Olympic Gold

I’m getting ready to take a master class riding lesson with a very skilled instructor I used ride with years ago. I was fortunate to snag a lesson with this guy earlier in the year, and as I was toodling around the arena this week, my current teacher asked me, “What do you think has improved since you last rode with Todd?”

Huh? Aren’t my myriad weaknesses of much greater import? How am I going to be the oldest perpetual beginner ever to win Olympic gold in the saddle if we don’t obsess on my many shortcomings?

And yet, to focus on weaknesses is bad, albeit venerable, pedagogy. Looking instead at strengths–on the things you know you do well, look forward to doing, and focus on easily and completely–results in better general job performance, better self-motivation, and better relationships with the people around you. You are happier and more fun to be with, in addition to being more productive.

I think about how much of my life I’ve spent trying to compensate for, overcome, and eliminate my weaknesses.  How I struggled with trig and calculus (in both high school and college) though I’ve never used either one. How I wedged myself into business suits that were never going to flatter a woman with my endowments. How I went down in a hideous ball of flaming mortification trying to acquire the ability to perform at the piano in public. (It was awful, and I do mean awful to the hundredth power.)

I heard things like, “If only you could hack the math you could go into the sciences…” Or, “If you wore contacts, Mr. Right might notice you…” (Granted, that was 30 years ago, and from my mother.) “If you want the promotion, you have to look the part…” “You can’t get a teaching position in music if you can’t perform…” If, if, if, if…

In a society driven by the lie that all discomforts, ills, and anxieties can be eliminated if  we buy or consume something, we all but lose sight of the the little old truth that we each have vast areas of abundant natural competence. Happy people involved in joyous careers are doubtless a lousy advertising demographic.

I love to write–love it like this is what I was born to do–and I should not have been 50 years old before it occurred to me that other people might enjoy reading my books. My siblings eventually made that suggestion–and thank heavens they did–but having kept a journal since before I could write cursive; having scored 200 points higher on my verbal SAT than on the math; having earned consistent, easy straight A’s in English; with a reading habit that ate up every spare minute… why did it NEVER occur to me that the joy I took in my native tongue was a really important signal about where I ought spend my time and energy?

Why? Because I was too busy fretting over differential equations, which–to this day–make my eyes to cross and my blood to boil.

What were you born to do? What are you just naturally good at? When did you figure that out? Did somebody help you to see it or like me, did you go down in roaring flames trying to become something you’re not? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.

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17 comments on “Olympic Gold

  1. 1
    Marianne says:

    Untangle gold chains… I can’t remember starting. Even after I left home, my dad kept the knotted jewelry for me to sort. (He had a small town everything store.)

    I think it might have something to do with creating order. One of my sisters sometimes calls it OCD. She’s a lot like me!

    My high school English teachers encouraged me to write, even sent me to a workshop or two. However, I’m a better reader than writer. And my best writing is letters of instruction, direction or irritation. Order. Again.

    • 1.1
      Cherie says:

      Marianne, you and I are on the same plane. I love order and fight entropy every step of the way (2nd Law of Thermodynamics). Grace, I’m so glad you are writing as your stories are comfort to me and allow me to feel “in order”. I’ll do your calculus if you’ll keep writing. I have all your historical books and have read each of them numerous times.

      • 1.1.1

        THAT is a deal. I liked math plenty well, I just wasn’t very good at it. On the one occasion when I had an award-winning math teacher, I got straight A’s (algebra II), which suggests the issue could be something with my learning style.

  2. 2
    Diane Sallans says:

    I wish I had pursued a career in things I really like – books and history. When I was young I thought I wanted to be a nurse & entered a college program for that – fortunately I realized that wasn’t really the right path for me & switched to business. Eventually ended up in computer programming which I mostly liked because it was so orderly – that I would call one of my strengths – I like things organized. So now I enjoy my interest in books & history thru reading & some research for personal interest. Working on family genealogy research fits in there nicely too.

    • 2.1

      I am soooo fortunate, that at the age of fifty, I could start a career switch. It took ten years to get free of the practice of law and build up enough momentum to write full time, but knowing the books were there to work on helped make the legal work easier to endure.
      I get the sense from my sister that genealogy is the ultimate rabbit hole. And when you’ve mined the internet, you can always go spelunking through actual records. When we visited Derry, we got the name of the “county genealogist,” and hooboy. My sister’s eyes lit up and so did mine!

  3. 3
    Teenie Marie says:

    I’m bossy so I became a conductor. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that!

    As the oldest of 6, I was charged with a lot of babysitting, helping with housework, cooking dinners etc. etc. As you know, Grace, coming from a large family yourself, it’s takes more than two parents to get a household that large to function well. Someone has to step up, whether we like it or not, and it was me (mostly) in our family. The next oldest sister (#2 Sissy)felt she was too put upon to help so it ended up being me, until I moved out. Sister #3 was a perfectionist (she’s a designer as an adult) and she helped too because she liked order.

    Anyway, being that responsible that young made me figure out pretty quickly how to get things done. And also be able to look at a problem or situation and know what to do to complete or resolve it ASAP. I had a life, so instead of being crabby and complaining like #2 Sissy about how unfair it was to be expected to sweep the kitchen, I just did it!

    That ability has transferred to my adult life. As a conductor and director, I look at my singers, the music we need to learn in a certain amount of time, and figure out the best way to accomplish it. And then put that plan into action.

    Looking at a problem–whether the best way to sweep a kitchen floor quickly but still clean it efficiently or the best way to teach a Palestrina motet–and figuring out how to solve it without being overwhelmed is what I’m good at! I didn’t realize it was an important skill or that I had it until I was well into my career, combined with parenthood and a special needs child.

    Bossy Big Sisters Unite!

    • 3.1

      A tale that ends on a nice major cadence.
      The older I get, the more I realize that all the frustrations and wrong turns in my upbringing–some of which were pretty unhappy–eventually bore fruit in terms of strengths and insights. There’s such a thing as post-traumatic growth syndrome, and it’s much more prevalent than PTSD.

      I’m still not much of a cook, though. Probably never will be.

  4. 4
    Ona says:

    Thanks in part from some good advice I got from a certain wise aunt, I knew early that the trick to a happy career was to play to my strengths. One of the reasons I think I like my job so much is that I think I’m pretty good at it.

    One of my sibs is getting tested for all sorts of varieties of neurodiversity. She strongly suspects, and so do I, that dysgraphia lives on our family tree. When I read the definition and symptoms of dyscalculia, I thought, “Holy cow, this author KNOWS me.” I am far from stupid, but I struggle mightily with math (a stellar teacher once did help), choreography (Ona LOVES to dance but can’t do a simple two-step without heroic levels of concentration and practice), and struggles with simple instructions like “turn right”–that’s gonna take me a minute.

    I love reading and writing and talking about reading and writing, but what I suspect I love at least as much is telling people How It Is and What to Do. These are not the most attractive gifts; fortunately, experience has also taught me the I Don’t Know Everything and Ask a Lot of Questions ones too. It’s made me, I hope, a pretty good college English prof.

    Loved the Lady Mistletoe excerpt! What fun!

    • 4.1

      I think math is the subject where it is most the case that just because you’re good at it doesn’t mean you can teach it. In fact, the instinctive math wizards are probably the last people who should be teaching it, and the first people to sign up for the job.
      Most teaching is done verbally, or in a verbal context, so relying on those with whiz-bang right brain chops to convey the step-by-step math concepts isn’t likely to work. My law school class was full of people who considered themselves bright, “except for math.” And yet, as an attorney, I used algebra at least weekly, if not daily, and even enjoyed it.
      I’m glad you ended up where you can love what you do, and be appreciated for it. Life’s good!

  5. 5
    Pam says:

    Funny you mentioned math. I majored in math, then got a second degree in computer science. Fortunately, I never had to take differential equations.

    I can’t complain about my choice of professons (IT) – it has supported me and my family for close to 39 years, but it is fair to say that I am toasted, which I will call a step or two above burn out.

    What I wish I had done was to teach reading and love of reading to elementary school children. I don’t like the different ways I’ve seen it taught during my son’s school years. It almost seems like the schools want to teach children that reading is a chore. And some of the methods I’ve seen just don’t make sense.

    • 5.1

      And women in IT have a tale to tell. I’m sure as long as you’ve been in it, that is QUITE a tale. I hope when you retire you can be a reading coach, or a literacy volunteer. One of the things that I slammed into like a ton of bricks when I quit lawyering was the vast silence that echoed back when I asked the question, “What do I FEEL LIKE DOING?”

      I’ll be interested to hear what answer comes back for you when you shuck the IT shuffle.

  6. 6
    Sarah says:

    I’ve always loved to read. When I was young I thought I would be a writer, but I ended up being a public librarian. I took a detour for five years and got an MBA, but although I am better at numbers than most words persons, I’m not as good as numbers persons (if that makes sense). So I went crawling back to librarianship, and now I get to buy books with other peoples’ money. I remind myself of that when the day isn’t going well . . .

    • 6.1

      I never met a librarian who wasn’t both book smart and people smart. That you detoured to collect an MBA on top of that is amazing. Somewhere, there’s probably a senior library management search committee just praying that a resume like yours lands in their inbox.

  7. 7
    Sarah says:

    I am very good at following directions, which has to be the most boring skill out there. I can actually put together furniture with the ikea instructions without problem. When my youngest had to be taken off gluten I followed recipes to conquer gluten free baking. My problem solving skills are good too which luckily, combined with flexibility, allow me to improve on original instructions if need be.

    I’d love something a little more showy, but it does come in handy on a daily basis.

    • 7.1

      I’d guess you are a patient person then, willing to take the step-by-step route when most of us are, “If all else fails, read the directions.” I CAN follow directions, mostly, but I lack the patience. I regard getting the item assembled “freestyle” to be a puzzle of some sort.

      But you know, when I buy something that has to be assembled, the nice people at the store are usually slipping me the phone number of an independent contractor who simply follows the directions for me and puts the thing together–for a hefty fee!

      So maybe it’s a great skill to have, and underappreciated?

  8. 8
    Glenda M says:

    I was born to read despite my dyslexic tendancies and pass that love of reading on to both my children. I’m also very good a providing great customer service and attempting to resolve problems.

    The reading part I’ve always known. The resolving problems part I realized as time went by when I was the mediator between my sister and brother. Mediation helps a great deal with customer support.

    • 8.1

      Though I was honking along pretty well as a child welfare attorney, in my early 40s I picked up a master’s degree in conflict resolution. Lordy, do I wish I’d started there, instead of messing around with poli sci and law. People who can help solve problems are worth their weight in gold, and will never run out of work. Oh, the skills we learn in childhood…