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Winning in New Ways

By SHELBY HOYT

It has been about 6 months since I have completed reading The Art of Learning. Josh’s story really got me thinking because his story is very similar to mine. My journey started off as an elementary school student with some big shoes to fill. I come from a family of athletes, swimmers to be exact. My grandfather competed in backstroke events at VMI, my parents met on the swim team at the University of Georgia, and my mother competed for Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. To make a long story short, I was born with the swimming gene.

However, the idea of competitiveness was something that I had to learn. When I first started swimming, I participated because I loved being in the water and goofing around with my friends. My parents have always believed in nurturing my love for the water, so we spent every summer up in Canada visiting relatives. My coaches always thought my parents were crazy because they never made me train while we were away. Those summers were the best gifts that my parents could have ever given me.

As I grew older, my parents understood that it was time to shorten our visits and become more focused on swimming, only at my request. Throughout high school, I became extremely dedicated to the sport and found success in my hard work. I became the Georgia State Champion in the 500 yard Freestyle and achieved All-American status. Later that year, I signed to compete at NC State in the distance freestyle events. I graduated from high school at the top of my swimming game and excited to compete at a NCAA division I level.

When I first got to school the training and schoolwork became much more difficult. I started training twice a day and started lifting weights, something that I had not done in high school. I also had to adapt to being coached by new people and getting to know my new teammates. With all of the added stress, my body had a difficult time keeping up. A few months into school, I caught pneumonia and had to take a few weeks off. I eased back into swimming around December and I knew that I was behind with the training. In order to get back into peak shape, I began training harder than ever, but my body still couldn’t keep up. One month later, I was in the emergency room with a severe respiratory infection. With the rest of my freshman season in the bucket, I was not off to a good start and my confidence knew it.

Going into my sophomore year, things did not get better. My body continued to succumb to respiratory problems and my coaches started to become frustrated. I, however, became my harshest critic. I couldn’t understand how I had gone from State Champion to not even being able to make the travel team. My confidence was at all all-time low and I began to hate swimming. It wasn’t fun anymore. It’s a crazy feeling, losing something that has always been your passion.

At the end of my sophomore season, I knew that it was time for me to retire from the sport. I was no longer excited about competing and I didn’t enjoy practice anymore. With my new-found freedom, I was excited to enjoy my last two years of college. I changed my major from Animal Science to Education and I was excited to explore my new life. At the beginning of my junior year I started to have different problems. I would show up to the gym to workout and would never enjoy myself. I hated being there because it reminded me of my swimming life. I didn’t feel good about myself because I was no longer in “good shape” and I was afraid of reaching hard levels because I didn’t want to get sick again. Exercise always reminded me of pain and I began to stay away from it all together.

At the end of my junior year, my professor handed my class The Art of Learning to read over the summer. She told us to read the book and just shoot her a quick email when we finished. As I was reading, I began to really relate to Josh’s story. He had managed to put all of my feelings into writing. He had chosen to leave something that had great meaning to him. Not only that but he had learned how to ignite passion into something new, how to make things exciting. After finishing the book in three days, I began a summer-long experiment: I was going to figure out how to like exercising again.

What I learned from Josh and my earlier days of swimming was that I needed to start slowly. I didn’t want to just throw myself into something because the overwhelming feeling would not be helpful. So I decided to take hour-long walks in the afternoons. No running, no intervals, no time standards; just walking. I would sometimes go by myself or with a few friends and I would just enjoy being outside. I did this for a few weeks and began to feel great because I was being healthier and it wasn’t too difficult. This was when I decided that I would make things more challenging, but not by too much. So I set a goal of being able to run one mile without stopping. I found that the challenge was difficult at the time but it began to get easier and easier. I was beginning to have fun with exercise again!

With the summer coming to an end, I was pleased with my results. I was able to run four miles without stopping and I began to practice yoga for stress-relief. However, when school began again things started to get harder. I wasn’t able to keep up with my strict summer regiment, but I never let things fall into shambles. The fall was a learning experience. I was doing well in the classroom and I still found time for exercise. I can honestly say that I did not train at NCAA division I level, but I did enough to satisfy myself and that is what I am excited to build upon. This past Thanksgiving I ran my first-ever four mile Turkey Trot and I finished with my chin held high. It was, and still is, a difficult journey that I am handling to this day.

The next question is, how does this enhance my teaching abilities? Although “teaching” is the name of my profession, “learning” and “understanding” are what the profession is all about. My experience with The Art of Learning has taught me that the concept of “learning” and “education” is an on-going journey. There will be good days and there will be bad days. What will you make of them? Learning to find comfort in exercise was something that has plagued me for a long time because of how overwhelmed I felt. When I was able to break it apart and take my time, I realized that I was able to really enjoy the activity and the whole experience. This approach is central to my educational philosophy now. Currently, I am a middle grades student teacher in an American Social Studies classroom. Instead of throwing big concepts at my students, I plan on starting small. When I am teaching I want them to find an aspect of history that they relate to so that they start to become more immersed on their own. When we start to hit on the larger topics and ideas, they will have a point of reference if they become confused or overwhelmed

All in all, I can say that this has been the most difficult piece that I have had to write in my four years of college because this story has made me who I am today. The Art of Learning is a book that will always be in the back of my mind when I am trying to understand and grow with my middle school students. By starting small and building upon new interests, my goal is to make my students into life-long learners.

The Art of Bowling, part 2

By JOHN KAFALAS

Earlier this month, I recorded a 4th-place finish in the Candlepin Pro Series playoffs, a season-ending tournament involving the top 40 bowlers in the pro tour standings. I started as the #36 seed and went to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion. Along the way, several of Josh’s principles came into play.

 

Staying in the present

The day’s agenda: a preliminary round for seeds 25-40, then five rounds of bracket match play. I felt anxious in the preliminary round and had to use a lot of self-talk: Stay in the moment. Believe in yourself. Trust your game – you know it works; do not try to force it. I survived and moved on to match play, where I beat three of the best bowlers in the game, before bowing out.

I know that my game can and will get the job done. But I tend to be too excitable in competition and have sometimes had a problem Josh describes from chess tournaments: investing so much emotion and energy in one match that you’re too spent and lose the next one. I’ve been working on keeping that in check and pacing myself better, trying to avoid putting everything into one match as an end in itself. Josh says, “the solution does not lie in denying emotions, but in learning to use them to our advantage.” That means channeling my excitability into determination and focus. I don’t talk with or even look at my opponent often during a match. After a win (in bowling, when you lose a match, you go home), I try not to react too much or talk about it with other bowlers or spectators; I just drink some water and prepare for the next match.

 

The Soft Zone

In the Pro Series playoffs, my second-round opponent was one of the top bowlers in New England – the winner of this year’s 20-game Easter Classic, in fact. I got off to a quick start and after the first game of the two-game match, had a healthy lead. But early in the second game, just as I was delivering a ball, the public-address system interrupted with a loud announcement related to another tournament going on at the same time. That broke my concentration badly and threw me off my game for a couple of frames, while my opponent threw two spares to cut my comfortable lead to a tenuous one. It was like that moment Josh describes in a chess game, when you have an advantage but then make a small mistake and find yourself in an even game all of a sudden.

At a moment like that, the immediate reaction is to think, “Why does she have to keep interrupting us on the PA? Now I’m in trouble. I had this lead, and the distraction made me screw up and lose it. How am I supposed to get it back against this guy?”

But that’s not what happened. I thought of Josh and said to myself, “Time to make sandals. Stay patient and just get back to business.” I had to trust that my game – which, after all, had staked me to a lead in the first place – was perfectly capable of doing it again. Which is exactly what happened — I got back in gear, defeated my opponent, then won one more match against another of the top bowlers. I finally lost in the semifinal round – but the tournament was my high-water mark as a tour bowler. It also reinforced the incremental theory of learning and the idea that you can always keep getting better. This season was my best ever… but there is still room for improvement.

A Journey Toward Losing to Win

by RICHIE SWEENEY

Competition perpetually flows through my veins. All sporting and academic challenges I am presented with inevitably turn into battles, letting my competitive personality seep through. Going head to head with an opponent, regardless of the significance, lures me into the thrill of potential victory. While this seemingly unstoppable drive for winning can be useful, it can also consume me. Herein, as I discovered through The Art of Learning, lies my fatal flaw.

Even as a child, I was immensely competitive. I can still, to this day, recall lost foosball matches against my Dad that resulted in hysterical fits of tears and hours of self pity. I was so intent upon winning that losing, in my mind, meant complete and utter failure. Such an attitude is neither healthy nor beneficial for a competitive spirit.

foosball

After 10 years had passed, I would no longer break down into fits of tears upon losing to my Dad in foosball (yes, 10 years later my Dad could still beat me in foosball). However, I still found it difficult to accept my defeats—there seemed to be no gain in losing.

Then, I was introduced to The Art of Learning. I was fascinated to discover how a defeat could be used as a positive learning experience. Prior to delving into The Art of Learning, my ego had a tendency to block the potential usefulness of losing. While I had understood that losing isn’t always a negative occurrence and tends to be a part of life, I wouldn’t let myself truly recognize and, even more important, utilize the full constructive power of loss.

Today, I still aim to win but the vital information that I now carry, stemming from The Art of Learning, helps me understand that it is more than acceptable to lose and that loss can even be a crucially helpful tool. While I am not perfect at it, I now strive to constantly invest in my losses.

My ego no longer forbids me to look back at and analyze my defeats. Confronting my defeats has morphed into an exercise that allows me to uncover my weaknesses and consequently develop them into strengths. The Art of Learning has illustrated a way in which I am able to embrace my losses and turn them around so that they become personal victories. I now pride myself on losing to win.

The Art of Teaching

Guest Blogger: Nick Rubinfier

Something that every teacher must face at some point is the inevitable interpretation that his or her job is one that is not really a highly qualified profession. We have all heard the saying “those who can’t do, teach” and realize that there is a belief out there that teachers become educators because they couldn’t find success in some more “real” field. And even when the person outside the field looks in and accepts that the job is one “I could never do,” it is often quickly followed with, “I just don’t have the patience for kids.” Again, the implication being that the hard part of being a teacher is having patience, not skill.

When I read The Art of Learning I found myself understanding how wrong it is to look at teaching as anything other than a highly skilled profession. I suppose those who ‘can’t do’ can become teachers, but they won’t be anything but really bad teachers. When reading in The Art of Learning Josh’s description of professional athletes and champion chess players (and in my mind I added doctors and commercial jet pilots whose skills can mean the difference between life and death), I could see how the skills I have run absolutely parallel.

In the educator-as-artist role I need to constantly fine-tune the lessons I teach and must adjust for the unique needs of all the students looking to me to lead them to the knowledge they are seeking. To truly teach well I must be absolutely present. Like Josh “seeing” moves ahead or like Capt. Sullenberger landing a plane safely in the Hudson, I am constantly slowing down time to bring to each and every student that which they need at that moment to make the discoveries which will empower them. I see that when I am at the top of my form I am that extremely skilled professional, and though no one will live to die in my classroom, the life of learning of my students can weigh precariously in my hands. It would seem impossible that I reach 30 students at a time, differentiating the lesson to suit their complex and individual needs while engaging them, making it fun, and allowing them to take ownership of the learning. And yet, that is exactly what I do.

teacher

What I have found in Josh’s analysis of his story and the process of reaching a higher level of performance is a way to look at my life as an educator not as a job of manual labor but as an art form that requires going deep—a professional job that in Josh’s words requires being present, slowing down time, making use of adversity, finding a zone, and putting it all together.

My copy of The Art of Learning is well worn. I go back to it time and again, not just to remind me that my job is an art form and a serious profession, but to help me continue to grow as a learner and a facilitator of learning. Books like this are a gift for they  tell you a story that gives you a new perspective about how we live and show you ways to understand your own story and to tell it to the world by living it better.