The benefits of going slowly


For the first thirty years of my life, this was more or less my approach to learning new things: 1. Choose new thing to learn (craft/skill/instrument/language/etc), 2. Attempt new thing at a complicated level on first try (wedding cake decoration/popping and locking/the guitar solo from My Sharona/conversational Na’vi), 3. Fail at first attempt, 4. Give up in a furious huff.

This “try; fail; move on” tactic has led to a life littered with half-skills, which is sort of handy in the way that knowing enough of a language to ask where the toilet is might be: momentarily helpful but ultimately frustrating. I can sew enough to put together a costume and hope nobody looks too closely at it; if I think long enough I can still remember the only song I ever bothered to learn in full on the piano. There are plenty of other examples.

Over these most recent Christmas holidays, however, something remarkable happened. Through a mix of necessity (a costume I had to make) and curiosity, I decided to try my hand at leathercraft. Initially, I just looked up vague things like “how to sew leather”, but soon found myself marvelling at the rather meditative videos of master leathercrafter George Hurst (here’s one for those of you interested in the craft, or simply having trouble relaxing).

Next thing you know, I was reading leathercraft books and watching tutorials; I Skyped home to Mum and earnestly told her that I was making sure to study up before I so much as touched a tool to a piece of leather. We both remarked that it was a new start after so many frustrated dead-ends and refusals to slow down and learn if perfect results were not achieved straight away.


So what led to this lifetime of “I GIVE UP!!” tantrums?

A feature from New York Magazine, “How Not To Talk To Kids”, published back in 2007, turned out to be quite enlightening. A friend of mine with a toddler sent it to me after I’d mentioned, in passing, my former habit of throwing in the towel at the earliest possible moment.

The gist of the various studies mentioned in the piece is that children who are praised for being smart (particularly the ones who are considered “gifted”) will often baulk at trying something new if they know they won’t get the same perfect results that earned them praise in the first place.

Psychologist Carol Dweck, who’d spent a decade studying the effects of praise on students, culminating in a study of 400 fifth-graders. As the New York piece notes, “Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. ‘Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,’ she explains. ‘They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.’”

Reading the piece was a moment of enlightenment for me, for - and I assure you I wince with extreme embarrassment as I tell you this - I was a “gifted child” at school.

However, my giftedness manifested itself in the arts - painting, drawing, debating, writing and grammar - and it was a very different story when it came to maths. So much so that, frustrated by my apparent inability to master it, I pretty much gave up in Year 8 (with another two agonising years to go). At parent-teacher interviews, my maths teacher asked if there had been a death in the family, as it was the only way she could explain my blend of utter incompetence and lack of interest.

Earlier than that, though, I have vivid memories of refusing to recite my Times Tables during homework, because I knew I wouldn’t get them right (apart from my beloved 1, 5, 10 and 11 Times Tables), so what was the point?

(There is room for a discussion of the issue of gauging intelligence based solely on mathematical abilities but it’s not here, though it might be in a no-rules game of dodgeball where I hold the ball and my former maths teachers are on the other team and the ball is full of lead weights and my team is full of dogs with bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at them.)

Eventually my habit of giving up in a tearful fury became something of a running joke in my family; they called me “Kevin”, after the similarly gifted yet identically flummoxed Kevin Buckman in Parenthood. “You made me play second base!!” is a common cry that Dad unleashes whenever I get stressed out in his presence.

So it turns out my excuse for all this lack-of-learning tantrum-throwing is “I was a gifted child!” (I just put 10c in the ‘wanker’ jar, I promise), but you could also argue that expecting mastery to happen rapidly and without fault is a generational thing.

There is so much information available to us today, and so quickly, it’s not surprising that people are loath to take the time to do things properly. Who can be fagged taking out an apprenticeship or going back to uni, or even reading a few textbooks, when you can fast-track your skills on reality TV, read the Wikipedia entry, or just get someone else to do it for you?

It feels like such a roaring cliche to say “we live in a fast-paced age”, and yet at the same time, it’s been immensely rewarding to slow down and learn something new without expecting instant miracle results. Instead of buying every tool imaginable in a manic shopping frenzy with delusions of leathercraft grandeur, only to shelve them in disgust a week later (that’s the 1982-2012 model), I have started with a few basics and some scraps.

So far my bevelling is a bit all over the place, and I sewed the lining into my wallet kit upside-down, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t throw them across the room and start crying angry tears. Instead, I have relished the opportunity to go slowly and make mistakes and learn from them.

And who knows, maybe in a few months I will have learned enough to tool a belt that says “GIFTED CHILD”. Or “MATHS SUCKS”. I dunno, I’m going to take my time deciding.  


  • There's a really weird sort of contradiction in all this where we can be experts on one topic, but not give proper respect to experts on another.
    Somebody recently said to me "I don't get the point of doctors - everyone looks up their symptoms on google now. They go to university for 7 years, for what?". In the same conversation they lamented the way nobody pays for quality anymore and everything is mass-produced and breaks easily. "Machines will never do better than hand-made".

    We love the idea of becoming an instant expert. TV series like the Pretender, or even the programmable skills in The Matrix, the idea of just being able to digest all the information rapidly and absorb everything that makes someone an expert is a pretty romantic notion. It's probably nothing new, either, when you consider older ideas like eating animal parts to gain their strengths. But of course the reality eventually hits us that we can't just take shortcuts: it does take time and effort to do things properly. So we re-evaluate whether it's actually worth that effort and abandon the whole thing. My father tried in vain to teach us kids how to service our own cars and was despondent when every one of us decided it was easier just to pay a mechanic.

    I don't know if it's a gifted thing or a generational thing. I think everyone is prone to this when the right circumstances combine.

    Lucid Fugue
    Date and time
    January 09, 2013, 10:43AM
    • Ahh Clem. This is so awesome. As someone in my mid-thirties I describe myself as a jack of all trades, master of none. I can do lots of things half-arsed, but excel at nothing. I've tried to learn guitar several times, but I don't have a natural knack for it so never pursued it. Even though I would LOVE to be able to play, it didn't come easily so I gave up.

      I'm good at photography - naturally. But suck at running a business. So instead of learning and making a conscious decision to try harder at businessey stuff, I threw in the towel in a huff.

      I wasn't a "gifted" child, but bright enough to probably have pursued a career in anything if I worked hard. But I didn't. Because studying was hard. I don't mind the learning, but hate the assessment, especially if there's a chance I'd not do well. So here I am, in my 30s with no career and no skills and no degree to back me up.

      BUT, the good thing to come from acknowledging this aspect of myself is that I can recognise all of this in my son, who IS "gifted" and very like me in the way that he'll give up if it doesn't come naturally (trying to teach him to ride a bike is like pulling teeth - oh the tears!). So I have lots of learning to do to ensure he doesn't make the same mistakes I did and doesn't have regrets.

      Thanks for the article.

      Date and time
      January 09, 2013, 12:16PM
      • The only thing the truly excellent have in common is over 2000 hours meaningful practice in a 2 to 3 year period.

        Like some of the other commenters I tend to be a jack of all trades and master of none (unless you count my degree). I admire those that can put in the effort and maintain the self discipline to become excellent at something. Then again, I've also come to appreciate knowing a little about a lot too.

        Date and time
        January 09, 2013, 1:39PM
        • This is a really important issue for high achievers which is rarely discussed. I took up ballet as an adult, mainly for the fitness and bone density payoff - what I didn't expect was a crash course in persistence and coping with (public) failure, which I was pretty bad at. In early classes I became tearful when I couldn't keep up with the others, my body language was extremely negative and I would sulk at the back looking at the clock. I have gained skills which help me every day of my life. I am a better, more rounded person because I stuck with ballet. I highly recommend this sort of endeavor.

          Date and time
          January 09, 2013, 2:16PM
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