Thursday, June 29, 2006

On Talent And Fear And Inhibition

Sometimes popular movies serve as a good vehicle for considering learning issues. The Karate Kid, one of the great schlock movies, “wax on – wax off”, offers many good views of learning such as providing good and easy to understand metaphors to frame things, showing the value of intense effort, and demonstrating the importance of fundamentals, “learn balance.”

Another movie that may be less obvious in its insights for learning is The Way We Were. Apart from the music, this movie is compelling in large part because the personas of the two stars, Streisand and Redford, seemed to fit so perfectly the characters they played. Streisand had only made a few movies before this one, but she won the Oscar for Funny Girl, her first movie, and obviously was a huge star before that from her singing. She conveyed Jewishness and with that lefty politics and huge enthusiasm for all endeavors simply from her talk, even without resorting to her schtick, which she did multiple times during the movie.

Redford, it’s hard to believe he will turn 70 later this summer, was perfect for the Hubbell Gardner character to whom, “everything came too easily.” His persona was defined by his role as the Sundance Kid and subsequent films such as Downhill Racer and The Candidate simply reinforced the image of immense talent but in a cool and laid back way. (To be fair to Redford and unlike Streisand, where one has the impression that what you see is what she is, I saw Redford in an earlier movie with Jane Fonda, Barefoot in the Park, where he comes across quite unlike his later image.)

My stereotype is that it should have been the Streisand character who was the writer. She had the background and the struggle for it. But it was the otherwise country clubish, attractive yet bland Redford character who was the writer, the creativity and how to express it making for certain possibilities (falling for Streisand) and certain tensions that woudn’t otherwise be there. Indeed, the heart of the story is that Hubbell Gardner can’t balance the two sides of his being and instead bounces from indulging one to immersing in the other.

The Redford character reminds that talent is found in unlikely places. It also tells us that much learning happens easily, en passant; it’s not all a question of repeated failure and climbing out of the pit as I wrote in my
Killing The Puppy post. And the juxtaposition of the two characters makes apparent that what is easy and en passant learning for the one may be difficult or near impossible for the other. This is an oft repeated lesson at faculty teaching workshops, because the faculty likely were stars as students and those whom they teach may not be.

But the movies also teach because they are fiction and unlike real life and hence lend contrast to that. Characters in movies almost always do, not always for good, but certainly they are almost always active. Inaction on screen would be dull for the viewer. But inaction --- stagefright that keeps the performer from doing the show, procrastination that keeps the writer from starting to compose at the keyboard, fear of conflict that keeps the employee from having the hard talk with the co-worker are an important part of real life. And in both the teaching and mentoring context, the issue is what to do about it.

I’m of the mind that there are fears to indulge and fears to overcome. I can understand a more heroic point of view that all fears should be overcome, but to me sometimes prudence trumps heroism. If you do believe in both types of fears, as I do, then the question is how do you determine the one from the other and then in the latter instance what does one do to restore confidence?

A child is right to fear fire and should not be encouraged to put his hand in the flame a second time. The problem is in receiving a false positive – getting burned in a figurative sense from an atypical situation that is unlikely to recur, where the more robust or less sensitive person would roll with the punch or, as the saying goes, get back on the horse. In this case fear is the wrong lesson learned and the paralysis the person feels prevents the person from fully realizing their potential.

I’ve had many such fears in my lifetime. As a child I was nipped by an unleashed dog in our neighborhood who was chasing my brother and me and as a consequence developed a fear of dogs that truly was overwhelming in childhood (I would walk around the block rather than see the German Shepard bark at me from behind the fence) and that persisted into my adult life, although now we have a dog at home and that familiarity has lessened the fear of other dogs. After being able to swim in water over my head for a couple of years, the Swim Counselor at camp threw me into the lake when I wasn’t expecting it and I gagged and couldn’t breath for a few seconds as a consequence. I spent a couple of summers as a shallow water swimmer (and tried to avoid that counselor) before I returned to the deeper part of the lake.

It’s possible for me to talk about these childhood incidents. It is much harder to discuss their adult counterparts. I’m guessing that is typical. We don’t talk about it much, if at all. Most of us muddle through. But for the person who is really struggling, it creates the impression that the rest of us aren’t having those sort of difficulties at all, that we’re Hubbell Gardner types for whom everything comes easily. That makes the problem worse for the person who struggles.

I believe that if one knows to look and listen for problems of this sort one can find evidence of such struggles, but it is much easier to do if the other person is overt about it either in speech or in writing than if that person clams up, in which case one can make some inference that ther is a problem but essentially no inference about the source of that problem. It is even easier to note look for this sort of thing when you see the same person being open in one context while being clammed up in another. When talent and aptitude are expressed in that open setting but obviously not in the other it seems a reasonable surmisal that there is some inhibitor to which the person is reacting incorrectly and this is the case where efforts towards restoring confidence seem most in order.

A few nights ago there was
a piece on the News Hour about High School Dropouts some of whom ended up attending alternative schooling programs and earning their GEDs. They did interviews with a couple of these students who spoke of the alternative schools as treating them as human beings and developing a sense of confidence that they could succeed in the workplace. There are the elements of the appropriate way to mentor or teach in that. It seems to me that in addition the appropriate thing to do is in an anayltic but human fashion pinpoint the sorurce of the problem as precisely as possible. And then offer training and practice in that dimension.

If it is correct that performance is being blocked by some profound inhibition rather than the person simply doesn’t have the ability to to the task, the training and practice should not have to last too long; the bird can leave the nest so to speak. But there must be enough of it so the person can confront their own demons and overcome them. Perhaps this is what professional development is really about.

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