On Succeeding

My son, David, and I have started a daily practice of working on his academic knowledge. We spend 20 minutes a day together on either Reading, Writing or Math. Looking at problems, trying to understand passages, etc. This is for a multitude of reasons but the biggest among them all is for me to see exactly where he’s at. What he’s weak at and what he’s really strong at.

He’s a good student and he’s only in the second grade. This makes it relatively hard for me to assess his abilities too well. So I figure by spending some time together, I can see his thinking process and understand his way of learning a bit better to see where I could encourage him to grow more and where he might need to be challenged more, etc.

He’s not always the most positive person and I can already see some “I’m good at this and I’m not good at this” behavior starting. I am strongly against the belief that we’re born intelligent or not. I believe that, like most things, success in life (and whether that depends on intelligence is highly debatable) comes with hard work more than anything else. So I told him that he only needs four things to succeed:

  • Focus
  • Discipline
  • Purposeful Practice
  • Time

I’m a firm believer that these four things lead to success each and every time. If you really want to learn/achieve/improve, you need to first work on your focus. If you’re distracted and paying attention a million things at the same time, you’re not really paying attention to anything. I noticed, for example, that David gets stressed when he doesn’t immediately see the way to solve a tricky problem. He then panics which ends up being counterproductive cause the panic kicks in the fight/flight response and shuts down the brain. And the brain is exactly what you need to solve the problem. So panicking, stressing, worrying doesn’t help solve the problem. Focusing does. Thinking out of the box might. But the first thing the problem needs is your undivided attention.

Once you’re focused, you also need discipline. You need to keep showing up. You need to not give up too soon or too easily. I personally think this is harder than focus. This is the reason we walk away from our resolutions. It’s easy to eat well for one day. It’s much much harder to eat well every meal of every day. It’s hard to keep showing up day after day.

Purposeful practice is related to discipline but it’s a bit more sophisticated. It’s not just showing up everyday but it’s also learning from your mistakes, paying attention to where you need to grow more and focusing on those. If I am learning to draw and I get the perspective wrong each time, unless I pay attention to that or look differently or try some new ways, I will not get it right even if I try 100 times. I need to know what problem I’m trying to solve. I need to be purposeful about my practice. So this means reflection, paying attention and practicing in a particular way.

And lastly, the hardest of them all: time and patience. We each take different amounts of time to learn things. Some of us need a few hours where others need weeks. The more you learn, the easier it gets to learn. Once I’d studied six languages, the seventh was much easier, but with the second or third one I learned, I needed to study and practice a lot longer. Time always rewards if you have the other three things on the list. Patience is hard, especially if progress isn’t quickly visible. But, in my experience, if you’re persistent, time always rewards. Always.

And that’s what I told David. I said you don’t already need to know this, you don’t need to be more intelligent, you don’t need anything except for these four things. You need to want it badly enough to do these four things. In my opinion, these are the keys to success every single time.

To be fair, I believe luck plays a big role in life, too.

But I also believe Louis Pasteur said it best: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

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