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A pause for applause!

It was the display picture on a WhatsApp contact that caught my attention. It said:

Only your RESULTS are rewarded, not your EFFORTS.

I read it once, then again to see if I had read it right. But there it sat, capturing in no uncertain terms, the wry milieu of a world at large that had come to define success with ambitious parameters of perfection.

Everywhere we look around, we see this celebration and perpetuation by social media of what it means to live the ideal life. The zero figure, the chic drape, the perfect SAT score, the drool-worthy cake, picture-perfect families on a holiday destination and artwork where colours behave themselves with military precision. The neat and glamorous end-product, the RESULT.

It is a telling statement of our times that we are so enchanted and fixated on the result, we fail to give EFFORT its rightful due. Effort is the grimy and boring twin on the fringe, silently toiling its way sans the spotlights, acknowledged only when it brings home the Oscar or the Olympic medal.

My professor was fond of saying – Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle. I certainly believe she meant excellence, a striving that shapes human effort, small or big, into a holistic and mindful blossoming of persona. Somehow, over time, we have muddled excellence with perfection.

Because perfection gauges accomplishment vis-à-vis others. Excellence holds the measure of fulfilment against one’s self. Perfection lauds results. Excellence consecrates effort.

One of my favourite movie scenes is in ‘The Karate Kid’ where Mr. Han begins training Dre Parker for Kung Fu. And the first lesson has nothing to do with the basic moves of the martial art. In a firm but curiously pointless exercise, the wise Mr. Han ask Dre to pick up his jacket, put it on, take it off again, and hang his jacket on the stand. Then he asks him to repeat this ad infinitum. The effort gets neatly etched in the muscle memory that when Dre gets home, he automatically hangs the jacket on the stand, much to his mother’s priceless disbelief!

Daniel Goleman in his book ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can more than IQ’ shares research on assembling the motivation for the vigour of effort. In the chapter on ‘The Master Aptitude’, he writes – “The top violin students at the best music academy in Berlin, all in their early twenties, had put in ten thousand total hours’ lifetime practice, while the second-tier students averaged around seventy-five hundred hours.”

In both cases, the numbers of hours dedicated to violin practice are staggering enough for imagination. Clearly there is something to be said about tenacity of purpose and effort that translates into excellence. As also tapping into this dimension of muscle memory that automates a skill-set or learning into better flow.

As parents, teachers and educators we are all invested with the responsibility to unlock a child’s potential in an authentic and wholesome way. It may be well-worth the effort to remember that every child’s journey is different and unique and eschew the one-size-fits-all approach commonly encountered in a traditional set up.

One of the best lessons for me as a parent came by way of experience that altered my own, hitherto closed approach to learning. As a child, I had always taken to the magic of words and reading as inherently as fish took to water. In books I found comfort and delight, engagement and power. Life presented a teacher in the form of a child who would have nothing to do with the written word. Words wouldn’t stick to memory, reading was anathema, and comprehension, a distant gossamer dream. He fared better with phonic sounds and words but that was all there to it.

Why wouldn’t he pick up when all the children in his class did? Why was this difficult for him? But reading came so easily to us? When none of the usual techniques and methods worked and concern spiraled to grim anxiety, we sought professional help.

‘Start teaching sight words,’ said the specialist. ‘You need to build fluency. Aim for a reading speed of 60 words per minute. Scale it up to a 100. You cannot make sense of any text if you struggle to even read.’

We listened in disbelief. Phonics words had a logic to them. Sight words listened to no one. How do you explain the logic of c-a-t is cat but ‘the’ is to be read whole and not t-h-e. But we had reached a dead-end and this was Hobson’s choice.

Armed with the 100-word baseline, reading about benefits of a multi-sensory (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) approach, we took the help of generous Mother Google, pulled out sight word resources that let him trace the word, colour the same, cut and stick, find the word in a jumble of other words, dot the letters in a jumble of letter-sounds, fill in the missing blanks, clap out the syllables of the word, use the word in multiple sentences and finally make sentences himself.

After this we transferred the words to fluency books which we targeted EVERY SINGLE DAY.

The pattern on these fluency pages were uniform:

a (The)

ab (The cat)

abc (The cat sat)

abcd (The cat sat)

abcde (The cat sat on the)

abcdef (The cat sat on the rug.)

At first it was excruciatingly painful, we wouldn’t go beyond 2-3 pages. But over the next couple of months, the flow went up. And over the unfolding years, he could read pre-primary, primary, first, second grade words and upwards. We watched his confidence swell and reading become a preferred choice of activity. The benefits spilled over an overall increase, not just in new words.

The experience opened doorways for many things.

It taught us how a mundane effort done consistently could snowball into something as a sturdy life skill.

It taught us even the most difficult things can be broken down small, and cemented in small layers before being brought together again in a gigantic edifice.

It taught us to leverage the sheer power of muscle memory to keyboard lessons, mathematic problems, Carnatic music and more.

It taught us to cut short the drama, the mind-narratives of comparison and capability, to simply get down to brass tacks and start working. In small do-able chunks. Which when done with focus and consistency fetched large gains.

It taught us to appreciate the magic of effort and the places it took us. To realise that the journey was as vital and exhilarating as the destination.

That it’s not done until you’ve tried everything in your arsenal. That you had to step out of your comfort zone – assumptions, known spaces and past trajectories.

That if a child is not getting something and you are still using method A to teach, it is not the child, but you as parent/teacher/educator who is not learning.

We owe it to the children to laud human effort in itself and bring it centre stage. No doubt, results provide the end-goals, the GPS to navigate effort. But that focused human effort in itself is worthy of celebration.

We owe it to the children, train them not only to crystallize effort to muscle memory, but also build the muscle memory for excellence, effort and tenacity; to endow them with the tools to spontaneously pat themselves on the back for effort, even when it doesn’t always translate to result, and seek alternative ways of doing things when something doesn’t work.

We owe to the children to define capability not by their ability to do things wonderfully and perfectly, but by their capacity to bounce back and try anew every single time. It is a skill and it takes practice. And not only for the children.

We owe it to the children to ask of ourselves – Are we driven only by results or are we nurturing their efforts? Are we attuned to perfection or galvanized by excellence? Have we built the muscle memory of resilience within our own selves as the default response?

Now that is a question to ponder. And a mirror to look into. Every single day.

About the Author

The Bodhi Sprite

A sentient being in the pursuit of excellence. Mindful parenting is their passion and practice. Favourite haunts - books, music, cups of tea and a strolling imagination. Favourite quote - “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."


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