balancing our desires to be a virtuoso at something and our desires to experience many different things, being a proverbial jack-of-all-trades.  Being a virtuoso opens up new possibilities by being able to perform at a level that few, if any, can match.  Taking a more liberal arts approach, you can learn at little bit of everything, though perhaps not be an expert in any particular field.  This may strike some as indecisive, unfocused, or even lazy, but it takes advantage of a foundational principle of learning: we learn much more at the beginning of the learning curve than later in the learning curve.  For many things in life, there are diminishing returns, less output per unit of effort, by doing/practicing the same thing over and over.  By moving to areas with less mastery, we can harness the “first fruits” effect.  By harvesting the low hanging fruits in many different fields, we can learn accelerate the total amount we learn.  Plus, cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences is at the core of creativity: combining two or more things in a way to produce something new.  Higher level learning is about making robust connections in the brain.  Virtuosos achieve deep grooves in their brain and mastery of a particular skill at about 10,000 hours of practice.  Of course, devoting 10,000 hours to a greater variety of activities may not produce similarly deep grooves in specific areas of the brain, but perhaps more robust, complex connections.  Perhaps the connection between these two different approaches is persisting in a level of challenge that develops and strengthens brain connections.  The virtuoso is challenged by a necessarily greater singularity of focus.  The jack-of-all-trades is challenged by the awkwardness of regularly venturing into new fields and having to make sense of much new information.  Both require patience, which I consider the mother of all virtues.

In Western civilization, great value is placed on specialization, so that you have easily identifiable, easily marketable skills to navigate “successful” careers.  I think that shifting our balance toward trying things new would produce greater returns in quality of life, perhaps be challenging what is meant by “success.”  Of course, much is perspective.  Thomas Edison tried 10,000 materials to perfect a light bulb filament.  When asked whether he thought that represented a waste of time, he declared that he had learned 9,999 ways not to make a light bulb filament.  I am with good old Tom, that in if we approach life with a positive attitude toward the trying task of learning, nothing will be wasted.  And even then, if you enjoy time wasted, it’s not time wasted.  This I have learned — and keep trying to remember…

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