I can do anything! No, really…

I once had an educational psychology professor that proclaimed, categorically, that we can train our brains to do anything. She was adamant that prodigies, geniuses, and virtuosos were merely those who had the most practice at their skill. Of course, many of us in class protested, defending natural gifts and thinking styles, but she shut us all down. It was as simple as this: 3,000 hours of practice at a skill would lead to mastery. With one hour, every day, for eight years, you can prove your genes wrong.

I was rather skeptical that things could be that simple. However, I was interested in this viewpoint, and decided to adopt it with blind faith, just to see what would happen. I tracked how much time I logged practicing certain skills, and how much I improved over time. No surprise—practice was making me better. Suddenly, I realized that (according to this new theory) I could really master anything, as long as I was ok with starting at zero hours and working my way toward 3,000. I really wanted to test this. So I, the same woman who previously viewed walking from one end of the house to the other as “exercise,” took up long-distance running. I’ve since spent many hours with a pair of fine running shoes and the road. Every one of those hours counts towards what I hope will be eventual mastery. (And since female runners peak in their 30’s, I might actually be pretty respectable!)

The point of all this? Well, genes may [almost certainly] have to do with our propensities towards certain skills. But I’ve chosen to ignore that. I remember how believing that I could become a runner made me work harder and more often to do so. So why not decide that anything is possible? Dream, plan, do. It can be that simple, sometimes. And I think this is a positive viewpoint to adopt in the classroom. Any child really can succeed, if he or she is willing to devote time to learning. So much of learning really occurs through practice anyway… It’s less intimidating to think about it like this: no matter how poor your initial performance, the more you write (or read, or evaluate, or throw darts, or play clarinet), the better you will get.

I think today’s population suffers from excessive excuse-making:
“Oh, I can’t do that because…”
A. It’s too hard.
B. That’s not for me.
C. I don’t have that kind of time/money/energy.
D. I suck at it.
E. I can’t miss Lost [or insert TV show title here].

Wouldn’t we all do better to decide that we have unlimited potential, and to work as hard as possible to test its limits? That’s a more positive way to live and teach. I’m not saying that mastering difficult things (writing research papers, for example) is simple. I’m just saying it’s possible. With time and faith, it’s possible. For everybody.


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