April 6, 2023
It’s the age old question, what do you want to be when you grow up? Parents, teachers, grandparents, well-meaning strangers in line at the grocery store upon seeing a kiddo dressed up in a fireman costume. What do you want to be? We are future focused, already planting the seeds of what life might someday be like. As kids, we start dreaming of being a doctor by day and a ninja by night. A fabulous combo of teacher/pastry chef/horse trainer or soccer star/actor/pilot. The possibilities are endless. In our younger years, throwing on an apron gives us the freedom to imagine being a master chef or a leotard gives us the courage of a prima ballerina. It’s only as we get older that the doubts creep in. The criticism, self-inflicted and otherwise, begins to tear down those dreams. The world begins to feel smaller as we are told to be realistic.
The yardstick we measure ourselves against, the comparison we face, comes from everywhere. The other kids on the team, in the theater company, in our classrooms. The pressure begins to mount and sometimes, for some of our kids, it is too much. The dreams are squeezed right out of them because the bar feels so impossibly high. The joy is snuffed out as the finish line keeps being pushed further ahead. All the reasons for loving the game, the stage, the field, drift away and kids are left without the skills that they actually need to be successful in life.
As someone that has always thrived on achievement, I am the first one to applaud rigor and boundary pushing. To believe kids can achieve incredible things and then watch them reach for those big dreams. To see greatness in them even before they see it in themselves. But I think there is a missing ingredient that is not being taught enough.
Perseverance is to persist in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success. A dictionary definition that sums up beautifully the single greatest skill and possibly best gift we could ever give our kids or model in our own lives.
Interestingly enough, perseverance is not about talent. It’s not about how easy a skill comes. It is about the desire to keep going even when the road is not easy, when challenges crop up, when criticism happens. When talent only takes us so far and we are faced with the decision to put in the work or get off the field. Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors, pointedly shares in his book The Outliers, the magic of 10,000 hours. The persistence, desire and willingness to work 10,000 hours is what sets apart the masters from the dabblers. The titans from the average. That work ethic is the underlying cause for success.
I have seen this time and again in my own life. Talent will only take someone so far because at some point talent is matched. Watching this with friends who played sports, to music, to theater–at some point a decision has to be made. I have witnessed friends soar because they took the magic of 10,000 hours to heart and others who fizzled because when it became hard, they quit. That being said, I do believe it takes a seed of talent. A starting place. And talent sure does set one apart in the beginning. The road is easier at first. There are many factors that contribute to being at the head of the pack: skills, birth month, natural abilities, body composition and awareness, God-given abilities. There are many things we are born with or without. But this is not what I’m talking about. What I want to drive home is that the bit of talent we are given, in whatever area it might be, the things that make our hearts sing and bring us to life, will only ever grow if we are persistent in them.
Even if our kids never set foot on a MLB baseball field or a Broadway stage, the lesson of learning to persevere when challenges arise are the same skills they are going to need when their college professor pushes them outside of their comfort zone. Or their boss gives them an opportunity for a promotion. Or their coach instructs a rigorous new workout program. Or when their marriage is rocked, or their kid needs special care, or their aging parent is diagnosed with cancer.
Life is not linear and it is not fair. The hardest things we go through require us to rise above ourselves. They require us to persist even when everything in us wants to give up. When our bones ache because we don’t believe we have anything left.
But I very much believe that persistence and perseverance can be fostered, encouraged and even grown. They can be modeled and identified. When we as parents acknowledge it in our kids with the small things, they will already have some experience for when the bigger things arise. Recognizing their ability to keep picking up a beginning reader book, even though they are frustrated and trying to sound out words for what feels like the hundredth time, lays the foundation for when they have to work through a difficult group project in middle school or perhaps even someday at work.
The greatest enemy of perseverance are excuses. Throwing up our own roadblocks, saying we don’t have the time or resources. When we focus on the walls instead of the windows we limit ourselves. We miss the opportunity right in front of us to have a breakthrough because we are so focused on all the reasons why we can’t do it. Perseverance looks like waking up early, staying late, one more rep, one more page, one more call, one more job interview, one more counseling session and doing it again, over and over. It looks like believing something before we can see it and having the courage to keep going even when people tell us we can’t. Or mock us for trying.
Rather than asking our kids what do you want to be when you grow up, I’d rather ask the question of who do you want to be? To me, what matters most, is to raise kids who have the skills and tools to be able to persist even when it is difficult. To bet on themselves and take action. To be people who have learned throughout their whole lives that hard work and persistence are the keys to success regardless of what they are striving for. My prayer is that they will have a vast well to draw upon of experiences where perseverance is what carried them through.
Perhaps the greatest aha! moment as a mom is to realize that in order to teach this to my kids, I have to believe it first. I have to live it…first. I have to model the behavior because as we know, when it comes to parenting, more is caught than taught. I have to make persistence part of my life in order for them to see how it can be apart of theirs. To not make excuses or belittle or shut down because an obstacle stands squarely in my path. To have the courage to dream big and then dig deeply to follow through. To lean into our marriage and show our girls the best possible example that we can. To set work goals and see them through. To prioritize my health and well-being and follow through on making healthy choices. I can’t just speak the words, because they mean nothing without action.
The greatest gift of perseverance I have been given was the example of my own parents, who created an entire life with their two hands. To take circumstances that weren’t fair or easy and make something beautiful.
I dedicate this post to my father who had courage beyond compare, a fearlessness I’m not sure I will ever comprehend and a belief in himself and in me that fills me with a confidence that is unmeasurable. Pop, I miss you every day and also know that you are still here in so many ways. Love you.