Thursday, January 27, 2011

Teaching Hi-ho, Hi-ho, instead of ho-hum

I don't know when I learned how to work. It wasn't in high school: my mother claims she never saw me bring home a textbook. I went off to college and found that getting straight A's required more than nominal effort, and opted for a less-strenuous B+ average.

After I graduated from college I spent a year working in Puerto Rico, building an interactive model of the economy for the Governor and his aides. I did have to scramble at first: I didn't know the computer language I was supposed to be programming in (didn't know any programming at all, actually), and econometrics had been my worst grade in college. But after a very steep learning curve, the job was rather relaxed.

Things changed the following year in Philadelphia, after my long-term boyfriend dumped me. I threw myself into my job then because it was like anesthesia, and because it gave me an illusion of purpose. There was nothing grand or noble about my labor, no deeply-rooted work ethic or redeeming social value. I worked because my job was the one place I could build something, or at least re-build my self-esteem. Maybe that was the start of what I now understand work to be.

Yesterday at my book group we discussed several of the biographies of 19th century builders within Brave Companions. Conversation drifted to how hard it is to teach kids the value of hard work these days. We've read the Little House books to our kids and pointed out the many chores Laura and Mary had, noting (for our kids' edification) how easy their lives are in comparison. We bemoan how our kids moan about being asked to clean the toilet, forgetting how little we did at ages 8 and 10 and 14. Then we storm about how important it is to get kids to do chores as if using a bit of cleanser on the indoor plumbing is just as important as hoeing the garden so the family will survive a bitter prairie winter without starving.

Note to self: Kids are smart enough to realize nobody's going to go hungry because there's a minor ring in the pot. When a child is hungry -- whether it's for attention or success or mastery of something or comfort or food -- he works with vigor and perseverance (and generally without persuasion) to get what he needs. Hunger teaches viscerally what we're trying to teach philosophically. And I wonder how we can adjust our lives so we feel more of that hunger, instead of just talking about it.

FOLLOWUP: I just read this post by a literary agent and it gives me ideas. Good ideas. Fear and hunger are closely related.

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Tomorrow Eldest and I get on a bus; her winter break is over, and she's heading back to the high seas of schoolwork. She goes to a tough college, one where you hand in one mind-bending assignment only to get the next one in return. Even aiming for B's doesn't provide much of a break. Eldest is feeling a bit daunted at the prospect of re-entering the surf, and I understand why. It's a lot of work.

Staring at a mountain and knowing you'll have to scale it can be daunting. There are times when I'm exhausted and juggling butcher knives while running in circles blindfolded and it feels less impossible to keep going than to slow down, because if I stop I'll have to start again.

I don't really know how you teach a child how to deal with that, other than to tell her to focus on the trail at her feet instead of the minuscule line barely visible at the top of the mountain. So much of life -- including work -- comes down to focusing on what you have to do, when you have to do it. The other part involves figuring out what you're supposed to do, and deciding if you're going to say yes.

No answers here, but if you have ideas, I'd love to hear them.


  1. Marathon runners talk about running the race a mile at a time, rather than thinking about the whole race. Others say it's just a 20-mile training run and then a 10K race. When I ran the NYC marathon, the crowds of on-lookers, still yelling encouragement to the back of the pack, helped me get through to the end despite a blister on the big toe that caused the nail to fall off. (Yep, painful.)

    When we go hiking, Zeke has to work, hard. He usually gets pretty tired on the way up the hill, and then again on the way down near the end of the hike, and this is helping him to learn about stamina and his own mental and physical reserves. And he's excited about climbing bigger hills and eventually mountains, so there's some intrinsic motivation beyond the promise of chocolate after the next rise. Plus he loves the views.

    Focusing on the trail, and the distance to the next milepost, is good. Noticing the views, or whatever else is good about the experience -- important too. And also remembering the last time the kid got through a rough patch, and the good feeling of accomplishment that followed.

  2. Julia, I want to thank you for the quote you wrote on your bio for this year's Guidepost. It is helping me to deal with some health issues. I have enjoyed your Guidepost contributions for many years. Marilyn

  3. I took a strange philos. course in college once that taught a vision-process for problem solving. Spend a significant amount of time envisioning the end result in great detail. What will "the end" look like? How will you feel? We were to write down all the details--even if the project was to make a sandwich or plan our future. Then, using the detailed vision, work backword moment by moment. What happened just before that? What happened just before that? Eventually you end up at the moment of conception. Looking forward you have a plan. When you face moments of panic, revisit the end vision, adjust if necessary, follow it back to where you got lost. Like I said, it was a bit strange, but has proven very useful! You can't get somewhere if you don't know exactely where you are going. Good luck--it's one thing for US to go through it, totally impossible to watch our kids have at it! (yikes!)