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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Failure Equals Success

The other night, the husband and I watched an episode of “Silicon Valley,” which I highly recommend. It’s hilarious. Which is not my point, although it is A point. In this episode, the very weird genius chief executive of a hugely successful Google/Apple type company launches a product that just totally fails. It’s a bomb. Nothing works. So this genius chief exec has to appease his board of directors. He does so by claiming that because most successful inventions start out as unsuccessful failed prototypes, this spectacular failure is not really a bad thing. It’s actually a jumping off point for a future success. In fact, he says, it’s not even a failure at all. And if it’s not a failure, and if it is the precursor to success, well then, it is as good as success. Ergo FAILURE = SUCCESS. 

The husband turned to me and said, "You really have to blog about this." 

To myself I thought, But this is just a big blowhard twisting things around to try to wriggle out of a bad situation by creating some clumsy double-speak. On the other hand, is there some truth to what he says? 

The truth is that that there is more than one truth. 

First of all, how you look at a fact and how you interpret it is indeed colored by your attitude. You can get discouraged if something doesn’t work the first time, and make a little hatch mark on your scoreboard under “I Told You So - Things Never Turn Out for Me.” Or you can say to yourself, I expected things would take time. If at first you don’t succeed, etc, etc. This works if you feel that eventually, you will accomplish your goal. And you will have that confidence if by some miracle you survived your childhood and grew up feeling valued and supported, encouraged and not condemned for mistakes. 

I don’t know that many people like that. But there is always therapy. And affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, friends who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself - and medication. 

Point: that this attitude can be difficult to develop, but not impossible. But I digress, Readers. 

Second of all, it is true that there are always missteps en route to a goal. Once again, how you react to these missteps determines so much. This reminds me of a recent email from the principal of our middle school about a book he’s reading called The Talent Code. This book talks about “deep practice”. Deep practice means learning from your mistakes and practicing to overcome them. Rather than practice something in a half-assed manner over and over, ignoring your mistakes, and thereby thoroughly ingraining those mistakes in your brain, you do it full-assed, stopping and taking those mistakes apart. That way you never learn it wrong.

I read about something related to deep practice in Bounce, by Daniel Seyd, which debunked the idea that talent is everything. Smart coaching and smart learning are key, according to Seyd. He points out that top athletes are exceptional because they have great coaches who help them break down every aspect of their game to tweak it; then, they practice these tweaks until they become automatic. The more parts of your game you make habitual or automatic, the more brain you have left to adjust to the unexpected - and win.  Smart studying, smart coaching, smart analysis: you look at what isn’t working and you figure out how to fix it, rather than practicing the same mistakes over and over again. 

Third of all, think about professional musicians, writers, athletes. They constantly practice their crafts. Every time a musician tackles a new piece, she has to learn it. She will stumble and make mistakes. Eventually she will prevail. Same with a writer. Crapola first draft, second draft, twelfth draft. Eventually, he creates a final draft. Viewed one way, these people are failing over and over again, right up until they succeed. But we don’t look at it like that. We call it practice or revision. Again, from Bounce: consider the figure skater. If you watch a figure skater practice, you will see a person literally falling on her ass over and over and over. That is because once she masters one move, she’s on to the next, harder one. So her success is truly built on multiple failures. 

I recently listened to a talk by Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal entitled, “Benefits of Failure.” Viewed in one way, meditation is practicing failure over and over. That is, the instructions to meditate are very simple: sit still, and notice your breath. Well, if you’ve ever tried to do that, you discover how very easily your mind wanders off and forgets to notice your breath. Failure. So you simply learn to notice when your mind wanders, and return your attention to your breath. When your mind again wanders off, you refocus it on your breath. Failure after failure. 

But, says Gil Fronsdal, maybe we should not look at this as failure. Maybe we should just look at it as practice. Meditation is less about the breath than about practicing paying attention to the breath. The benefit of failure in this case is that we learn that meditation is always about this same effort of returning attention to the breath and failing to maintain it. Failing to maintain that attention is inevitable, so we might as well relax and accept that we will be at this for a long time. 

As Churchill said, “Success always demands a greater effort.”

As Churchill did NOT say, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” 

Happy Thanksgiving! May your oven work and your guests be hungry. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Family Meeting Check-In

Remember that book I read, The Secrets of Happy Families? By Bruce Feiler, who writes a column for the NYTimes on family life and gives TED talks on successful families? I really liked that book, and I really like his ideas. Which I mentioned in this post. 

And since that post, we have stuck with family meetings. We have them every Sunday – almost every Sunday - either before or after dinner.  With an agenda and everything. I have this notebook from Staples (from the Martha Stewart Collection, in case you want to run out and get one), and in it I write the agenda, with occasional input from the husband. Here’s a typical agenda:

So we go over the week’s calendar and come up with tasks we have to do. The 13- year-old records everything because she is that way, and I record everything in my master planner, because I am the mom and thus in charge of remembering it all. I usually try to add something deeper to the agenda, maybe we talk about something we are grateful for that week, or an accomplishment, or set goals for the week, or play a round of Bananagrams or read a poem out loud. Then we adjourn. 

Now, I’d really like to tell you that our family meetings are going well. So I will. They are going well. Really, really well. We all love them and look forward to them. 

This might be a teensy exaggeration. 

Now, a big part of the idea behind the family meeting is that everyone participates. That means everyone can add to the agenda. That means that the children have a big role in the meeting itself. 

The other underlying idea is that the family is an agile system. This term originated in the software industry and has spread to other businesses. It refers to self-correcting project management. In other words, instead of working on a project from beginning to end, then handing it off for review, regular meetings ensure that there are no bad bugs in the system, and allow for fixes before the product is complete, when it would be much harder to change. Meetings are for self-correcting. You look at problems that crop up and tweak them immediately, rather than run farther and farther off course with no correction until your project is completed (or your children grow up and run as far away from you as they can as fast as they can and start intensive therapy.)

Well, this participation and self-correcting aspect (remember, these are fundamental to the idea) have been kind of hard to implement. I’m just not sure I have total buy-in from the key players, possibly including myself. 

Just recently, I heard a snippet Brucie’s TED talk on the family meeting, and he said that you ask at each meeting, What has been working well this week in our family, and what hasn’t been working well? So, I have been a little FRUStrated lately by the laundry situation. The children are supposed to do their own laundry on Sundays. We tried other days, but Sundays was decided to be the best day. 

Yeah. Well, guess what? Laundry isn’t getting done. Maybe it’s getting started on Sunday, but it’s not getting done. And Someone is beginning to suspect there is a strategy behind this – if the laundry molders in the machine long enough, and school starts, then Someone Else will take over and do it. 
Do I need to explain this photo? I think not. 

So. The husband and I were walking the dog, and I mentioned this laundry situation and the idea that the kids were supposed to contribute to the meeting and everyone is supposed to draw up a list of his or her responsibilities at family meeting so there is something to check in about. So I say to the husband, "Maybe we should talk about the laundry, which is definitely not working." And I also want to draw up the lists of responsibilities. So we decide that since the 17 yo is in the middle of applications and school, we will forego doing both at the next meeting and just lay the ground work for the laundry situation by having everyone draw up that list of responsibilities. 

So here is how it went. 

Ding, ding, ding, everyone to family meeting. 12th grader stands by table, looking at her phone. 8th grader grabs the Martha Stewart Collection notebook and a sharpened pencil and is ready. We go over old business. We go over the calendar. I fail to note that I’ve written down that the husband has ballet pick-up duties on Monday night, which is not the usual schedule.

We move on the agenda item – activity: list responsibilities. I pass out paper and pencils. We begin to write our lists. Except the 17 yo. Who refuses. 

Why won’t she do this, we ask?
"I just think there is a hidden agenda," she says. 
"What do you mean?" We say.
"Well, obviously, you want me to write ‘laundry,’ and I’m not getting the laundry done." 

So we had to admit that, yes, the laundry situation is part of it. But also, the point is to write down our responsibilities to ourselves as well as basic chores. (of which there are way too few, probably, for us to create contributing members of society, but I feel helpless to change that.) 
More balking. 
Eventually, she wrote this: 

Then we adjourned the meeting. 

The next night, Monday, we forgot to pick up her from ballet.

So you can see it is all going very smoothly.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

#TBT When I Have Fears

Well, I missed my Wednesday deadline this week, Readers. I apologize. So much busyness abounding in life that I just didn't get to everything. Nothing new here. More frustration on the writing front. And we’re mired in performance rehearsals for both children, in ballet and musical theater.  

Of course there is drama related to these performances. You know - who got what role and the appearance of favoritism - not in favor of my children, otherwise I would likely be unconcerned - let’s be honest. Many tears and self-recriminations from one child. Much stiff upper-lipping and monotoning from the other child. And I am rocketing between if and how or if at all to respond. 

This drama actually followed me to the doctor a couple weeks ago. There I had the  the strange and humorous experience of being at my annual gynecological (cover your eyes if you’re squeamish here) exam, literally with my feet in the stirrups and hearing my writing complimented. (For a response I did make to one situation.) 

For those of you who like to sip a cuppa something while reading my blog - and I've heard there are at least two of you - I'm attaching this piece from November, 2012. While the participants have aged, I must say, the Keats poem seems apropos. My fears, apparently, are timeless. 

When I Have Fears
By John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, 
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

I don't know why this poem struck me so much tonight. I read it to the children at dinner. Reading entire books aloud has become too difficult with everyone's schedules, but I decided we could fit in a poem a night, at dinner. The rule is to pick a poem quickly, from the Norton Anthology, even at random, and it has to be less than a page long. The 5th grader is into it. She loves to read aloud. The 9th grader endures it, sometimes with interest, despite herself. We've been at it since school started. I agree with the 5th grader. It is more fun to read aloud than to be read to; but it's good to do both.

Okay, I do know why this poem struck me tonight. It's because Keats is laying out his ambition and his fears. He's worried about dying before he gets all the good creative stuff out. He doesn't just want to get the "grains" out of his "teeming brain," though. He wants to put them into books. Plural. A stack of them. "High-piled." He wants success, people, and he's in a hurry.

He doesn't only want writing success, however. He also wants success in love. He wants it all. Well-rounded success.

I can relate. To the wanting part. And I have the benefit of history. Keats was right to be in a hurry. He was ill, and he died at 26. He loved Fanny Brawne, but things didn't go smoothly, because he had money troubles.

How does this relate to me? I am now closer to being twice Keats' last age than his last age, and I struggle with fear and ambition, too. I am under no illusion, however, that I'll write anything that will outlast me, and that causes me melancholy. Howevs, I am grateful I am tuberculosis-free, and only have a faint rash, probably caused by the synthetic fibers in my new workout shirts (according to the dermatologist.) So life goes. A little poetry, a little steroid cream, some generalized free-floating anxiety.

I am grateful to Keats.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Annals of Successful Parenting, Volume: I Forget

I think we’ve visited our last college. Vassar. A gorgeous day, a gorgeous campus. By now, I could run an information session for any liberal arts college on the Eastern Seaboard. Not that Vassar is on the Eastern Seaboard - at least not technically. In spirit, though, it is definitely a fine little ship docked on the Eastern shores of our great nation. 
My she was yar

Vassar: My she was yar. That’s a reference to Katharine Hepburn in one of the best movies ever, The Philadelphia Story, which pretty much sums up the Eastern Seaboard experience. Or at least the WASP version. (And is there a more important version?)

Anyhoo, as I was saying, I could run an information session, but I wouldn’t trust myself to run a tour, because walking backwards is not recommended if you don’t know the campus. Although now that I think about them all, on one of our tours, the tour guide announced that at that particular institution (Small Liberal Arts College in the East - SLACE) the guides do NOT walk backwards, but walk forwards - yes, for safety reasons, but also to emphasize the forward-facing attitude of that SLACE. 

Gag me. 

No, really, do, because I’m about to spew a generic information session, from the diversity of the student body to the “holistic application process” to financial aid "meeting one hundred percent of demonstrated need" and believe me, if I hear it one more time, I may actually die of boredom. 

However, I have enjoyed hanging out in the student center of whatever SLACE we visit. It’s always fun to observe the clothing and footwear on the students. Yesterday netted some white platform sandals over black tights on one, a pair of floral combat boots on another, and a totally nondescript looking boy accessorized with black cat ears, a little black nose, and whiskers. “Possibly a furry?” the Senior suggested. Hard to say. I'm not even sure what that is. He wasn’t wearing anything furry. All he reminded me of was the phase that the 8th grader went through when she was in pre-K of wanting a little black nose and whiskers on her face every morning before school. I complied. Sometimes you need a little mask to get through the day, I guess. 

Better than a drink, right? 

Speaking of which, we dodged a bullet regarding teen drinking this past weekend. The husband and I left the Senior at home alone while we went off to visit friends in Boston. The 8th grader went to a friend’s house. So it was a ripe set-up for a "Risky Business" teen blowout party. I felt obligated to leave my child alone at least once before she goes away to some SLACE. 

Before we left, we brought the her to tears with stories about how you can die from alcohol poisoning, and Roofies (, and not letting drunken teenagers into our house because we could be held liable for anything that happened to them. When we returned, the house was in excellent order. In fact, in better order than we left it, thanks to some of the Senior’s friends, who know how to, say, fold blankets and comforters - something the Senior seems to have avoided learning. (She is so busy, after all. Not my fault at all, at all..) She told us she had nothing to drink at all, at all. And we believed her. 

As a fellow mom recently told me, she has been so overwhelmed of late that she has decided to consider everything a success. And so it is, Readers.