Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning. (Mahatma Gandhi)
It has been a full and busy spring in which I have had ample opportunity to wrestle with my long-held and hard-earned beliefs about human capacity-building in settings that do not afford the time and resources for fully personalized and individualized learning.
As with effective and powerful leadership, I continue to believe that the highest expectations and the highest possible warmth and responsiveness are vital to achieve any individual or collective human goal. While I believe strongly in starting from where each person is “at” and celebrating every “successive approximation” towards full mastery, I bristle at thoughts, beliefs, or practices that lower overall standards or unwittingly limit long-term potential.
I recognize that human beings are dynamic and diverse so there is no such thing as perfection or panaceas. I also realize that the deepest and richest learning comes from “non-examples”–prized “mistakes” that lead to reflection and replay in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
As much as I believe in guided mentoring processes that build capacity over time with constructive feedback and repeated trials, there is an inherent danger in losing focus or perspective. This danger is often expressed in such sayings as “not seeing the forest for the trees” or “taking our eyes off the prize.” The prize, of course, is the biggest, broadest, and most worthwhile long-term end goal—the one that builds human independence and opens doors of possibility for an always unknown future.
When it comes to consciously and deliberately building life-long human capacity, I believe that attitude, like perception, is everything. While particular skills and specific knowledge or understandings may be acquired for certain situations or settings, the primary and pivotal attribute is attitude. More than anything else, our “can do” attitude takes us any place we may choose to go. It determines whether “The Little Engine that Could” gains the self-confidence, task persistence, and desire to chug, chug, chug. . . up, up, up. . . over life’s hills and mountains. Along with such biggies as luck, destiny, and happenstance, attitude decides future and fortune.
It has been magical for me to witness a struggling learner equal or surpass his or her peers through sustained effort and the intoxicating audacity to achieve a goal beyond what anyone thought possible. This is why I worry about the dependence and “learned helplessness” that results from lowered expectations. While it is important to offer scaffolds (tips, techniques, and tools that draw upon past successes whenever possible), it is equally important that they are not premature or prolonged. Like training wheels on a child’s two-wheeled bike, they must be timely and temporary. Implicit in their use is the conviction that the goal will be met and the child will learn to ride the bike. They should be age-appropriate, pro-social, and, most importantly, flexible. They must be adaptive and liberating rather than maladaptive and constricting.
As education and parenting studies have always shown, children will most often rise or fall to the level of parent and teacher expectation. They know what we value. They know what we believe. And they know quickly what we “mean” whether or not we say it.
While there are other metaphors and sayings of timeless wisdom that have become oft-repeated clichés, they are often lost on modern citizens who are now “wired” to seek “new,” elaborate, empirical, or otherwise slickly marketed “expert” solutions to even the simplest concerns. The gentle but consistent teaching of self-discipline and self-regulation require time, tenacity, and consistency. They do not win short-term popularity or satisfy adult ego needs to be liked, but may, instead, result in personal pride and respect.
While every situation is different and we are all doing the best we can at the time, to adapt, modify, excuse, rescue, or lower expectations prematurely or for a prolonged amount of time is to send the most dangerously debilitating message that can last a lifetime. It is our primary role to build human capacity and, just as importantly, character. In the words of Ramana Maharshi, “Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”
With love, laughs, and soles (or is that souls?) of leather on the path of life we share,