The Things We Are Measured By


Teghan doesn’t have much patience. If she can’t figure a thing out in the first second that she tries, it will most likely get thrown across the room. But in spite of her impatience, she can also be surprisingly stubborn. This means that the scenario of trying, failing, and then throwing things may repeat itself all day long if she wants something bad enough.

If she makes a mistake she likes us to do it for her. Sometimes it’s as simple as tapping an app on our phone. Even if she has done it a million times, all it takes is one missed tap, and she doesn’t want to do it on her own anymore. Then in secret I will catch her “practicing.” It’s as if she is facing a constant battle between self-doubt and determination. Aren’t we all?

Her lack of awareness when it comes to social situations gets me out of a lot of typical parent/kid discussions. She has no conversation skills. She doesn’t know how to play with other people. This also means no hurt feelings, broken friendships, or competition with others.  She only competes with herself, and she has her own definition of winning.

I have seen her face light up when she figures something out for the first time. Maybe I am missing an opportunity here. I have been thinking about my own childhood (as I do), and how my accomplishments and failures affected me. And I think I am approaching this parenting topic all wrong. There is a lesson on winning and losing that I don’t think I am off the hook for after all.

Competition with others can build us up, or it can make us want to quit something altogether. I mean, all of us have been knocked down a peg or two by someone whose abilities were so superior that we figured we might as well throw in the towel. You either give up, or you aspire to be as good as the person crushing your spirit. Hopefully the choice is obvious. But that’s only one version of what leads us toward competitive success and confidence.

When I was in elementary school I loved the Arts and Science Fair. Every year we would turn in our projects, and then on a future date we would be brought into the gymnasium where all of our creations would be on display with their awards. We would excitedly search for our entries and hope for at least a blue ribbon.

Second and third place ribbons were the norm. You know, for participation. I guess second place was given when they could tell that you had at least made some kind of an effort. Third place ribbons were basically the equivalent of a teacher calling you stupid.

And then there was the coveted trophy that I would never get.

photo 2 (5)I still loved that it was a possibility. The projects were judged, but there was no limit on how many people could win a trophy. As an adult I have found this to be a more common scenario in life. There is room at the top for whoever rises to the challenge of getting there.

The options were endless, and you could almost always find a project that met your skill set. Maybe I didn’t figure that part out soon enough. Each year I racked my brain for the perfect project, and each year I came home with another second place ribbon. It was still fun to walk around with my friends and see what everyone else had turned in.

I would take notes on which projects were most likely to receive trophies. Gingerbread houses and baked goods seemed to be the clear winners. They handed out the top prize to almost any effort in these categories. No white ribbons in the bunch. I was never going to build one of those houses, and I had never baked in my life- but the photo collage of my visit to the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary certainly hadn’t impressed anyone. I was going to need to step up my game. So one year I decided I would write, direct, and co-star in my own short film.

I found three other cast members (two boys and another girl), and I even convinced my teacher to give us time during class to rehearse. I wrote two short comedies, and for weeks we practiced our lines. It was exciting to see my plays come to life. The last step in the project was for everyone to come to my house after school where my dad would tape it (at the time my dad had a side business videotaping weddings, so he was practically a professional).

Unfortunately we waited until the very last minute to film. On the day that everyone was supposed to come over, the two boys forgot to get signed permission slips to get off the bus at my house. I still remember us kids sitting in the principal’s office trying to find a way around the problem. Eighties technology was not on our side, and one of the boys had no way of getting a signature in time. We also didn’t have time to reschedule, so the whole project got thrown out along with all my hopes for a trophy.

There are few things more rewarding than bringing a grand idea to fruition. Even if no one cares, there is a reward in just making it happen. I had done the hardest part by putting the plan into motion, but that was little comfort without the final product.

The truth is that if I had been able to film that video for the Arts and Science Fair, and they had given me a second place ribbon- I would have been angry. I would have felt devastated that my hard work and passion wasn’t recognized the way I believed it should have been. But it also would have gone down in history as my best art fair project, in spite of winning a blue ribbon the following year for a simpler effort. If I had managed to complete the movie according to the vision I had in my head, I would have been that more confident and better prepared for the next opportunity.

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When we put ourselves into something, and what we end up with is exactly what we had intended, we will always feel successful. How we feel about an outcome has little to do with the trophy we earn. It comes down to our ability to take action and make the things in our head a reality. Or sometimes to just be willing to show the world what we can do, rather than keeping it a secret.

It’s the reason people take pay cuts to change their career, feel satisfied with publishing a novel that isn’t paying the bills, and record the songs in their head. I suppose it’s the reason I continue to write these posts. Maybe most of the people in my world don’t really care, but if I stopped now I would regret it for sure. There is a worthwhile sense of accomplishment in simply doing what you promised yourself you would do. And that is never as easy as it sounds.

Recognition may mean more to us when we have an emotional stake in the matter, but we confuse ourselves by thinking that recognition is the thing we are measured by. Praise is an excellent confidence builder, but there is an obvious reason why successful people have a lot of failures under their belts. They act on the ideas in their head, and figure out early on that seeing it through is its own reward. Confidence comes from what we can prove to ourselves, not what we can prove to others.

This year I am going to make a greater effort toward making the things in my head a reality. I am going to work harder at taking action without fear, regret, or hesitance over what others may think. I am going to learn from those whose talents are worth aspiring to. I am going to do my best to pass these lessons on to Teghan, who may actually have an advantage without the clutter of social road blocks.

She lacks patience and competitive drive from others, but it turns out that one of the great lessons in life has no actual dependency on our social talents. We have to work on her patience, but I know it’s wrapped up in her stubbornness. Which can also be an asset. It turns out I can actually help her figure this one out, even if it is on the most basic level. And it feels like a perfect New Year’s resolution for all of us.


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