It all started with Go Up, a beautiful and rather meditative video game made by the makers of Stack—a game at which I had already become proficient, with a score past 100, if you can even imagine. So, when my 10-year-old, Ellie, introduced me to Go Up, I knew I’d be great. O! the great pleasure I would feel in being basically awesome right away at a game where Ellie’s highest score was 12. Let me impress you, Ellie, I thought, so we can both recreate that feeling from when you were four and I was the magician who could peel a nectarine in one continuous peel. The years where I am the smartest person you know (Thanks for that, kid! Mwah!) are quickly dwindling. And I am not ready to give up being amazing in the big eyes of my child. P.S. Stop growing up.
I couldn’t even score more than four.
Do you have a smart phone? Please go to your nearest app store and download Go Up. Give it a go for five or so tries.
What was your highest score?
If you say anything more than eight, you can go jaunt off to the nearest dark forest. I hope you can navigate in pitch black with a bear on your tail as well as you can play Go Up.
I gave up with a harumph. Twelve?! Impossible!
Then her score kept climbing. My competitive streak combined with a feeling of shame, urging me to pick up my phone and try again. After a couple of days of periodic bursts of twenty games in a row, I had beat her score of 26. Then she scored in the 40s. COME ON.
But I kept at it. And now I am surely no more than one phone call on hold with Telus, two grocery store queues, and seven bathroom breaks away from scoring 100.
It’s just a simple video game. But, horribly and shamefully enough, I can’t think of the last time I really worked at picking up a new skill without being compelled to by terror. Working at something I’m not naturally good at is not my M.O. There are enough things that I’m pretty good at, so why not just stick with them? I’d rather work at the things I’m already a little bit good at.
Unfortunately, as I’m getting older, I’m realizing that the things at which I’m good are things I don’t much like to do, or are simply frivolous:
- flower arranging (frivolous)
- making cookies (don’t enjoy this at all)
- pimple popping (frivolous)
- cleaning a bathroom (you’re smart enough to guess)
I’d like to be good at surfing. At speed reading. At doing math in my head. At playing drums and guitar. At remembering a joke. At routine. At coding. At identifying trees.
I’m not sure I have ever witnessed someone close to me really persist at something. I did not grow up with this example. I honestly didn’t realize it was possible for the average person to excel at something tough without devoting actual Olympic training-level attention to it. Then I met my partner.
The following is an interview with my future wife, who loathes that title for herself but loathes it less than I love to use it for political and emotional reasons, so she lets me.
Me: Okay, so tell me about when you were a kid and you weren’t very smart.
Lynne: *bursts into hearty laugh* (I knew she would laugh exactly like that.) Well, it lasted for about four days….
Me: *laughs* Okay, for real.
Lynne: I didn’t know that I “wasn’t smart” until I went to school. Then, up until grade three, school was everything I was bad at except gym and art. I remember being pulled out of classes when kids in first and second grade were doing reading stuff, and I went to the resource room. I was so far behind my peers that they didn’t know what to do with me so I was just cutting pictures out of books. But I could interact well verbally, and was social and popular, so I belonged in the school, but they kept recommending to my parents that they make me repeat a grade. […] Something changed in third grade. I don’t know if I was dyslexic or what. I went to this place in Calgary and saw this guy who made me do exercises. There was a ball that had letters on it and it hung from the ceiling and I’d have to spin it and look at the letters. So, at the beginning of third grade, I had less than a kindergarten reading level. And at the end of third grade, I had an eleventh grade reading level and had learned to speed read. Unfortunately, math never took off like that.
(I can confirm that Lynne is at least twice as fast at reading than I am.)
Me: Okay, so tell me about your abilities with math and your desire to learn to sail.
Lynne: My lack of abilities, you mean?
Me: Yeah, but I didn’t want to word it like that.
Lynne: Short paragraph. I had none and it never went away. I saw my peers being able to roll with what was being taught and I just could not fucking figure out what was going on at all. I was confounded. So, I basically hacked my way through high school math so I could get into university. And by hack, I mean cheat.
Me: Okay, so to further give context, let’s tell a short version of that story.
Lynne: I had to stop taking math classes in high school because I couldn’t even understand and follow the lower level math, and I needed an average level of eleventh grade math to get into any university. And there was no way I could take any class and pass it. No fucking way. So, I took math through correspondence. I had my friend Angela do it and then had my dad, who was really good at math, correct it, then I undid some of his corrections so it wouldn’t be perfect, so when I mailed it in, it would seem like I did it. Then I did all of Angela’s 12th grade English work. I did all the short stories, wrote all the essays, did all the poems, and then debriefed her on what I did so she could have a discussion in class about it. Then, in order to pass my math, I had to write a proctored final exam at my high school. And I knew I wasn’t on the guidance counsellor office’s radar at all, so I knew they’d let me write in a room by myself. I went through the exam, wrote down all the questions that made no sense, while Angela was in her car outside the school. We met beforehand, synchronized our watches and made a plan that I would go to the bathroom at 2:30, and in the second stall of the girls’ bathroom on the second floor, I would put the paper of questions I didn’t understand into the sanitary napkin box. Angela would come in at 2:35, get the questions, do them in her car and put them back. I did the exam parts I understood and then I went back, picked it up, brought it back, and that gave me 20 minutes or so to copy her work.
Me: Nice. Then, you got to go to university and study humanities, without even having to take any math courses, so why did you even need to pass math to get into university? Ridiculous. When did you want to become a sailor and how much math was involved and what did you do?
Lynne: I was in 9th grade when I wanted to learn to sail, super bad after my Salts trip and then super, super bad after I saw the movie Wind. They taught some stuff on the Salts trips and I didn’t even bother trying to to learn because I couldn’t understand points of sail. It was so hard for me, which is funny in retrospect. I checked out books from the library and it didn’t make any sense. I went to a UVic sailing club where some people were instructing and it felt like elementary school again where everyone else was getting it. It wasn’t until I had to teach it to kids at camp and had to break it down, that I started to get it. I watched videos and read several books and tried to break it down step-by-step for the kids.
Me: Why didn’t you give up?
Lynne: Because that part of it was a means to a more spiritual end. Sailing, to me, feels like the most at peace and the most powerful, and—it’s all cheesy but it’s true—the most at one with nature that I’ve ever felt. Like, to be able to just leave the inner harbour and sail… to China. To New York. It’s using just wind and water but it’s like magic. Matt wanted to sail around Vancouver Island, and he just did. It’s like a super power. So, with math, there was no reason to learn a hard thing that was boring. But then I taught myself the hardest math I’ve ever had to use—physics, trigonometry, algebra, geometry, unit conversions….
Me: And you still can’t even do addition in your head very well.
Lynne: Nooo. No. …And I can’t do long division anymore… even on paper. I couldn’t do the coastal navigation stuff right now if I had to. It would take me, like, a week. But I got 95% at the time.
I’m so inspired by this story.
It’s notable that she was not raised by people who believed in her. I left out the part where her dad, looking over her shoulder as she tried to do math, said, “What, are you stupid?” and slammed her bedroom door as he left. Her parents were good to her in ways too, but for reasons I won’t get into, they watched her intently for signs that she could redeem them as parents. Their expectations and needs were high, and every time she failed, their disappointment was so profound for reasons that are understandable, but which caused a lot of damage to a sensitive child who just needed encouragement.
So, how did this person persevere anyway?
- She focused on a powerful emotion she experienced and wanted to experience again. She knew what she wanted her life to feel like and she chased that feeling down. I think it’s a crucial life lesson to know how to tell if you care about something enough. Sometimes it’s hard to decide between careers or to decide whether to have a child or to marry. If you have to ask, it’s probably not right. The thing to persevere at is the thing you can’t tear yourself from. If you don’t care if you feel stupid or look stupid, that’s a good sign.
- She tried different learning materials. When one book didn’t work, she didn’t assume the problem was all her own and then give up. There are different ways to learn, so she sought out new materials, like instructional video. Sometimes, finding the right teacher is all that’s needed. Some experts forget what it was like to not know things and they no longer know how to talk in non-industry speak and that can make people feel like it’s their own faults.
- She found a second thing she badly wanted to do, that created even more incentive to learn to sail. She wanted to be a camp counsellor in Maine, teaching kids to sail. So, she said that she could teach sailing better than she actually could, and this forced her to really buckle down and learn. By having to break things down for kids, it helped her to see where the holes of understanding were and helped her to think in new ways. (Committing to something without being certain of being able to do it is not for everyone. I would have panic attacks. I hate not being able to follow through so much that I’d have too much anxiety to learn.)
- She pulled from lessons from earlier in her life when she thought she was “stupid” and turned out to be very smart.
- Instead of telling herself she was bad at math, she told herself that it hadn’t been interesting enough before.
Lynne was able to learn early on that her brain can eventually adapt and learn new, hard things. That has allowed her to jump at opportunities outside her ability, then learn what needed to be done, and then continue to leap over steps. So, now she has a government job as a graphic designer, where she is adored, and has taught design at college, beating out a local talented architect, without having formally studied graphic design, in a competitive city where even people with degrees have trouble finding good relevant work.
As silly as it sounds, my little achievement with my iPhone game made me think about how I approach hard things I want to be able to do. Calling up other examples I know of, like Lynne’s, I now believe that other people aren’t necessarily smarter or more innately talented. They’ve just read a book I haven’t read, or met a teacher I haven’t met, or had more interest than I have had. I now believe that I can figure out almost anything, if I’m just interested enough. Unfortunately, I am amply interested in too many things, and choosing is torture.
Sometimes, I can make decisions easily, though. I never, ever thought I would get a tattoo of anything, anywhere. But a few years ago, I got a cliché tattoo of an anchor, without overthinking it. On my neck. A life decision I would have thoroughly mocked years ago. And I did it for Lynne. Because life is for passion and commitment to your passion. And I’m pretty passionate about her.