THE WASHINGTON POST – This essay is adapted from the author’s new book And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood published last month by Penguin Books.
A few months ago, my three-year-old threw a tantrum. I no longer remember what caused it. Probably I sliced his apple into pieces that were the wrong size or inadvertently threw away the scrap of bubble wrap he wasn’t done popping, or some similar toddler-dictated infraction. He balled up his fists and shouted “GRRRRR!” But then, instead of flinging himself onto the floor in a distressed heap, his usual go-to move, he calmly announced: “I need my guitar.”
He walked over to his tiny instrument and hauled it and himself up onto the couch. He positioned a pick between his thumb and first finger and started strumming. We’ve been playing guitar together since he could hold one, but this was the first time he’d made up a song on the spot. The lyrics: “Sometimes you’ll be angry, or sad, or mad, or you play guitar, like me. More harmonica!”
Oh, my God. He’s a musical prodigy, I couldn’t help thinking. My brain flashed immediately to private lessons and performing arts camps and sold-out concert halls. At the same time, I wondered why I was even considering setting him up for the potential distress I experienced in college over not making it doing what I loved.
I quit viola after a miserable freshman year of music school, where the intense pressure of performances and auditions sucked all the joy from playing. I was so sure back then that the only route to happiness was music that quitting at 19 left me feeling completely lost, not to mention like a total failure.
I was raised to believe in the meritocratic promise that hard work plus ambition equals to success. “There will always be people who are better than you, but there should never be anyone who has worked as hard,” my dad used to say. He’s a recently retired film professor who loved what he did for a living and believed that one’s job and passion could and should be aligned. I believed it, too.
But in the midst of all this well-meaning encouragement to follow our dreams, I think we often neglect to give kids the skills to deal with what happens when things don’t go according to plan.
The vast majority hit a ceiling for one reason or another when trying to professionalise our passions. Sometimes we get what we want only to then realise it isn’t going to make us happy, so we quit later on in the journey.
This is totally normal, yet my peers and I are so hard on ourselves when it comes to moments we feel like we failed. We are constantly measuring ourselves against what we think our lives should look like. And it’s not getting any easier for younger cohorts.
I want my son to be able to quit something gracefully without feeling the deep failure I experienced in college. I want him to be ambitious and goal-oriented, but also to be somewhat detached from the outcome of his hard work because there is no simple formula for success – despite what the internet tells us.
‘Making it’ if there even is such a thing, depends not only on putting in your 10,000 hours and having grit but on trickier variables such as talent, ambition, money, luck and personality.
Psychology Professor Carsten Wrosch has found that people who are “better able to let go when they experience unattainable goals” have “less depressive symptoms, less negative affect over time. They also have lower cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation, which is a marker of immune functioning. And they develop fewer physical health problems over time”.
We’re obsessed in America with progress and growth and linear success. But the truth is there are plenty of moments in our lives when we will be better served by quitting than persevering. I sometimes give my music school days the romantic gloss of the suffering artist, but the reality is I was literally sick to my stomach most of the time.
My shoulders and back ached constantly. My entire body was screaming at me to quit. There has got to be some distinction between the kind of resistance you can persevere through as part of your tale of triumph and the kind that indicates you’ve had enough and it’s time to head in another direction.
More and more I’ve come to believe that true grit and resilience are defined by flexibility and adaptability, by not holding on too tightly to any one story line about who you are or what your life should look like.
For now, I’ve vowed not to get ahead of myself in terms of my child’s potential abilities, musical or otherwise – no small feat in the intense Brooklyn parenting wilds.
There is time, I tell myself, to let my child’s interests and desires unfold organically, to figure out as a parent when to push and when to pull back.
In the meantime, as my son would say: “More harmonica!”