Effort, not outcome

Today was a busy day for M and me: first a group guitar lesson, then a swim lesson, then a private guitar lesson, then an extra private guitar lesson with the new teacher our school is looking at.

As I reflect on the day, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right goals. A bedrock principle of sane living is to focus on effort, not on outcomes. After all, you can control your own effort (usually!), but you cannot control outcomes. To be sure, you can learn from outcomes, and they provide valuable feedback. But if your ego is invested in getting a particular outcome, your ego’s in for some regular bruising.

But during the group lesson, I couldn’t help but compare M’s performance (an outcome) with that of other kids. And I noticed myself feeling envious and competitive — even though I simultaneously know that M’s performance is, in most ways, better than the very same kids that arouse feelings of envy! Specifically, I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe [Girl X] is already on that Book 2 song and we’re still in Book 1! We’re behind!”

But I have made a conscious choice to embrace the Suzuki principle of mastery before progress, and I have deliberately resisted advancing faster through Book 1. Further, M has markedly better technique than Girl X, so what sense does it make to be envious when Girl X hacks her way through a song that she can’t even really play? I don’t even want M to do that — and yet my competitive, reptilian brain thinks, “We should be further than we are!”

Then, after the group lesson, I had a funny conversation in which M showed herself to be focused on an outcome in an unhelpful way. Several weeks earlier, she had shared the “killer tone award” in group class, but she hadn’t taken the trophy home because the student who previously had it didn’t bring it to class. So today, she got her chance to take custody of the award for a week. As we walked home, she was holding the trophy. We had this exchange:

  • M: I’m really proud of myself.
  • Me: That’s nice. What for?
  • M: Because I have this trophy. Are you proud of me?
  • Me: I see. I am proud of you, but not because you have the trophy. See, the trophy is just a sign that you did something to be proud of. What you should be proud of is how you played. It’s important to do your best, and if you do the best you can and really make a good effort, then you should be proud of yourself. And you might win a trophy for doing such a good job. But you can’t always count on getting a trophy or an award even when you do a good job, and sometimes you might get a trophy or award even if you don’t do your best job. So it’s important to focus on your own effort and to be proud when you do your best.

(This, by the way, is from a dad who, when he was growing up, would have laughed at anyone who said this — because the only thing ever rewarded in my family was achievement (i.e., outcomes), not effort.)

The final cherry on top of our guitar day was when the new teacher, during M’ s lesson with him, criticized me — whom he had never met, and who was doing him a favor! — for (in his opinion) having insufficiently drilled her on the D scale.

Note to teachers: If a student says, “We haven’t practiced [item X] very much,” do not say to the child while smirking at the parent, “Well, who’s fault is that?”

[Update: The new teacher emailed me later to say he was just “teasing” me — as if “teasing” is inherently friendly. It’s not. (A possible topic for another day’s post.)]

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