It’s recital time. My youngest son just had his cello recital. While I was sitting in my seat, watching eighty kids run around eighty cellos and hopefully not crushing them, I thought about the last meeting I had with my son’s psychiatrist.
We go to a child psychiatrist so I can have someone keeping tabs on me. I want to know that I’m doing okay and not messing up my kids as I take them way way off the beaten path.
The psychiatrist said that I need to make sure the kids have goals they have to work hard to achieve.
This directive was certainly in response to my explanation of how my style of homeschooling works. And maybe his attitudes skew a little too heavily in favor of old-fashioned schooling. But still, I think he has a point. We can’t have total lack of structure or else there is a total lack of achievement. And achievements along the way are important to developing pride and confidence in one’s own abilities. That makes sense to me.
And in the last year I’ve been working hard at figuring out how to teach my son to reach challenging goals. Here are some things I learned:
1. Practice is what matters. But it’s quantity and quality.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the research that shows that you need roughly 10,000 hours to be great at something. And journalist Geoff Covlin wrote a whole book about how research shows that talent is not enough to reach one’s goals. Mastery comes from a combination of talent and practice. But that practice needs to be focused and productive. Gladwell describes how each practice session must have particular goals in order for the practice sessions to add up to a large goal.
The great thing about this way of learning is that you teach goal setting at a micro level, on a daily basis, and also at a macro level. So few kids reach those huge, national-champion-level goals, though, that it’s nice to know the kid is learning to reach goals just by having effective practices.
2. Older kids are important models.
While the young kids were running all over the concert hall, a few of the oldest kids took time to do one last practice before the audience arrived. The older kids have a focus and meticulousness that the younger kids are just learning, but it’s a magnetic intensity that makes people stop what and look.
Rena Subotnik publishes tons of research about talent development, and she found that having access to people who are older and more developed than you are is important in developing one’s own talent. Which is why Suzuki recitals are notoriously too long for the really young kids who populate them—the point is to be inspired by the kids who are older than you.
You could go see lots of great musicians in a local orchestra, but research from George Mason University shows that we learn the most from people who are just a few years ahead of us.
3. A community of peers helps the child through tough spots.
Seth Godin talks about how if we are doing something that really matters to us, then there will be a really really tough spot—The Dip—where most people quit, but the special people who will achieve something big will not quit. When we teach kids to meet goals, we are preparing them for deeper and deeper dips. That is, bigger and bigger achievements.
Subotnik talks about the three phases of talent development: learning to practice, developing expertise, and testing that expertise in competition. Kids are most likely to fall off in between the second and third phase. But something that keeps commitment strong is being part of a community of people going through this difficult phase. (Subotnik says this is especially true of girls who are talented in math.)
This makes sense to me as an entrepreneur. Because there is a time in most startups when the founder wants to quit—it’s the time just before funding comes in but when the founder has already been working day and night to develop the company and it’s starting to look impossible. This is when most entrepreneurs give up, and those who don’t have a strong community of other startup founders to encourage them to keep going.
As we were finding our seats for the recital, we passed rows and rows of cellos lined up, waiting for their moment. My older son said, “Oh no. We’re gonna be listening to kids play cello until way past our bedtime. The night is ruined.”
I didn’t respond. (There was, after all, truth in what he was saying.)
But I thought to myself that as a homeschooling parent, something I’m really happy with is that I found a community for my son that will help him achieve big and difficult goals. I don’t need him to be a professional cellist when he grows up. But I need him to be a person who is confident in his ability to meet large goals.