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In school and in life, you never get an “A” from just one day of effort


I wrote last week about the “Hollow Person,” who completeness as a person — their relative proximity to the Best Self — is dependent on their willingness to put forth maximum effort. Before I proceed with the role of teachers and coaches in this process, however, I feel it necessary to dispel a couple of myths about effort.

The first myth I’d like to dispel is what I call the “Myth of Today,” as in, “I tried really hard … today.” Allow me to illustrate.

This past weekend my family and I went to see the Ralston Valley High School production of “The Little Mermaid”, and we thoroughly enjoyed it! Let me tell you, it is really amazing what high school kids pull off. The songs, the music for the orchestra, the emotions expected of the actors — these are things that were conceived of and created for adults, grown up people with years of training. That schools attempt some of this stuff is just a little insane … but completely entertaining. And not just because the cute clarinet player shares a last name with yours truly…

Anyway, imagine how effective such a performance would be if the lead actors showed up the night of the performance and “tried really hard,” but didn’t have their lines memorized and didn’t know their songs and didn’t know where they were supposed to be on stage. “Trying really hard”, in most walks of life, is of almost no use at all unless you try hard on a sustained, focused basis over many weeks, months or years. And you hear this all the time in schools:

“Johnny, how’d you do on your test?”

“Oh, man, I really tried hard to do my best.”

“Really? So how much have you been studying for the last four weeks?”

“Well, like, I spent three hours on this stuff last night.”

“And didn’t I see a drool puddle on your desk after class a couple days ago?”…

Do you really think the secret of Peyton Manning’s success was that he “tried really hard” on game day? NO! His secret was that he was trying real hard on Feb. 17 (or any other meaningless day in the off season) to study film, and do physical therapy to heal, and work on footwork and study his playbook.

To use our Hollow Person, if you spend three months at 70 percent, then the very best you can expect of yourself when the chips are down, no matter how hard you try, is 70 percent.

The second myth I’d like to dispel is what I call “The Myth of Effortlessness,” as in “the very best at their things don’t seem to be trying at all.”

There was one particular performer in “The Little Mermaid” who was especially effective in her role. Now, it’s true that Ursula, the Octopus-Witch, is a secondary role, so the amount of music and script she had to memorize was only half that of the two leads, but that doesn’t matter — she owned the performance! The inflection in her speech was flawless, she altered the written music so that it better communicated humor and attitude to the audience, and the way she interacted with the audience from the stage was like a seasoned, mature professional. She truly made it look effortless.

Which, of course, it couldn’t be. It is simply that she knew her role so well, had studied it so much, that she was able to improvise off of it to play the crowd better. Jazz musicians, who spend most of their lives improvising, call the process “woodshedding,” or “sheddin’”, based on an old image of taking your music and your instrument out behind the woodshed and practicing it until you know it so well it’s part of your DNA. “Effortlessness” is nothing more or less than the public end result of great efforts made in private.

And most of those moments, with students, are the result of teachers and coaches going 100 percent. More on that next week.


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