Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sustainable Excellence

Young kids get signed up for a lot of different things - swimming, ice hockey, dance, soccer, music, choir & so on - all at the same time. If you can avoid over-programming, there is something to be said for variety of lacing up the skates one day, and sliding on the ballerina slippers the next. It helps a child find where their interest and skills lie. They learn the rules of different games, which makes them better spectators. And a lot of it is just plain fun.

But before long - and it seems like it starts a lot earlier in life now - a young person has to decide whether they're serious about something or not. There are travel teams but no house leagues for older kids. The work involved is more complex, which means more daily practice time and more time with coaches to develop skills. In a relatively short period of time, a little time commitment to several things becomes a big time commitment to just a few.

Of course, it's a highly competitive world: mechanical skills needs to develop much sooner and advance more rapidly. Or so we're told. But the fact is the vast majority of these kids ain't going on to professional careers in arts or athletics. Few are going to get scholarships, meaning most won't stick with any of this beyond high school. So if life expectancy is north of 70 years, why are we pushing them to specialize when they're little more than 10% through?

Cynically, I suspect no small amount of this has to do with the extra-curricular providers shaking out more revenue. The kids don't just take a music lesson, they join an orchestra and sign up for a music theory class. They don't just have a soccer practice and game, they have weekly clinics. Revenue per participant goes up, with only a minor uptick in the cost of selling, providing and collecting for these additional services. Take it to the bank, baby.

Now, there is a big difference between running round a pitch every Saturday and being a soccer player, or pulling a bow across some strings and being a violinist. It's important for a child to not only recognize the difference between good and great, but to appreciate what one must do to become great at something. But at a young age, they're only just beginning to learn what a commitment to excellence means. They're too young to make a life commitment to something. And it's pointless to take an outsized performance at a young age too seriously: how many people dominate a position in sport all through their lives?

Mechanical skills are important - poor execution leads to frustration or embarassment and will drive somebody away from wanting to do something. But sustainable excellence requires more than just skills: it takes timing, commitment, maturity, passion and joy. Helping a child find what they're passionate about, something from which they can derive great joy, puts them on a path of self-sustainable discovery. Does greater skill lead to greater joy? Probably not as much as joy motivates somebody to become more skilled.