Sunday, March 6, 2011

"I am not smart"

Over the weekend, at our local tennis club, I met this young lady Judy (not her real name) who is a highly talented sportsperson. She is a high achiever in all areas of sports: table tennis,swimming, netball, socceer,and athletics. Her grandma tells us she has only been playing tennis a few years yet she is playing such high quality tennis at the moment.

While we were yakking away watching my other half play, Judy was asked what she wanted to do after she finishes school. I heard her made this remark: “I am not smart in school.” Her pronouncement was made as if her fate was sealed and the doors to future academia was closed to her forever.

I took the opportunity to tell her not to believe in the “I am not smart” thought process. Here is the thing about our brain – it is like a muscle, the more you use it, the better it becomes. At the end of the day, it may take Judy a lot more time to get to where “the smart kids” can achieve, nevertheless Judy can learn to make her brain work harder in areas she cannot do.

Noted author cum paediatrician Mel Levine’s One Mind at a Time is worth revisiting. Levine’s book highlights that our mind comes in different shapes and forms. Some kids may have advance verbal language skills but are poor spellers or writers. Another kid can’t follow things in a sequence. Have you ever met someone who can take apart complex parts of a machine but is never interested in school and its process? His overriding message is it is not that important to be good at everything.

Judy the sportsperson has superior kinaesthetic skills. Some people are wired like that. But boxing herself as “not smart” couldn’t be furthest from the truth. She is very smart – just in a different way.

Looking back at my school days, I can’t help but notice, a lot of the good sportspeople weren’t necessarily the most academic; and the top girls usually were quite poorly coordinated. There were exceptions of course but they were few and far between. I remember a girl in my class who could draw the most detailed pictures in art, obviously she had far superior spatial skills, but was never that good at other stuff in school. Again – nature can be cruel or kind – you can be endowed with all levels of intelligence or miss quite a few.

There is a message worth reinforcing to our kids – being smart (in the way that implies one has natural aptitude for passing exams or getting a high score by not having to work as hard) does not guarantee success in life.

The early bird catches the worm. The tortoise eventually won the race. The hoards of ants around my house never stop working to feed the queen ant. There are plenty of examples to show our kids that effort counts the most. If we work at something long enough, eventually we too will “get it”.

Mum used to always tell us “failure is the mother of all success”. It wasn’t necessarily internalised when I was young. But now, a lot older, and hopefully wiser, I would like to pass on this to my kid: the real advantage is not having brains but being able to keep trying, never giving up. Eventually, the person who succeeds is none other than the one willing to stay in the game the longest.