Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Curse of Aptitude

Aptitude is defined as follows, "An inherent ability, as for learning; a talent: an aptitude for mathematics."

My whole life, one of my worst fears has been mediocrity. And yet, I've kept myself under it's oppressive force for as far back as I can remember. Each and every time that I've become good at something, demonstrated some kind of ability, and then been met with a challenge that would take me to my limit, I've quit or walked away.

When I was younger, eight years old or so, I was a damn good gymnast. I had been doing gymnastics for several years and feats of strength (such as rolling backward into a handstand) which amazed my parents, felt effortless for me. I was doing so well, that my coach asked that I take part in an upcoming competition. That was the last day I attended practice. I told myself for years it was because I didn't like competition and was just in it for fun.

In school, after 8th or 9th grade, math started to become a serious challenge. In 7th grade, when I still had good work habits, I would work myself to tears trying to understand the math, my parents helping me as much as I would allow them. But as I aged, I became 'more independent' and no longer asked for help with my homework. I started doing the bare minimum to get some sort of credit. It was in 10th grade that I truly discovered girls, and in the three hours it took me to finish an instant message conversation, I didn't have time for math homework, and I quit doing it.

This precipitated a drop in my grades, which I rationalized away as my not being any good at math, having no talent for it. The evidence for which being the A's in all my other subjects. A's that I literally put no effort into achieving.

The only subject in middle and high school that gave me any trouble was math and math based sciences such as chemistry and physics. Without doing any homework (very rarely at least) I managed C's and sometimes C+'s. My aptitude, my ability to just look at something and get it to a point, had brought me A's in everything, but in math, the one challenge, it got me C's. Because of the other A's, I convinced my parents I was working as hard as I could and just wasn't getting it, and they became as complacent with my C's as I was. Thus, I began to acquire the habit of only achieving so far as my aptitude would take me. I was a C student getting A's because I never faced a challenge.

I joined the wrestling team in High school because I enjoyed Ju Jitsu and had never tried a school sport (nor had my brothers). I had two friends on the team going in, and found it hard to make genuine connections with anybody else, being simultaneously older and less experienced.

Practice was the hardest thing I've ever done physically. Each practice I would retreat into my head and hope with everything I had that I would make it through without breaking down or vomiting. Each night when I would get into bed I would cry out in physical pain as I laid my stiff and damaged body down to sleep.

My first meet, I pinned my first ever opponent, got beat once badly, and gave another guy such a battle that his coach came over and shook my hand in astonishment at the end of the match. My coach took me aside and told me the other coaches had been inquiring about me and where I came from. I was so proud and so exhilarated by the competition, something I had never felt before.

When my friends, for medical and other reasons, could no longer be on the team, I found myself without a support group to keep me going. I arrived for practice one day and found everybody gearing up for a meet that, somehow, had come up without my notice. I was so embarrassed, and I didn't have my friends there to talk to me and tell me it was fine, just to work through it, that I made the decision to quit right there. I walked up to the coach, told him timidly that my grades were slipping and, as a senior I needed to prioritize and couldn't wrestle anymore. He shook my hand and said ok, nothing else.

I went home, collapsed on my bed and cried. Inside, I was torn apart by a storm of emotions I couldn't identify or understand. I beat my pillow and cried and screamed and couldn't stop the pain from taking over.

It took me a year or longer to understand why, and up until this moment to write it down alongside my other experiences.

The common theme in all of these experiences is that I got good at something, relatively quickly, and without a great deal of effort (if any). My aptitude carried me through every moment in my life that might have been challenging for any other person, and thus, I never learned what it feels like to want something and have to bring yourself to the edge of destruction in order to achieve it. I never learned to put effort into what I was doing and actually earn my rewards.

What I had learned, was where to stop. When my aptitude could take me no further, that was the point I would become frustrated and either quit or settle.

It was in quitting wrestling that I experienced the pain of behaving this way most acutely. I had already been pushing myself beyond breaking five days per week, and had experienced the great reward of getting on the mat with nobody to rely on but myself and battling my opponent to the end. I had the respect of people whose opinions mattered to me, without the arrogance of thinking that I had nothing left to learn. When I quit, it was the only evidence I had ever presented myself with that, unequivocally, demonstrated how below average I really was. People who I had considered stupid or weak, I could see now, had put more effort, more of themselves into everything they had ever done, and still not achieved as highly as me. And when it came my turn to put on those shoes, I quit.

My aptitude has carried me through college, gotten me (mostly) average women, and brought me to student teaching with a chip on my shoulder and a nothing-left-to-learn attitude. My cooperating teacher observed a lesson I taught last friday and tore me apart with her criticism. It was very humbling, and I felt the same fear that I felt every time I went to wrestling practice, the fear that this time I wouldn't make it, that I would give up, that I wasn't good enough, and that I had so much to learn that I could never possibly cover it all and demonstrate competence. I felt, quite clearly, that I wanted to stand up, collect my things and leave the room, never to come back.

Thank god for investment.

I either grow, or I fail and the last three years in college will have been a waste. You can imagine what choice I made. I want to be a teacher, and it is my great fortune that it will not be an easy road. I know that because I am striving to improve and to not only meet a bench mark, but surpass it, that I will have earned my certification. I will have earned my self esteem.

So be careful of aptitude, of talent, of ability that you did nothing to earn. It's a great gift to be able to do something well, and do so quickly, but a great curse if you allow that point where things become difficult, to be the point where you stop. Pretty good is no better than mediocre.