Forever Beginning

Carol Dweck is a Stanford researcher who has looked long and hard at the differences between students who are taught with an attitude of “we’re all learning all the time,” versus an attitude of “here’s your grade, and it’s a reflection of your inherent aptitude for this subject.” She’s pretty much proven that in the elementary classroom at least, mindset is EVERYTHING. (For a TED Talk on her work, click here.)

LearnChildren who think their abilities are fixed give up on hard material much faster than children who are taught with an attitude of endless possibilities. This is true even when the children objectively test as quite bright. Your smarts apparently don’t matter as much as your attitude toward your ignorance does.

In the sciences, big discoveries are usually made by people who are either at the beginning of their careers, or by people working outside the field they were educated in. Not knowing where the limits are can result in enormous creativity and brilliant insights.

double helixMy ignorance–or maybe we should call it innocence–has often been my best asset. I didn’t know you’re not supposed to write twenty manuscripts before you attempt to find a publisher. Conventional wisdom says stockpiling manuscripts is dumb, because what if you’re writing a product that nobody wants? Then you’ve made the same mistake twenty times over.

Erm…. I didn’t know that. As a consequence, I had a lot more product to offer an editor than most other hopeful authors do, and when I did start looking for a publisher, I found one without too much trouble. I didn’t know you need a critique group (still don’t have one), and I probably had four books on the shelf before I came across the notion of “word count goals.” Why would I need goals for something I look forward to doing every chance I get?

vatican staircaseWhen I was in college, I wanted to get degrees in both music history and political science. Nobody in the School of Music had ever pursued two degrees at once, I just went and did it, double-degreed rather than double majored. Why not? In junior high (back when there was such a thing), I didn’t realize no girl in my entire country had EVER taken shop before. I just put it on my schedule, and became the first. Why not?

Strawberry conchOnce you’ve had a taste of coloring outside the lines, the lines begin to fade, and you get better at seeing the whole world as your coloring book. There’s no reason on earth why somebody who has the time and inclination shouldn’t pick up two college degrees at once, and every reason why girls who will rely on automobiles for transportation should learn the theory of the four cycle engine.

Was there a time when you either didn’t know the conventional wisdom, or disregarded the rules, and ended up ahead for it? A time when you wished you had? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card.




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29 comments on “Forever Beginning

  1. I’m 70 Grace. I was raised in an age when we were taught to only draw within the lines. And being the good little doobie that I was, I always followed the rules. But there were times, especially during my work life, when I surprised myself by doing something I didn’t realize I could do.

    Your post made me think of visiting my great niece a couple of years ago and found her working on something under the hood of her car. She had called her brother and an ex-boyfriend and between the two them they had walked her through whatever she had to do to fix the gismo. When I told her how amazed I was, she told me she really didn’t have choice. She couldn’t afford to take it to a shop so she had to fix it herself.

    But I was still amazed because when I was her age the calls I made to relatives and friends would have been to look for a ride.

    • Times are changing. My sister who is ten years older than I am probably could have signed up for shop classes in junior high, and no power on earth would have gotten her into those classes. By the time my daughter came along nearly 30 years later, the classes were all–cooking, sewing, power mechanics–co ed, as they should be. Guys eat and wear clothes, gals drive cars.

      Where I think we’re losing something is that my daughter cannot grasp that in her grandfather’s lifetime, women could not vote. Granted, he’s in his nineties, but a right that recently won can be lost all too easily.

      • I think with a lot of people, they really don’t grasp the struggles their elders had. I know I didn’t when I was younger…but now, I am totally in awe of the strength of character a lot of those people had….particularly the women.

  2. I was blessed to be raised by parents who wanted me to challenge myself, and stuff convention. I thank them every day for this gift. Now a 42 year old grandmother of 2, I just entered my first power lifting meet. I hope to live a life full of “I did that!?” Vs. “Wish I had done that…”. And kudos to you Grace, your fans LOVED that shorter waits between your highly addictive series installments.

    • You must report on this power lifting adventure! I’m of the opinion that life has gotten more wonderful as I’ve aged. My twenties were awful, my thirties an endless challenge. The fun started in my forties, and my fifties have been terrific.

      But power lifting is truly amazing.

  3. plenty of times. Some of them, what I was told just didn’t make sense to me….so I went my own way figuring it I was wrong I just would keep my mouth shut. Sometimes I was wrong, sometimes not, but I had the satisfaction that i was right…or I learned from the experience.

    • Maybe that’s part of what keeps many of us coloring inside the lines with only the pointy end of the crayon. We’re told that being wrong is a moral failing, a permanent blot on our emotional escutcheon. My dad often says that failed experiments are the ones you really learn from.

      I’ve been wrong a lot too. Goes with being alive, I think.

  4. I never taken a class or a job that was meant for a man, but I have always been the kind of person that doesn’t think that I need a man to do things for me or to be held back for trying to do something I’ve never done before. I decorated cakes in a baker pretty much the whole time my kids were in school, because the hours worked for me to be home when they were. When I didn’t need to do that anymore I decide to try for a job in a medical office. I had never done anything like that or worked on a computer either. When I had interviews I told them give me a chance and you won’t be disappointed. One office did and they were very please with my work. Hard work and effort go a long way in making things happen. I try not to let anything hold me back. Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  5. I’m a firm believer that “rules were meant to be broken”. Well, not so much broken as bent to fit the current circumstances.

    I can’t remember a time when I set out to actually break the rules. Most of the time I see them, acknowledge them, see how they fit into my current situation and apply those that fit. Straying only *slightly* outside the lines keeps me in good graces of the Powers That Be while still having the situation work in my favor. πŸ˜‰

    • Interesting point, Christina. Half the time when I break rules, I don’t know I’m doing it. I’m that much of a beginner, as a writer anyway. There’s a rule that Heroes Don’t Cry. Another rule says you MUST WRITE DOWN YOUR GOALs. Another rule says you must write every day….

      I’m endlessly ignorant of how things SHOULD be done, and that’s been mostly wonderful.

      • I usually treat them as “suggestions”…

        Besides, in writing, who’s to say what works for one works for all? I can’t write sequentially, but I have people tell me what I do is the *wrong way* to write. I figure if I’m getting words on the page, it’s the right way to write.

        I always seem to respond “I will take your rule (read *suggestion*) under advisement and proceed accordingly,” then proceed as usual.

  6. The times have changed for the better but it still needs a lot of work. I always drew within the lines but I also resented many of the “boxes” that I was in. Problem was I never knew how to go about it without still being the obedient child/wife. A lot of people need some sort of support system or mentor but then there are those that seem to just be able to manage on their own. What a great world this would be if everyone could do what they love doing.

    • Catslady, I have a whole, entire, complete rant about why do we reward children for eighteen straight years when they do what they’re old, sit where they’re assigned, excel in the classes they MUST take… and then we get blank stares from then we ask them, “What do you want to be?”

      Mostly at that point, they want to be LEFT ALONE to goof off, because the whole notion of following a passion of their own choosing was structured and educated out of them twelve years ago. People need basic competence in language and math, but they also needs dreams.

      Says me. And you’re right: A dream weighs nothing, and yet it requires a lot of support.

  7. Many, years ago, I had a job opportunity to work in Washington, DC . I turned it down because I truly enjoyed my editing job and had just started to date someone ( now my husband).

    Sometimes, I think I missed a great opportunity career wise. I wish that I had been more self confident to move away from my family and friends to try something new and exciting. Back then, moving away wasn’t seen as an opportunity– much too unconventional! πŸ™‚

    I am glad you wrote 20 novels before you were published. Creating the Windhams and the Lords must have been such a creative outlet for you! As a reader, I am glad that I do not wait for an annual book from you. It’s great fun to read a series published over a few months!

    Kudos to you for writing your stories in your own way and not worrying about word count and critique groups.

    So– When is the Hannah/Trent book due out? Am so looking forward to it! πŸ™‚

  8. I can’t think of anything I’ve done that was unconventional, but plenty of times I wished I had. I’m more a rule follower, although I’ve had my little rebel moments and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that following the rules doesn’t always get you what you want or what you should have.

  9. Argg! I am always getting to this too late to get feedback :-P. I went to a University (of Michigan) “Lab School” where the whole point was to try out theories and test out techniques on us. My education was pretty unconventional without being “out there”. One example was that the class size limit was 24 in elementary school. One teacher with usually 4 student teachers – 2 in the am & 2 in the pm. Each class had 2 large rooms, one for the desks and seat work and one for the tables and “other stuff” work.

    When we got to Junior High, everyone took ‘industrial arts’ and everyone took ‘home ec’, boys and girls in mixed groups rotate through both of those as well as fine arts. I am amazingly good at mechanical drawing. I never would have known if I had not taken that course. I also now know that I really hate power tools. I think it is a combination of the sound and vibration. Total sensory overload.

  10. I know I am rule bound, but I am also one to interpret the rule to my own satisfaction and then act. And if it doesn’t say you CAN’T… then go for it. I ran an effective preschool program for many years in the public school system by always looking at the “what if we…” and as long as no one had said we couldn’t then we did it. Usually it worked for the good of children, which was my goal.

  11. I’m trying to figure out how to color outside the lines right now. Contradictory as it seems, I’m trying to do even that in an orderly fashion (Type-A, Old Habits and such…)

  12. I’ve always been a thinker/dreamer personality. It’s the least usual type in all those tests. The jobs I have done in my life have all been conventional and almost intolerable. It’s not a really sellable feature out there. “I’m an idea person!” just isn’t what companies seek from employees. In fact, the less of a thinker and the more of a do-er-what-I-say-er you are, the better! I’m always raising my hands in meetings – annoying the hell out of people saying “but…, what if…., we could….”! I’m fortunate that I now work with 6 and 7 year olds who don’t care if I fly by the seat of my pants with ideas that pop into my head at the last minute.

  13. When I was younger, I did as I was expected. I was told to do the right thing and the desired outcome would manifest. It didn’t. Only now am I beginning to color outside the lines and reject the mindset of conformity my parents had. My parents and grandparents lived in a world where conformity was a matter of life and death, so I can’t be too hard on them. The things I want to do haven’t been done by anyone that I know of, so there is no model. There are no rules. That’s scary, but also liberating.

  14. When I was in first grade I was in special education classes in school I started do the classwork faster and getting better grades than even kids in “regular” classes even though the rules in those days stated I had to stay in special ed classes no matter how good my grades really were because teachers didn’t want to have to teach a “Crippled” student. My Grandmother fought for me to have my aptitude tested and I was put in regular classes and graduated in the top 10 percent of my class. My grandma taught me when to disregard the rules.

  15. I am 52 years old. And grandma. And I am just learning that its possible. To try things just because. Even if its not the norm. I am just learning.
    Glad you have been doing it forever. πŸ™‚ You wont have to learn it when you are a grandma. haha

  16. Hmm… I guess I am in that mode right now. In the Fall I took a History class at age 50. I hadn’t taken a History class in 17 years. I did well on everything except the papers. I am very proud of myself. I really enjoyed the class. I am taking a class in the Spring. If the professor assigns any papers, I know day one to go to the writing center. Why not? Why not follow your dreams? We have one life, let’s enjoy it.

  17. I am a woman conductor. There aren’t that many of us! I decided at age 13 to become a Ballet conductor because my Dad’s career–a ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer–was beginning to wan in his 40s and I wanted to always be able to work in my chosen field. I mentioned the idea to my ballet teacher (I was well on my way to a professional dance career) that I wanted to conduct when my dancing career was over. He laughed and told me girls didn’t conduct orchestras but I could probably conduct singers. Since I played piano well and sang even better, I decided to do that. I wrecked my ankle at 16 doing some crazy leaps in a summer program so conducting and music school began sooner than I thought it would.

    I haven’t been disappointed with the shift from orchestra to choral and there are not a lot of women conductors in either field. I haven’t stayed in any one sort of position–from high school singers to young children to church positions to my present community position as well as mentoring choirs for adults with disabilities. In the last ten years, I also write program notes for various choral organizations and articles I’ve written about ethics in my field are being edited into a book.

    I do something many of my non-musician peers can’t conceive of doing and it’s difficult at times to make friends. But I love what I do and always try to make it fresh for myself, my singers and our audience. I am always beginning something new!

  18. When I was in high school I wanted to take auto shop and a group of us girls wanted to take a weight lifting class for out phys ed requirement. In both cases, the school authorities refused to let me register for the class – girls just didn’t do that sort of thing during the early 80s in small town Georgia. But they didn’t tell us that was the reason. “There was no room” in the weight class. As for auto shop? They told me the slots that were available were necessary for the kids who were not “College Material” because they needed to learn a skill.