Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dear Diary #1: "This time I'll get it right."

Not long ago Sweet M asked me to take her to a local store to buy a diary. Not just any diary, but a locking diary. Our local store didn't have a locking diary that suited her, so we bought this one, with its beaded butterfly cover and heart-shaped keys, from an online retailer.

In advance of getting the diary, but with the promise of the diary within her field of expectation, she began to say, somewhat repetitively, "This time I'm going to get it right."

"I'll have a new diary. And this time I'll get it right."

About the third or fourth time that I heard her say that phrase, with its slightly odd prosody — a kind of caricature of determination with bonafide resolve at its core — I asked her what she meant.

"You know, I'll do it right. I won't scribble like before."

She has had other diaries. And she would fill them with pre-writing — "scribbling" — or with drawings, or with stickers from her vast collection. But she seemed to think that she'd missed the mark in the past. She seems to have the idea that she has to use language to get it right.

"But that was the right thing to do when you did that before."

"Oh," she said, "But this time I'll really get it right."

Getting it right. Really right.

I know just what she means. I often think, in terms of this blog, or other writing, or in teaching or parenting, "maybe this time I'll get it right."

Don't get me wrong. I get enough of the things right enough of the time to get through my life more or less intact. More or less okay. With an occasional verifiable success. And with quite a bit of fun.

But reaching for something new, for something beyond one's current circumstances or skill set or horizon of experience often comes with that anxiety: can I get this right? And that anxiety translates into something a bit like perseveration: I'll get it right. I can do this thing. I know I can do this thing. I think I can. I think I can.

"Thing" can be anything: learn new software program, learn new data analysis method (things on my own agenda), develop working group, take care of health and fitness issues. You can fill in your own [blank] thing to get right. We've all got 'em.

Motivational gurus and educational experts and video game designers all talk about being in the "zone" or "the zone of proximal development" — in that sweet spot where one is skilled and successful enough at a particular task to take on a new challenge that is precisely enough calibrated to allow for your development and thus not be frustrating. When those conditions are met, we enjoy what we're doing, and we do get it right because the task is so finely aligned with our current skills that growth feels natural, inevitable, and usually even fun. Failure is impossible.

It's not so much that we've gotten it right, but that the conditions around us have been right to maximize our growth and minimize our frustration.

This almost always happened when you play a video game more than once. If you went back to the game, the designers got it right. The game was calibrated to take you along a path of continuous development. Aka it was fun.

When does this happen in life? Not usually in school when standardized tests create false benchmarks and hurdles, except when teachers design extraordinary differentiated instruction. Not usually at work, unless one has extraordinary mentoring or a great deal of control over one's assignments.

I want more of this in my life. Don't you?

The challenge is that want that "got it right" feeling, but I don't want to get it from a videogame. I want that feeling about parenting, about teaching, about writing, about being in the complicated world that is not always (correction: replace with "seldom") calibrated to be a right fit for each of us.

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