Teaching Jay and Wally to work hard

We had a busy weekend. Saturday morning we went out early for breakfast at a nearby taqueria.  Caroline and I had been anticipating “Mexican breakfast” all week: in a stage of our lives where both of us are carrying around expired passports, we get our cultural thrills where we can.  The restaurant was empty the whole time we were there which allowed us to relax a little but detracted from the voyeurism we’d hope to enjoy along with our eggs and beans (which were themselves, delicious).

And Saturday night we went out with our friends John and Hallie to The Ravens Club in downtown Ann Arbor (New American small plates, fussy cocktails).  The highlights were housemade charcuterie and a rye-based cocktail called the Ill Fashioned.  For Jay, though, there was little redeeming about the evening.  We left him with a babysitter— a very capable German exchange student named Ronja who lives just down the road from us.  Jay turned in his typical babysitter performance: He fell into hysterics as soon as it became clear we were leaving, and then soon after we left he pulled it together just long enough to tell Ronja that he wanted to proceed directly to his crib.  (We wonder why he’s so bad at being left for the night—it could just be his constitution, or maybe it’s that we started him too late on babysitters.)

But the experience that had me thinking this morning took place on Sunday at a one-year-old’s birthday party.  There I met a pair of Olympic-level marathoners who were there with their two-year-old daughter.  The wife, Zuzana, ran in Beijing for Slovakia and the husband Alex’s best time so far, 2:18:58, is 58-seconds short of earning him an automatic qualifying spot on the Serbian national team.

I talked with both of them for awhile—about their running careers, her Olympic experience, and about the type of training schedule they’d recommend if I want to try and significantly improve on my marathon time from two-years ago. In our conversation she alluded to the fact that her Olympic run had ended up being very disappointing.  After I got home I found a blog that she’d kept during the ’08 games which contained the details.  She had stomach problems which necessitated two pit stops and she got hit with two huge hamstring cramps in the final miles, which pushed her to the back of the pack and resulted in a 2:49 finish, which was 10 minutes off her best time.

Since the birthday party I’ve been thinking about my conversation with Zuzana and Alex in the context of my own life, and what I hope for Jay and Wally in terms of how they understand hard work and excellence.  Personally, I don’t have a particularly strong understanding of the relationship between hard work and achievement.  I’ve worked decently hard at a bunch of things, but I’ve never applied myself with complete commitment to any one goal or task.  As a result, I don’t really know what it takes to go beyond basic proficiency in any realm.

By disposition I’m close to the opposite of a Tiger Parent.  As I’ve written many times, I think healthy child development is too complex to be actively managed and it’s more important to me that Jay and Wally be well-rounded than that they’re excellent in any particular area.

But…I do want Jay and Wally to have a deep understanding, developed from experience, about the relationship between hard work, excellence, and personal fulfillment.  I want them to learn what it’s like to push through the discomfort of intensive practice, and to come out on the other side with pride in their accomplishments and an ingrained understanding of what it takes to be successful in whatever realm they choose to apply themselves.  I don’t really know yet how I can help them develop this understanding.  I just know that I want to.

It's still early, but I think Jay might have the temperament for intensive practice. Here he is over Christmas vacation applying himself to the task of learning to make a S'MORE.