Monday, January 31, 2011

Practice Makes Perfect.

"Nothing is fun until you are good at it."

A recent Wall Street Journal piece entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" reports that it is the Chinese parent's unwavering belief in discipline, study, and practice that produces the "stereotypically successful" Chinese child.  Chinese parents expect accomplishment from their children and seemingly will go to any lengths to goad them into it. The article is fascinating. 

The author of the article, herself Chinese, writes that she has never let her two daughters do any of the following:

Article author Amy Chua with her daughters, Louisa and Sophia, at their home
in New Haven, Conn.
 • attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

Sounds harsh, doesn't it?  No tv? Ever? Preposterous. Such an approach by Western parents would probably result in our children rebelling outright against us, filing for emancipation, or reporting us for abuse.  The article does not deal with the long-term effects that such draconian parenting has on the child. Can anyone possibly hold up under the pressure of trying to go through life undefeated—at being perfect? Does a child who makes an 88 on a test and feels himself/herself a failure have a realistic disposition?  

A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), points out that Asian Americans are more likely to commit suicide than American whites, blacks and Hispanics. Why? Because of the intense pressure to perform. Article author Amy Chua writes that
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. 

The goal is admirable,  the methodology debatable.

In this country and in most Western societies, we believe that if you push a child too hard, he/she will fold.  We believe that our children thrive in an atmosphere of positivity, that our children do better with the gentle embrace as opposed to the firm hand.  We believe that our children need to be coddled and propped up and allowed to do the silly things that kids do so that they can grow up to be successful adults.  Chua goes on to state that

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away. 

Nothing is fun until you are good at it.  In my experience that is an unassailable truth. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that it takes 10,000 hours of applied effort in order to master any skill.  There are no shortcuts to excellence, he wrote.  In the absence of savantism, mastery comes only as the result of practice. While I enjoy the incremental progress that practice makes possible as I learn the guitar, I would much rather be proficient now and living out my rock star future now rather than at some point thousands of practice hours in the future. It won't ever happen unless I commit myself to the effort needed to improve. 

Who could possibly enjoy being terrible at something forever?  History is full of people famous for their ineptitude. William Hung, for example. He did become famous, not because he was good but because he was bad. Extraordinarily bad. Any admiration he garnered was not as a result of his talent but rather because of his seeming indifference to ridicule.  He was the court jester, not the king. There is a difference.

She bang! She bang!

My two sons play basketball.  I encourage them to practice but I do not demand it. I want them to love the game but I want them to love it on their own, not because I forced it on them.  If the interest is there, I assume that they will find within themselves the motivation to practice.  This contradicts the Chinese approach.  Children need to be told what to do because, given a choice, they will always opt for the easier path, say the Chinese. Were I Chinese, I would make them practice until they hated me but  became proficient.  Most Western parents would not think this a fair trade since we know that raising a child is hard enough without willfully antagonizing them.

 2007 Lexington School Father/Son basketball game.

Where I think the Chinese approach would typically fail in a Western home is in the demands that it places upon the parents. We can order our children to practice a skill for three hours a day, but will we supervise that practice?  In our over-scheduled lives, where time is our most precious commodity, such a parental commitment would seem extraordinary. Not so with the Chinese. Apparently.

Perhaps then my sons' basketball shortcomings are the result not of my own children's lack of commitment, but rather of mine. Whereas Chinese parents will put in whatever time is necessary, I am not willing to work with them until they show some initiative.  I want improvement to be their idea, not mine.  True motivation comes from within.   

In the things that we consider to be truly important, my wife and I are Chinese.  We do expect academic excellence, for instance. We are making sacrifices to give our children a solid educational foundation and we expect a return on our investment.  We have stressed to them that academic achievement will present to them opportunities that will not otherwise be possible. We monitor our children's schoolwork closely and commit to it the time needed to ensure that they maintain focus.  

Our overall approach then is a hybrid of the two methodologies. Having been children ourselves, we are not without empathy.  However, I believe that the "every child is a winner" approach to parenting does them a disservice.  Life is not fair and never has been.  We are granted not the right of happiness, only the pursuit of it.  Raising our children to believe that they are entitled to a reward just for being present sets them up for failure because everything in life is a competition.  Whether or not you want to compete,  the game goes on with or without you. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

This, That, And The Other Thing

First things first...

You will recall that in an earlier post I railed against the utter foolishness that is bottled water.  Bottled water is a great choice if you are doing aid work in the Sudan, but here in the United States filtered tap water is better, is approximately 2000X less expensive, and is much less of a burden on the environment. In defense of my point, there is a news report out today that grades more than 170 different varieties of bottled water.

"According to a new report released today from Environmental Working Group (EWG). 'Bottled water companies try hard to hide information you might find troubling,' says Jane Houlihan, senior vice president of research for the Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy group. EWG analyzed the labels of 173 unique bottled water products and company websites to determine if companies disclose information on where water comes from, how or if their water is treated, and whether the results of purity testing are revealed. The nonprofit also looked at how effective (and advanced) any water treatment methods are. Researchers followed up by calling dozens of bottled water companies to find out which ones willingly tell consumers what's in their bottles."  Not surprisingly, the most popular brands from the biggest conglomerates are among those receiving the poorest marks.The results of the study can be accessed here. 

Okay, let's move on. 

I am a gadget guy.  No secret there. I always love the first week of January because this is when the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is held in Las Vegas.  This is the  industry confab that is the electronics equivalent of Fashion Week.  Although the show is not open to the public, the event nevertheless attracts upwards of 2000 companies and more than 100,000+ people each year, all of whom come away goggle-eyed after spending days drooling over the newest gizmos under the several million square feet of display space at the convention center. It is nerd nirvana. 

This also is the week when Apple usually gives us a glimpse of what it has planned for the coming year.  Apple was once a CES participant but pulled out of the show several years ago so that it would not have to share the spotlight with other technology companies.  Today Apple officially unveiled its App Store for Mac.  You may not be aware of the consequences of this, but believe me when I tell you that this is going to have wfar-reaching implications for the entire technology sector.  Apple itself states that "with the Mac App Store, getting the apps you want on your Mac has never been easier. No more boxes, no more disks, no more time-consuming installation. Click once to download and install any app on your Mac."  How great is this?  It's brilliant, it's eco-friendly, and moves us one step closer to the "cloud."

Many of you are familiar with the concept of "cloud computing" and may already be benefitting from it.   Do you have a Netflix account?  If you do and have streamed a movie to your Wii, PSP, XBox, AppleTV, laptop, or desktop, then you have experienced "cloud" technology.  Instead of downloading the movie to your hard drive and then watching it, Netflix stores the movie for you and then streams it to you wirelessly when you want it.  It is a totally disruptive technology.  Ask Blockbuster.  They will tell you.

Once again Apple appears to be at least one step ahead of everyone else.  Your computer soon won't need an expensive and delicate hard drive because flash memory will be more than adequate. Do you or your kids own one of these?

This is the doo-hickey that you plug into your computer's USB port to download and store documents for transfer to another computer. This is flash memory.

Hard drives are among the most expensive, bulky, and fragile components of any computer. When your hard drive fails––as it inevitably will––you lose everything you have stored on your computer unless you have backed your data up to an external hard drive. On the other hand, flash memory is solid-state (has no moving parts), is smaller, is cheaper, and is considerably more durable.      
The Macbook Air is a glimpse of your computing future. The Macbook Air is smaller, lighter, and faster than other laptops because it has flash memory and no hard drive. 

Initially, this was seen as a shortcoming but now the tech world is catching up to Apple's vision.  The advent of the cloud and its ability to quickly and seamlessly deliver to you whatever it is that you need means that you just don't need a hard drive anymore.  Using flash memory instead still gives you the ability to save information to your computer while also improving your computing experience, increasing the lifespan of your computer, and reenforcing the notion of your computer not as filing cabinet but as a media consumption device, something which Apple has been working toward for most of the last decade.

The CD? Dead.  The hard drive?  Dead.

Welcome to your new, more portable future.