As a child, our son was not a natural athlete.
But he was an enthusiastic one.
When he was in fifth grade, he played on three basketball teams. That's three practices a week, three uniforms to wash, three game schedules; hours of driving with water bottles rolling around the minivan floor, cup holders overflowing with clementine peels, apple cores, and Big Mac wrappers.
Three teams, 36 games, not a single win.
The preceding soccer season his two teams had similarly dismal records.
The question that rattled around my brain as I shuttled between games, practice, and sports superstores was, will this losing pattern ruin him for life?
On a good day, I was able to blow off this silly question and move quickly to admiration for my kid's resilient nature. He seemed oblivious to his teams' records and couldn't wait till the next game to try harder.
On bad days this was where my mind went. 'How will he ever see himself as a winner if he doesn't taste victory? If he never sees himself a winner, how will reach for his highest potential? If he doesn't reach how will he succeed in life? If he doesn't succeed, he will have to live with us forever -- he'll take over the TV remote and peels, cores, and fast-food wrappers will overtake the house.
I know I read something about a direct correlation between athletic success in fifth grade and future net worth.
What disturbed me most about my son's string of losses was that it disturbed me at all. My son didn't seem rattled by it, why should I?
Perhaps my definition of winning was narrow and myopic -- winning equals achievement that is clearly recognized by others, like acing an exam, getting into the Ivy League, landing that top position, or making the cover of Working Mother magazine.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled this same son, about two years earlier, having said something to the effect, ''I don't want to do what you do when I grow up. Consulting is kind of hard because if you give someone the wrong advice, their business could fail . . . and Dad works with really big, important companies so if he does something wrong, that could be really bad, and I don't think I could be a lawyer because if you make a mistake then someone could go to jail, or a doctor because if you goof up, someone could die."
Oh my, I thought, either this little guy was wrestling with some really big demons or I have to do a better job explaining how things work. I offered what I could.
''Gabe, it takes an awful lot to do a job without mistakes. Most people don't succeed all the time. The good news is that you only have to try your best at being 9 right now."
Out of curiosity I added, ''Can you think of a job where it might be important to make mistakes?" My son brightened a little and said, ''A scientist!"
I'm no scientist but from what I gathered, success as a scientist is about the little wins. It is about staying present with the feedback the world gives you and redefining your goals accordingly. The scientific approach to my son's athletic career might have been to encourage what works, his love of playing.
Clearly there are certain paths that require specific wins. You cannot become a doctor if you don't ace your exams, nor can you play pro ball if you have never won a game. But those are not the only ways to feel successful. In fact, the more reliant you are on standard success markers such as scores, jobs, and ratings, the harder it can be to define success for yourself.
Even with a winning season, you can feel like a loser or at least a bit lost without a sense of what it feels like to be a winner in your own life, to know who you are and what is important to you, like my son's simple joie de sport.
How do you respond to failure?
What do you know about your capacity to rebound and be resilient? How might you trust that more?
What enables you to learn from mistakes? What supports you with that? What mind set would allow for more grace and openness to learning from experience?
(Note- this essay was written in February 2009, published in the local paper, and is now making a comeback in honor of the great many humbling and fruitful learning experiences that have shaped our kids into the amazing adults they now are.)
* FGO is a technical term for a &*%$-ing Growth Opportunity