Pay Attention to Progress

Salamander Saladman, Saladman

The winter season can be a rough time. Seniors fight back tears in response to college rejection letters. Juniors slave away over SAT practice booklets. Sophomores realize that the 10-12 GPA is a thing, and that last year’s 3.8 won’t be included in it. And last but not least, freshmen confront high school finals for the first time.

Last year I wrote an article about my struggles with finding a purpose in school, but failed to include, along with my grievances, any actual advice for others with the same problem. I spent days struggling to come up with any kind of concluding message about how to handle career choices or build confidence.

One year later, I’m a year slightly older and wiser, I hope.

If you are trying to decide what you want to do with your future, questioning your ability to make decisions, or just struggling with a lack of confidence, you are not alone. This article is for you.

Interests are not the same as skills

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the things that I like to do and the things that are easy for me to do, and I realized that, in general, they’re the same thing. The only subjects I enjoy are the ones that I’m “good” at, or get good grades in. This could just be a mere coincidence, yes, but it concerns me to think I may have actually trained myself to avoid forming interest in things I’m not good at.

In elementary school, I convinced myself that I hated writing and it was my least favorite subject. Looking back, this was untrue; I had actually enjoyed writing. One of my finest works was an illustrated series about a caterpillar. But when I realized that my 2nd grade level writing wasn’t as good as real literature, I told my parents that I hated writing and never wanted to do it. (This could also be a lesson about reasonable expectations.)

Freshman year, I took Journalism because one of the editors said I wouldn’t have to write any articles, and it would be an easy “A.” This ended up being rather untrue, but I realized, after pushing myself to take those first steps, writing isn’t actually my least favorite subject, even if earning my grades in English and Journalism are not among the easiest.

Don’t let your current ability in a subject detract from your enjoyment of it. I understand that, in a school environment, it’s easy to associate a lack of competence with failure.  We’ve been conditioned to view failure as entirely negative and we do everything we can to avoid it, including taking certain classes and passing up others.

Grades are intended to show us the relationship between our current skills and a certain standard. They do not, however, need to define who we are. Why do I judge other people for enjoying hobbies for which they don’t seem to have much talent?  I’ve realized this is probably reflective of greater issues I have with myself, particularly a fear of stepping outside the boundaries of a societal system that focuses heavily on ranking everyone and everything.

If you want a better chance at happiness, stop feeling like you’re somehow disqualified from pursuing things for which you do not show an immediate aptitude.  The fact is, talent is not random, it’s not arbitrarily handed out at birth.  We develop skills from a myriad of influences over the course of our whole lives, and those influences are varied and different for each individual.  So long as you are making your own progress at your own pace, then you can, and should, be satisfied.  Learning is about growing, and not about where you rank versus other people or any external standards.

Motivation must be intrinsic

Consider whether or not you’ll still enjoy your desired career if it were to become difficult, or if you were to work with people who are much better at it than you. Most people enjoy being the best. Being the best can be a powerful motivator.

I see many of my peers thriving in certain subjects because they identify themselves as being the best, or near the best, at them. In terms of careers though, circumstances will change, and they won’t always be in a position where they can rely upon that to maintain their passion.  If being the best is the sole motivator, it’s risky.  It is an external ranking over which the individual has relatively little control.

Again, the issue becomes the disconnect between what society seems to celebrate on its surface, and what is truly meaningful and sustaining for the individual.  We hand out plaques and medals to winners, but we rarely acknowledge those in the pack, making slow but steady improvement.  If our only source of inspiration is that type of external reward, most of us are destined for a lifetime of dissatisfaction and depression.

I also sometimes worry that I only like certain courses because of the circumstances of the class, like the way the class is conducted or the style of the teacher. For example, I like writing some kinds of journalism articles, but have never had much interest in writing poems or essays for English classes. Equally perplexing, Photography is my favorite subject, but I’m not interested in photojournalism.  Am I developing these preferences based upon the actual content of the course, or just on whether or not its particular packaging appeals to my need for immediate and easily accessed gratification?

Thus, I question whether or not the subjects I perceive as strengths now will continue to be once my setting changes, and the style of my instructors change.

If things were to change, if my progress were more difficult or my talents paled in comparison to my peers, would I still feel good about learning the material?  Would I find an intrinsic drive to continue?

Hopefully the answer is “yes.”  And that’s the point: enjoyment should not be tied to where we stack up against other people, and is should not be dependent on the ease with which we accomplish our goals.  Yes, imperial levels of competency are obviously factors when it comes to earning college admission or landing a job, but happiness and health go a long way in contributing to a truly successful person.

If the reason I’m taking a class is more about how easy it is in the moment, or about how good I am at it, then I should reconsider.  You should too.

Improvement is personal

As I alluded to earlier, students are acknowledged and rewarded far more for their natural talents than for their improvement. And if the improvement doesn’t lead to concrete advancement in test scores or grades, it often goes unrecognized all together.

Valuing progress builds confidence, even if the progress is minimal. For example, I dislike having to be social or being around groups of people, which often frustrates me, as it would seem to limit my career options. I’ve realized recently, though, that I have actually made changes.  I may not be the social butterfly that effortlessly joins conversations of all types and offers up every thought floating around in my head for public consumption.  But relative to my anti-social beginnings, I’ve come along.

From the age of 4 to about 8, I was almost completely mute in school, or around people I didn’t like. I avoided collaborating, I asked to leave for the bathroom, or sometimes even just got up and moved to the other side of the room. “Silent girl,” I was once called.

A few years ago, I ran into one of my preschool teachers. Somehow, 10 years later, she recognized my name and asked me if I was “still shy.”  Apparently, I made quite an impression with my habit of lying facedown under cabinets, refusing to look at people, and crying or screaming whenever I was told to come out and play with the other kids. I was happy to report that I don’t do that anymore.

I won’t win Miss Congeniality, but I’ve opened up enough to be content. Sometimes, most of the time actually, it’s not about being the best, it’s about being OK. I’m happy to have reached that point socially, I hope.

This should also apply to the classroom. If you struggle with a certain subject, know that you don’t have to become an expert at it to qualify for success. It’s not even about improving your grades.  It’s about knowing yourself, knowing where you’ve come from, letting go of the arbitrary external standards and finding comfort in your improvement.

Learning is a growth enterprise, but just like the human body, our learning progresses at different rates and we make gains at different times in our lives.  The idea that there is a specific time that we should be able to learn certain material is a farce.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Ever earned a test score for which you were proud and then overheard someone else vocalize disgust upon receiving his score, which turns about to be much higher than your own? Did you then reconsider your feelings about your grade?

Individualize your expectations for each class so you aren’t holding yourself accountable for how you rank against your peers.

I lose confidence in my own ability when I compare myself to other people. For example, when my friend Rachel, who I’ve always thought was better at writing than I, told me that she didn’t want to pursue writing as a career, I assumed that meant I couldn’t possibly consider it a career option for myself. If someone with more talent than me thinks she should pursue something else, then I clearly have no chance.

However, I have realized that this is not a constructive way to approach self improvement. It is also possible that my friend doesn’t want a writing career for reasons other than a lack of potential.

To conclude, I implore you to choose a path that feeds your soul rather than your ego.  Don’t trade away the chance at finding something meaningful in exchange for what seems easy or fun in the moment.  Measure your success against yourself, and be careful not to let grades and test scores define you.

Now go enjoy those finals!