Two teenagers sat across from me. I was helping them brainstorm topics for a college app essay.
“I’m an average student,” one of them wrote during the free write exercise. The other one wished that she was smarter, and “had something interesting to write about.”
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I could have said the same thing about myself at that age, but would have been too insecure to admit it. I also struggled with finding a topic and worried I wasn’t interesting enough. And I hadn’t faced down a monumental challenge that demonstrated my courage or strength of character.
Looking back at my younger self, I think I underestimated the challenge of just trying to overcome being “average” in an age that rewarded passions, talent and extraordinary ability.
Take my twelve years of piano lessons. I started when I was in first grade. I learned how to read music and made my way slowly through lesson books. I didn’t realize how mediocre I was until I attended a music camp in high school. By then played piano for ten years, a majority of my life.
It was only when the first student, and then the second, went up to play their audition piece in front of everyone that I realized that I was way out of my league. Their pieces were memorized; to me they sounded like professionals. I sat in my chair, piano book in hand, trying to figure out how to escape from that room before my turn came, trying to figure out what I would do for the next two weeks.
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I probably ended up there because no one had thought to discourage me—not my gentle mom nor my piano teacher who probably needed the extra income. One winter he even asked me to accompany the high school chorus he directed. I was excited by the concept until the actual day came. I was always nervous when I played in front of people–even my piano teacher—but that night my anxiety soared to new heights.
When he gave the downbeat to start, I hit a wrong note. When the singing started, I lost track of timing. My well-rehearsed fingers flew through the piece as I willed the experience to be over as quickly as possible. When I looked up, my teacher was red in the face, stomping his feet. He wanted me to hear the beat. But beat had no relevance to me in that moment.
I did not quit my piano lessons, even after the humiliation of that night. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I thought he needed students and didn’t want to hurt his feelings; or maybe it was because I considered each new song he assigned me as a fresh opportunity, a chance for redemption. Though it took an extraordinary amount of practice for me to master a song, I loved the feeling of my fingers getting the notes right when I finally did.
Resilience and Determination
I could have written about that optimism, my willingness and determination to try again and again despite the process never getting easier. Or, about my performance anxiety and the courage it took to face it weekly. But I was too busy blaming myself for not being better, for thinking that if I practiced more often I would improve. I guess it was possible; had I worked on my scales daily like my teacher suggested, I might have had more success.
But now, as a parent to four musical sons, all with good rhythm, I see what an uphill climb I faced. I see my determination to stick with something that was hard. Back then, I underestimated my resilience in the face of objective mediocrity.
And, I was too embarrassed by being average, and could never admit it. It felt like it was my fault. In retrospect, I should have been proud of my efforts that reaped relatively small rewards and used it to my advantage.
“I understand the feeling,” I said to the young adults sitting across from me in the square conference room.
“But I think I could prove you wrong.”