What we do for cookies

This delicious images was taken by John Dancy (@johnnyd0805 on twitter)

If I was asked to pick the single most defining moment of my life, it would be that time in the first grade when my teacher called me up to the front of the class and had the other students applaud me for not only finishing my math quiz first, but also getting all of the answers right. I also remember she gave me a cookie-which I don’t think teachers are supposed to do these days, but whatever.

From that moment on, I knew one thing: knowledge was rewarded. The praise felt amazing, the cookie was probably delicious, and all I wanted more than anything in that moment was more of that. I don’t know if I literally went home that night to practise my addition, but starting that day, every opportunity to be the labelled the best at something was weighted with the possibility of more public praise and more cookies.

Not only did I now have a greater motivation to get more answers right and finish tests faster and get higher grades, I knew it was possible, because I had done it before. That one moment led, I believe, to a childhood full of awards and pats on the back. People would constantly refer to me as ‘the smart kid’ or at least one of the smart kids, along with my brother and this girl in my class named Jenny.

I wasn’t the most athletic kid. I wasn’t terrible at sports but I was never the best at any sport. Or even good enough to make most teams once I got to highschool. But I also never really got the same praise for sports as I did for acadmics. I had little motivation to practise kicking the soccer ball in the backyard, or to invite my friends over to play a sport I was terrible at.

I was a little competitive, both in acadmics and sports, but I didn’t get particularly angry when I lost, as long as I thought the rules of the game were fair. If I didn’t get the best grade on a test, it didn’t discourage me, I just worked harder for the next one. Because I wanted that cookie. At this point of course, the cookies were metaphorical. Sometimes they were awards, sometimes they were praise or...stickers. Usually it was just the personal satisfaction of knowing I did really well.

If I think there’s one big problem with our educational system and culture, it’s telling kids that not only is it okay to not be good at things, but telling them there is something inherent about their brain or body that makes it impossible.

I don’t have children of my own, and I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure on parents when they are face to face with their single-digit-grade student, crying over their homework before they just dont ‘get it.’ But telling that child that it’s okay if they don’t get it because “some people are just bad at math” or “you don’t have to be good at this, you have other talents” is doing them a terrible disservice in the long-run just to save yourself some discomfort now.

Are some children inherently better at math, or science, or languages, or sports? Probably. Bodies and brains vary wildly. But not so wildly that a person would be incapable of learning something if they put in a little extra effort. Furthermore, knowledge, and most skills, are relative. The math you learn in grade 2 is based on the math you learned in grade 1. So the harder you work early, the easier the later stuff will come.

I read a story once, and I wish I could remember where I heard it but it went something like this:

“A man was speaking to an artist, famous for his lifelike sketches. The man says to the artist, ‘I wish I had your talent. I draw like a 12 year old.’ and the artist replies, ‘that’s probably because you stopped drawing when you were 12.”

This story is particularly more convincing when you mention the concept of “natural talent” to a world-class performer. Because they know that it’s not talent but hard work. They know about the years of practice in the studio or the backyard, about the money spent on tutors and coaches and books. They know about the sacrifices they had to make. Even if they do believe there was some inherent skill, they’ll know about their improvement.

No one is good by accident.

You may not know your grade 1 cookie moment. In fact, it may not have been a single moment but maybe an extended period of external pressure (maybe your parents forcing you to practise the Oboe until you really started to get it), but I’m sure there was one. And it’s very likely, if you consider yourself particularly bad at something, usually math, sports or technology, that there was at least one time in your life when someone you respected told you that you just weren’t meant to be good at that thing. And the rest of your life was marred by the notion that no amount of effort would ever overcome that weakness.

So whatever it is that you’re good at: keep on trucking. And if there is something you’ve always believed you’re just meant to be bad at: maybe give it another go. You may have to start where you left off (ie, go back and brush up on your grade 10 math), but I guarantee it’s in you.