Practice Makes Better: Julie Hahn

Some people have told me how talented they think I am, and inside I laugh. The most important lesson I’ve learnt in the process of writing is that practice makes better.

Very occasionally, writing these articles happens easily. I wake up very early in the morning with a thought in my mind, get dressed, grab my glasses and my car keys and head to a coffee shop, and voila, 40 minutes later an article is born.  But more often, they are a slog—an enjoyable slog.

I became a writer quite accidentally … well, so I thought, until I took a look back at how it happened.

Our little family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when our children were four, two and not quite one. Even before we were married we’d planned to move overseas for Chris to do post-doctorate research. We figured that I would be stuck at home with little kids during this time, so it didn’t really matter where we were.

But we had no idea how homesick I would be, being so far away from everybody we knew. It was before the age of computers in homes. These days I can communicate with my sister in the UK using Skype or Facebook.

In Memphis, I wrote letters. Ten pages of letters per day, every day. And in the process of writing letters,
I learnt to write.

My mother kept all the letters I wrote to her and presented them to me in a large folder only last year. The letters stopped after about 18 months, by which time we’d settled into the Memphis community and I was no longer so homesick.

After we came back to Australia, moved houses, had another baby and settled all the kids into school, I went to university and learnt more about writing … and word limits. Writing essay after essay helped me to learn to be more concise, and reading article after article, book after book, I learnt to be more discerning about styles and word choices.

‘Success means getting up once oftener than you fall down’

Being surrounded by toddlers in my work reminds me of their persistence. Toddlers are determined to get to where they want to go. They get up and fall down, and get up … and fall down. They keep getting up, over, and over and over again. I’m sure that whoever it was who said ‘Success means getting up once oftener than you fall down’ had been watching a bunch of babies.

Younger children just want to learn and keep doing, over and over and over again. They don’t seem to care how well they do anything. They just keep at it

But as children get to school age, that determined endeavour seems to disappear in some of them.

Children aged between five and twelve years of age need to become good at something

Chris and I attended an excellent ‘Family Wellness’ course a number of years ago. The kids were dragged along for a couple of sessions, too. A key idea of the course was that children aged between five and twelve years of age need to become good at something.

With a new perspective from the course, I looked at the people I knew who were confident and accomplished in what they did. Whether they were artists, engineers, architects, cooks, farmers or athletes, every one of them had worked hard to be where they are now.  Talent had very little to do with their success.

Skyscrapers, bridges, planes and ships are not designed by people who suddenly decide to build them. Great buildings begin with wooden blocks, Lego, meccano and piles of sand being moved from one spot to another. Great artworks begin with painting dots and squiggles, and experimentations with shade and light, correction and starting from scratch, over and over again.

Admittedly, some people are born to be more athletic or musical or artistic than others. But without determined, intentional, frequent practice, people do not become great at something.

Attempting to get good at something
Attempting to get good at something

Life is about learning; making mistakes, correcting mistakes

I recently heard an interview on the ABC with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the world-famous singer. She said,

‘You never stop learning … The moment you think you can’t learn anymore, I think you’re dead. Life is about learning; making mistakes, correcting mistakes … If I did two hours a day on vocalese, seven days a week, it would never be enough. Think of the tennis player. How many times has he hit that little ball? It’s a lifestyle, not a job.’

So, armed with our new perspective on parenting 5–12-year-olds, Chris and I looked at our parenting. We were familiar with our kids beginning new ventures: joining a basketball team, learning a musical instrument, playing a game.

They were eager starters.

Everything was new and interesting.

For a while the practice was a novelty, but soon it became a drag with its repetition. Being part of a team was fun, but it also became tiresome when it required early morning starts or missing out on parties or fishing trips.

With our new perspective we began to help them to ‘hang in there!’ We explained the plateau that happens when you learn something new: You learn eagerly and quickly for a while, but then you don’t seem to get any better; the kids in the team won’t throw to you because you keep dropping the ball; the clarinet refuses to give you that particular note and it squeaks precisely when you are trying your hardest; you keep coming ‘second’ every time you play chess.

It’s at the plateau that most people quit.

It’s at the plateau that most people quit. That’s the time that we as parents, coaches and encouragers need to get in there and be the cheer squad.

Forget about ‘constructive criticism’! Research by the Gottman Institute demonstrates that, particularly in children, criticism is not constructive.

Instead, stress the positive:

‘What a great catch! Now, do that again!’

‘See what happens when you do that: It’s strong!’

Describe what you see. Describe how you feel.

Give your children the words to express what they’ve done.

Encourage positive steps and celebrate small successes as well as big ones.

Every positive effort is a success, regardless of its outcome.

A few years ago I was part of a school chaplains’ meeting. One of the chaplains shared a story about a teenager who was constantly in trouble with the police. He kept breaking into cars and stealing them.

When the teenager was asked by the chaplain, ‘Why do you do it?’, his reply was,

‘I just want to be good at something, and that’s all I know’.

Everybody needs to get good at something.

Everybody needs to get good at something. Natural talent and ability play only a small part in a person’s success. For each of us, in everything we do, practice makes better.

 

First published in ‘The Lutheran’ 2012. 

 

For more stories about people who practiced to achieve, read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’.

 

Pooped, Purple and Perplexed: Looking to Easter

I’m pooped, purple and slightly perplexed.

Pooped is an accurate description of how I feel right now. Gabby and I decided to go for a walk at Morialta Falls this morning. Well…falls is something of an overstatement. Perhaps they could be re-named  Morialta Puddles.  I’m sure my legs will be reminding me tomorrow and half way through next week of our little adventure.

Purple – well that is a slight exaggeration. Purple is the colour we believed we would be by the time we returned to our car judging from the amount of blackberry bushes we were pushing through at one stage.

And perplexed…well… the maps and signposts along the way were rather ambiguous. There were frequent maps and posts with arrows for particular walks. But halfway along the walk we’d chosen, the signs for our walk became peculiarly absent. Missing was some very vital information … where to go next. So we chose the path we thought we should take – the only one that still had an arrow pointing to it.

Having trekked through unchartered blackberry territory for several hundred metres, we figured that since the path we had chosen was one of the shorter walks, it should not feel as though we needed to get our machetes out to get through the jungle – especially in suburban Adelaide. So we re-traced our steps back to the most recent map and used our powers of deduction.

Though there were no directions at that stage, there were steps that led down to the top of the waterfall (aka puddle), and steps going up the other side. My high-school memories of the same walk prompted us to brave the steps across the puddle and eventually guided us back to the car park.

The walk was great. The weather was perfect, the company and conversation was stimulating and we both feel invigorated. It’s as though we’ve been on a mini-holiday – even though it only takes 15 minutes to drive there.

But the ambiguous instructions got me thinking. One of the most difficult aspects of going anywhere new, meeting and mixing with new people, or trying new things is discovering the things that nobody tells you about; the stuff that nobody explains; the pieces of information that would have made life a whole lot easier if only somebody had said “You need to know this first” or “This is how to do it” or “Ask me. I may know!” or a simple arrow that says “This way!”

I recalled a young man, a friend of our teenagers, who we’d taken to church for the first time in his life. When it came time for communion, he leaned over to me and said

“What is this?”

Try explaining in 20 seconds or less, the meaning of communion! That lesson was a good lesson to me of the things I take for granted; our belief, our rituals, our traditions, the things we do for God and the things we do for the sake of doing them, and the things we do simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

Most of us can relate to visiting a new church, going to a new school or moving into a new community. There are some places that make us believe it is the loneliest place on earth. Where is the front door? Am I supposed to sign in somewhere? Is there a toilet close-by? Will anybody talk to me? If I put my name down on this piece of paper will I end up getting a bombardment of emails?

Fortunately, there are some places where you feel as though you are welcomed and feel ‘at home’, straight away. Somebody comes up to you when you arrive because either they are really friendly, have been trained really well and have practised to greet everybody, or they simply recognise that look of “lost” on your face, and have come to rescue you. They introduce themselves with something simple such as

“Hi, I’m Jim. Great to meet you. What’s your name?”

If they’re really well trained, or have practised, they might continue with “How do you spend your time?” or “What’s your favourite ice-cream?” They give you any information you might need, including where to find more information, and offer to sit with you. Or they introduce you to somebody else who they know has a similar interest to you.

“Hey Fred. This is Steve. He’s visiting from Gonunda. He’s interested in the sound system. I thought you might show him around later.”

This last Christmas gave us the opportunity to have some of our friends from different cultural backgrounds celebrate Christmas with us in our home. Because of my experience with the 20 second- introduction- to- communion, I wanted to make sure that our friends would not leave our home without knowing why we celebrated Christmas.

Just as we were about to ask a blessing for our food, which was already foreign to many of our visitors, we brought out our bible and read Luke Chapter 2. I hope we began a tradition – or perhaps, re-instated one. I hope that it will be a ritual that continues in our family to consciously dedicate our time and effort into introducing to our family and friends what is important to us– not taking what we know and believe for granted.

As we look to Easter, there are many people who don’t understand what Easter is about. How many Australians recognise the significance of Ash Wednesday – other than a horrible day of fires in 1983? Do our children understand  the meaning and purpose of Good Friday and Easter Sunday ? It is up to each of us to make sure that those around us know why we commemorate Easter, of Jesus life, death and most importantly, his resurrection.

At a local high-school about 20 years ago, a Christian group acted out the story of Easter. At the end of the play, a student went up to the Principal and said,

“That was a great story. Do you know who wrote it?”

So this Easter, no matter where I am or what I do, I want to be making sure that I do not take knowledge of the Easter story for granted. I do not want to behave as though it’s just a long weekend. I want to make sure that others will know that we celebrate Easter because, as the angels said, “He is not here, He is risen!”

Originally published as:

‘Pooped, Purple and Perplexed’ in The Lutheran, April 2012 Vol46, No3, P102-103