All Kinds of Smart

As people all over the world have been watching the Olympics this summer, myself included, I wish the lessons shared by the participants would be equally applied to all kinds of smart. Whether your talents lie in linguistics, mathematics, music, art, nature, interpersonal, or intrapersonal areas of development, the requirements for success are the same.

As Gabby Douglas flew through the air, and touchingly a rare flying squirrel landed at our birdfeeder (no one in our area had ever seen one until this creature appeared for a few days and then again disappeared), here are a few talent-development lessons I felt were worth repeating:

  1. Opportunity is the key: From Michael Phelps to Gabby Douglas, from track sprinters from around the world to athletes of all backgrounds and specialties, we have heard how the doors of opportunity had to be opened. There are so many potentially talented children out there who are never recognized, supported, and applauded when successful; anchored when in trouble. Gabby’s mother made the supreme sacrifice for her little girl to shine.
  2. Letting go must happen sooner or later: Over the years I have seen parents struggle to let their talented children go to a summer camp in their area of passion, be it academics, music, or any other field. Gabby’s mother listened to Gabby and Gabby’s encouraging older sister when it was time for her to leave home. She let her go, not for a week, but for years of hard training, living with a new family and community, and facing a diverse world of new values and hard lessons.
  3. Hard work: In her first interview upon winning her gold medal, Gabby attributed her success to hard work and dedication. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. Young talented children often think success comes naturally or with a little luck. The necessity of hard work, i.e., practice and persistence, must be taught. Our Olympic champions are great role models.
  4. Success is golden: Gabby became homesick in Iowa, but she persisted in reaching for her dreams. Of her win, she said, “I did think it was a gold-medal performance.” Self-confidence and focus are not easy to achieve when things go wrong, as they frequently did for members of the gymnastics team, including Gabby. But, as Gabby explained, “If you can push through the hard days, you can get through anything.”
  5. Belief is golden: “It’s very tough for me to focus,” Gabby reported in The New York Times, Aug. 2, 2012.  But as Douglas was going to the Olympic arena, her mother called and said, “I believe in you, baby.” Douglas said, “I believe, too.”
  6. Success is not perfection: Even Michael Phelps did not always win. Doing your best and working through the disappointments are lessons that loving families bestow upon their talented youth. As Gabby inspires other young African Americans, her message is clear: I am so happy to be me, and although I would have preferred another gold, it’s not the end of the world that I didn’t get it. On to the next competition! On to the next challenge and new experience.
  7. Respect others for their talents and dreams: At WCATY summer programs, I have had students who received perfect 800’s on their SAT Math tests at ages as young as 13 and 14 sit in an advanced math classroom with other smart students who did not and most likely could not achieve perfection. I saw the same kind of respect and camaraderie in those classrooms as I’ve been observing among the gymnastics, swimming, track and other competitors. That their passion for their field includes a desire to experience new levels of knowledge or success by others as well as by themselves is exciting to behold.

In summary, may we realize that the lessons learned by our young Olympians are lessons to be learned, valued, and respected for children with all kinds of smart.

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