An Official Ramble–Discovering How Big the Pond Really Is

As I’ve watched my son go through school and take various lessons (swimming, skiing, tennis–my town has a wealth of offerings for kids. It’s fantastic), I’ve been reminded of my own experiences in school and life in general. He’s so enthusiastic about things, and he’s more than a little over-confident, if I’m telling the truth. He’s always convinced he’s the fastest in the world, or the best at reading, or the best swimmer. No matter what he sees, he’s sure he can do better.

This came out really strongly in the last winter Olympics. He was taking skiing lessons at the time, and I watched some of the downhill men’s event with him. He was amazed at what they were doing, then said calmly, “They go about as fast as I do.”

I know I was this way when I was younger. I graduated as one of the valedictorians from my high school. I got great scholarships to a great university. I felt like I could do anything–be anybody. Of course, life inevitably cures most people of that. For me, it happened when I tried to get into 9 different PhD programs. I had a 3.98 GPA, double major, double emphases in my MA program–I thought I’d get into a bunch.

I got into none.

For TRC, some of this has already happened. He’s up to level 3 now in swimming lessons, and this seems to be the level where they stop playing with the kids and start really teaching them how to swim. TRC went to the first lesson full of swagger. He was the best swimmer in the world, after all.

Then they made him swim from one end of a real pool to the other. Nine feet deep at the deep end. And he discovered something: he wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was. It was difficult. He had to have help to make it the whole way. He also discovered something else: some of the other kids didn’t need help. They could do it all on their own.

He wasn’t the best swimmer in the world.

This happens all the time, of course. And I for one am very thankful it does–despite what a painful learning experience it can be at times. When we first start learning something, we’re so focused on ourselves that it’s hard to compare what we can do with what other people can do. Get a bit better at it, and you start being able to look around you at other people doing that same thing in your area. It reminds me a lot of the opening shot to Contact. Here it is:

The farther we zoom out, the more competition there is. The more competition there is, the more we realize we’re not as good as we think we are. This isn’t a bad thing. It helps keep us humble.

This happens with my writing, as well. At first, I was writing just for me. I evaluated how I was doing on my own. Then I got a writing group, and it was all about how I was doing in comparison to those other three, then five, then eight people. Then I was in a creative writing program, and I could compare myself to fifty or more. And then I was trying to get a publisher or an agent, and I was comparing myself to thousands or more.

When my book came out, and I was now forced to compare myself with all the other published authors who have ever lived, something happened. I stopped trying to compare myself so much, and I started focusing on myself again–just like at the end of that pan out scene in Contact. We see there’s so much else out there to worry about, that in the end, it’s just enough to worry about ourselves. Worry about what we can do. Being the best we can be.

TRC and I will watch the swimming events at this year’s Olympics, and I’ll be watching him to see his response. Will he still think he swims as fast as they do, or will he just be amazed at their skill? It’s all part of growing up.

Competition is fine. It helps us strive to be better. To constantly improve. But it’s also important to have that humility–to realize there’s someone else out there better than you. Probably lots of people better than you. The internet is helping us see that, of course. As communities get larger and larger, it’s impossible not to notice how much talent there is in every area. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

And that’s all I have for you this Thursday.

2 thoughts on “An Official Ramble–Discovering How Big the Pond Really Is”

  1. When I was that age, I wanted to be Japanese, because the news and Time Magazine were all about how much smarter Japanese kids were than US kids–better schools, studied harder, etc. So I knew I wasn’t all that, but I *wanted* to be the smartest kid in the world, SO BAD. So bad I decided I needed to learn Japanese, read the dictionary (I got up to the middle of the As before I gave up), and read Shakespeare, all in the 4th grade.

  2. Wow. You’re pretty hardcore. 🙂

    I remember trying to read the dictionary, too. What’s up with that? What good was it going to do me? Gotta wonder sometimes what I was thinking in grade school . . .

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