” Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.” – Coach John Wooden
We live in a society that celebrates results. Whether it be from our sports teams, our fitness program, school exams, our financial investments or hitting your targets at work. It seems everywhere we turn all that matters is whether we get the result. It’s all about the bottom line they say. Most of us have come to see the world as divided into two camps. Winners and losers. But hang on! Didn’t our parent’s say when we were children “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game”. This only served to confuse the matter even further because as children what we saw were winners being celebrated and losers being ignored or worse berated and/or humiliated. When we brought home a great school report card or a trophy for winning at our chosen sport our parents would be elated rewarding us with that new bike or game we wanted. When we watched sport or political elections the praise and rewards went to the winners. The Olympic medals go to the winners and they would return heroes. The losers are soon forgotten or some cases devastated.
How do we make sense of it all?
Despite the enormous praise beset upon winners almost all experts in the field of education agree that we should as much as possible focus on effort rather than results especially when it comes to children. While this may initially seem at odds with society it actually makes good sense. The above is only confusing because the media often leaves out the effort part of the equation. We rarely hear the whole story. The years of tedious practice along with rejection and failure that precede most great achievements only occasionally makes the news. In fact there is a part of us that secretly likes to believe that certain people are special. This allows us to justify our decision to watch TV instead of doing guitar practice.
Praising children for effort
I am going to use children as the example because we can all relate. You are either a child now or were once a child. When adults praise results children will come to believe that results are all that matter. It’s a win or lose, pass or fail situation. They begin to associate their very identity with their results. If they fail they view themselves as a failure. Just as problematic is the child who is praised for winning. They essentially get the same message. While they may feel like a winner in the moment they still come to believe that their worth is measured by their results.
Results come from effort
As mentioned the real problem here is the student is not seeing the cause and effect. Olympic athletes or outstanding guitar players are not just born that way. They train hard for many years pushing themselves to the limit and beyond. When we praise results it leads children to believe that you either have the talent or you don’t. Effort precedes results in almost every case. No effort, no results. When you praise effort they naturally want to put in more effort and more effort leads to improved results. It is true that praising results can at times lead to more results of course but usually only if they already realize that their results came from effort but there is more to the story.
The problem with praising winners
When we praise results and not effort children know that if they can find a way to bypass effort altogether and go straight to results they will save a lot of time. Why bother with the effort when the results can be obtain without effort. We should therefore not be surprised when children cheat or cut corners. Why wouldn’t they if the praise is in the results. Focusing your praise on a child’s effort will see them increasing this effort.
What about the so called ‘Gifted children’
As a guitar teacher I have on occasion seen students who have never picked up a guitar and within weeks are playing better than most students who have been learning for months. This can happen due to early exposure to guitar or music in general. Perhaps a parent or sibling at home already plays or perhaps they just have some unexplained gift (rare but it does happen). With these kinds of students it would be very easy for myself as a teacher to fall into the trap of continuously praising them for their natural talent. “Wow! You are just a natural Billy. You have such an amazing gift”. The problem here is Billy now thinks there is no effort required. He believes everything should come naturally. Billy may even apply this idea to other areas of his life falsely believing that if it doesn’t come naturally then there is no point so will give up on most challenges early.
Environment v Effort
We are all affected by our environment whether we realise it or not. A student may not realise that they have passed a test not from effort but from their environment. Let’s say you are 7 years old in a class of 20 children and have one week to study for a geography test. It just happens that your father is a cartographer and has been exposing you to maps from an early age. In fact every night it seems to be the topic of discussion at home. Everyone in your class studies hard for the test yet with almost no effort you blitz the exam. You are then praised and told you are a gifted child in geography. This is just an example but I hope you can see my point.
Putting it into action
We have all been conditioned over many years and are constantly bombarded with the idea of celebrating results so making a shift to effort may not be easy so don’t be too hard on yourself. Like most big challenges it’s best to start small. You might begin with yourself by acknowledging the practice you do. This is where keeping a practice log really helps. If nothing else the practice log serves as measurement of your effort. Each time you write down your practice time you are saying to yourself “Well done”. If you are a parent check your child’s practice log and congratulate them on the amount no matter how small. Keep celebrating the effort and the rewards will come. Good luck.