Practice Makes Passion

Who among us hasn't at some point been faced with a daunting and seemingly endless task that was just too unwieldy to confront, let alone tackle? A necessary house project, a work responsibility? For current or recent students, these sorts of hurdles are more common: the bar exam, a prerequisite class, a research paper. What is more frustrating is seeing a colleague or friend pursuing the same end with an incessant smile and an unflappably chipper attitude while you slog through details, drowning in your own boredom.

There is a solution, or at least an approach, which is beautifully laid out by Penelope Trunk, an entrepreneur and writer, in a blog post, reprinted in an article for Business Insider, about her son's audition for the Juilliard Pre-College Program. Go ahead and read that article first, then come back to this afterward. It's OK. We'll wait...

Everyone back? Good.

Some of you may remember my previous posts about growth mindset and metacognition, and for you Ms. Trunk's take is not new. Regardless, this story puts a very fine point on one perspective that breeds success and how that path that can lead to academic happiness.

The early years of school (before, say, fifth grade) are often reasonably smooth sailing, comparatively anyway. The homework load is small, the content is often fun and engaging, and the pressure exerted by high-stakes assessments is relatively small. It can thus be easy to overlook the necessity to develop behaviors that could be leveraged into future academic triumphs.

Ms. Trunk's son clearly adores music and his cello. He enjoys many of the seeming drudgeries of music practice for their own sake. He finds pleasure in the minutia. With the help of his teacher, he can break down the content into smaller and smaller chunks, deepening his understanding of the music and unearthing further pleasure. Though at times he struggled to muster the motivation, his love of the cello helped to overcome those periods of distraction and reinvigorate his practice.

In the midst of work we don't find compelling, these are skills that are difficult to develop and hone, and that is exactly what we ask our children to do in Middle School. But Ms. Trunk has hopefully avoided that issue. By encouraging her son's passion for the cello, she has helped find a comfortable space in which he can learn to love to work. As she says in the article, "You have to have a proclivity for hard work (which might be as crucial and inheritable as talent) combined with the ability to take joy in the process itself." Once her son can do so in the practice room, he will be more easily able to transfer that ability to other tasks, like a repetitive math worksheet, Spanish vocabulary cards, or a research project on the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The analogy of school work to music is a powerful one for me. I was a professional opera singer prior to working in education, and the joy I found in my practice rooms (and still find at my piano at home) helped me to focus and train my mind toward difficult tasks. For others, music may not make sense in this way, but music is not the only pursuit that has these benefits. Take for instance:

  • The young soccer player who spends hours after school kick a ball against the wall, practicing dribbling, and poring over YouTube videos of Lionel Messi.
  • The chess fanatic who stares at a written recaps of famous matches, taking copious notes, and discovering and practicing new approaches.
  • The artist who sits in front of a tree or statue or photograph, flicking her pencil at the page intermittently, apparently lost in the image.
  • The book lover who walks down the sidewalk, frayed-edge novel in hand, nearly colliding with every pole as each new story unfolds in front of his eyes.

Not every eleven-year-old manages to find a singular focus as these ones do. But, it is these eleven-year-olds who are organizing their minds into efficient machines, capable of accomplishing goals great and small because they love to work.

So, what is the takeaway for parents? Figure out what your child's passions are early on. Encourage them to pursue those passions not causally but intensely. Help them develop the tools early to suffer then savor the work necessary to excel at their passions. If that early passion does not become their profession, their dedication will not have been pointless. They will carry those tools with them long past their childhoods and ultimately find that same pleasure at school and in their future occupation.