Making Space for Yourself | May 29, 2015

Making Space for Yourself

With summer vacation around the corner, your life is about to change. You will not have the same demands, and this shift offers you the opportunity to pause and reflect. You will have time to make space for yourself. You will have time to free yourself from the dictates of school and from the demands of your peers and teachers. Hopefully, you will have time with your families, and you will have time to reflect on who you are, what your passions are, and what kind of engagement makes you happy. In this way, vacation time is vital--not frivolous--because it is a chance for us to free ourselves from external pressures.

When I was director of admissions at Riverdale Country School, I remember sitting in Avery Fischer Hall waiting to hear Itzhak Perlman. My wife and I had been chatting about the admissions season, and the woman behind us must have overheard us because she suddenly leaned forward, grabbed my shoulder, and said in desperation "Are you the Director of Admissions at Riverdale Country School?" In surprise, I said, "Well, yes I am." With a wild look in her eye, she said "How can I get my son into your school? He is three, and he must get into Riverdale. What kind of academic enrichment should he be working on?"

At the time, our children were not yet born, and in my naivete, I wondered why on earth anyone would have a three-year-old "work" on anything. It seemed obvious to me that what three-year-olds need is playtime. Now, as a parent of adult children, I have come to believe that not only three-year-olds need playtime, but so do teenagers and adults.

But this moment in Avery Fischer Hall stayed with me not only because of the image of having a three-year-old be dictated by a parent's dream of admission at a certain school but also because of the mother's assumptions about "work." This young mother was equating thinking and learning with work, and she was suggesting that learning is something very artificially contrived. In my mind, both work and play are vitally important, and each feeds the other. Today I would like to emphasize the importance of both work and play.

In general, many of us think of school and academic endeavors as "work." Sometimes "work" has a negative connotation, but have you ever noticed how much satisfaction you get out of truly putting in your best effort? For the remainder of this speech, I am not going to refer to "work," but to practice. And practice is a wonderful thing. To become a great writer, you need to practice. To become a great statistician, you need to practice. To become a great dancer, computer coder, environmentalist, actor, you need to practice.

In 1993 German psychologists Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer studied the practice habits of violin students through the course of their childhoods, their adolescence, and their adulthood. The startling results of this study revealed no "naturally gifted performers." Instead, the researchers found a direct statistical correlation between hours of practice and achievement. In other words, those violinists who went on and became "elite" performers had practiced more hours than anyone else. Malcolm Gladwell made this study famous in his book Outliers.

We can see a good example of the correlation between hours of practice and achievement in our production of Anything Goes. Of the 33 tap dancers, four had never danced before, which you would never know if you saw the production. It was phenomenal. The expertise of the performers came from practice, and you should know that 3 of the 4 performances were sold out and received standing ovations.

I know you know the story of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. When he was your age, he logged in thousands of hours of programming practice. He was addicted to programming. Do you think he considered programming "work"? I think not. The people who become most successful at their craft love what they do, and at some point practicing no longer feels like work to them.

When I practiced my 'cello 3-4 hours a day during vacations of my 10th and 11th grade years, I would focus on the bars that gave me the most trouble. I would practice them over and over again. During practice time, I was undaunted by mistakes because I knew that eventually I would be able to play the sequences of notes. This perspective on supposed failure or inadequacy was very helpful to me because not being able to do something didn't matter. In my mind, it was simply a matter of practice before I would be able to do it.

As we head towards vacation, I hope many of you feel as though you have practiced hard. You have practiced logarithms, practiced physics concepts of force or acceleration, you have practiced writing clearly, you have practiced your foul shot, your flip turn, your dance moves and your ability to think critically about historical events.

Now you have time for play. And what is play, exactly? I would define play as unstructured activity with no external direction. And it is during times of play that you can get your best ideas about your future. Sometimes when we are with our peers, we might forget who we are. We might be dictated by external norms that prevent us from determining what we are passionate about. We might not be listening to that voice within. Over vacation, I want you to find moments of solitude. Put away your phone, put away your iPad. Strengthen yourself against living by some abstract norm or living someone else's life. Think about the life that you want and return to school with energy to find that life and ready to resume practice.


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