The Myth of Omnipotence

My husband and daughter competed in the “Tractor Pull” competition in which my husband’s feet could not find purchase on the slippery bottom of the pool. There was much cheering.

Miles run today: 4.5

Laps swum yesterday: 5

Efficient, impressive laps swum yesterday: 0

Just after college, my good friend had a roommate who came from Old Money. Her father had told her she could be anything she wanted to be.

I remember that we scoffed at this: the girl was nice and smart and probably at or above average intelligence. But we did not see her becoming a brain surgeon, an Arctic explorer, or a CEO of a major corporation.

Especially when it was taking her roughly six or seven years to complete college, and she still didn’t know what she wanted to do. She was not setting the world on fire.

I still feel that parents who tell their children they can be anything in the world are performing a disservice: some children come out of the womb predisposed to certain skills, full of personality quirks and tendencies towards certain careers, even early on.

If a child (or an adult) is passionate about something, the skill set often catches up to meet the passion. With diligent practice, many things are attainable.

In fact, most things improve with practice.

And many things you don’t practice can show off your ineptitude. I challenge you to try some things at which you might fail.

One time, a few years ago, a friend of ours who owns a Thai restaurant offered to let me learn how to cook a couple of dishes in his kitchen. (Keep in mind: I cook at home about six nights a week; it’s not something new for me to be handling food.)

But when I entered the pristine kitchen with glistening stainless steel surfaces, all of the implements of the meal preparation were foreign. There was no large knife to chop with; each tool was a different one from what I had at home.

My husband and kids watched as I listened, watched and tried to mimic the motions of the Thai chef. Later, my husband said he felt kind of sorry for me; I was like a fish out of water.

I thought it was incredibly interesting.

Here was a skill not so far away from one I had mastered… and yet, it felt completely new and fresh. And I was bad at it. Really bad. If I had had the opportunity to continue taking lessons, I would have. I could feel my brain growing as it tried to wrap around the new ideas.

Yesterday, our neighborhood swim club held its end-of-summer bash, complete with swim competitions and cheering.

I felt I had done a fair job of dampening expectations of my swimming abilities all summer by reminding all of the former high school swim champions/volunteer moms and dads that I’d never been a swimmer in that way. My swimming consists of the fun kind of swimming: diving down and holding breaths and doing somersaults and trying to catch my kids and diving into waves.

But still: I signed up for the 100-meter freestyle because I wanted to prove to myself that I could swim four laps without being rescued.

I almost failed.

Up against three other “real” swimmers, I knew already that I would be lucky to finish within a few minutes of that bunch. But when I paused, huffing and puffing, at the end of the pool before starting my fourth lap, and onlookers yelled, “Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” it was truly humbling.

I believe in doing things that scare you. In making a fool of yourself. In trying things that you’re not sure you can conquer.

And I did.

What it made me want to do next: conquer it. I plan to get better at swimming. How is it that someone who can run 26.2 miles can’t swim four laps without her heart hammering in her chest and gasping for breath? I’ll tell you: because swimming is difficult… and it’s not something I’ve practiced.

The difference between my wanting to practice and improve and thinking that I’ll become the next Olympic hopeful in the 500m freestyle is the difference between wanting to give your kids opportunities to learn new skills and thinking you can train a sensitive, artistic type to be a Chief Financial Officer of a Fortune 500 company. And really, please don’t go there.

What have you tried lately that you weren’t sure you could master? What scares you the most about trying something new? When did you feel like a complete fool?

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37 thoughts on “The Myth of Omnipotence

  1. Daryl says:

    I had a huge reality check yesterday. I felt that as a speedy accomplished runner, I could churn out a respectable 25 yard freestyle. I swam from end to end–one breath, so as to prevent breaking form. I heard cheering before I finished, then toes about 5m ahead and left of me. It was really hard, and I came last. As Jay put it–Stage 1, “you have lots of confidence and no ability” (that’s how I entered the pool), and Stage 2, “no confidence and no ability” (that’s how I exited the pool). This is not end, but the beginning. This morning I was in the pool at 6 a.m. I have nowhere to go but up, and I’m looking forward to Stage 3.

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    “I still feel that parents who tell their children they can be anything in the world are performing a disservice.”—I agree. Although, as you point out, it’s good to expose kids to different things and allow them the chance to find something for which they have a true passion and talent, we shouldn’t help plant any false illusions about their ability.

    Good for you for facing something that was new and difficult for you. As you know, I’m facing something new right now, too. But exciting. 🙂

  3. The banjo. Definitely the banjo.

    As a writer, it was trying to tell a story in verse. It was maddening. I was pretty happy with the result, though.

  4. I give you full marks for courage to swim against real swimmers. I would have drowned. It has been years since I swam at all. Swimming is hard and I have heard it called the perfect exercise because it covers every body part with minimal negative impact.

    Last summer I took on the task of building a flagstone patio between our and our neighbors home. It is a kind of shared space. With the cost of materials and the high hopes of my neighbor, I was petrified of messing it up. It turned out okay, not professional qualify but everyone seemed satisfied.

    I agree we should challenge ourselves whenever possible. If we do not move forward , we move backward.
    Great post.

    • annewoodman says:

      So true, Dennis. It’s good to move forward.

      Congrats on the flagstone patio. There seems to be quite a lot of landscaping/chainsawing/outdoor manual labor going on around your house. I bet your yard is immaculate!

  5. Bernie Brown says:

    I am sure I have failed at many more things than the one I am about to say, but this came to mind first. Let me start by saying my older sister wallpapers like a pro. It all fits. All the patterns match. Not so, me. I thought I could avoid the pattern matching thing by choosing plain paper. So I cheated on that, but I thought I measured. No. No. No. Every piece I applied was either too short or too long or too something. Certain parts of the wall looked like puzzles, they had so many little pieces patched togetherr. Contrary to your determination, I did not say I would practice and learn. I gave up wall papering completely and the world is a better place for it. Amen.

    • annewoodman says:

      Ergh! I’m sure I would share this failed endeavor with you if I’d ever tried… anything that requires that level of matching, hand-eye coordination and careful attention to detail will never be something at which I excel. I second your Amen! Yippee!

  6. Daryl says:

    Can I say one last thing. Golf. I’d have a better chance of beating Phelps in the pool than mastering the art of hitting a small white ball through the air.

  7. Melissa says:

    I think trying new things is what helps keep us on our toes and learning. There is nothing wrong in not being the best, but there is something terribly wrong with not trying. I told my kids they could be anything they wanted to be…as long as it wasn’t a burden on society…because there is so much out there to try and it will take a few tries to find what’s right for them….no limits though. And even if they aren’t the best, they definitely haven’t failed because failure happens when they don’t try…

    • annewoodman says:

      I agree… when kids are young, they should try everything (and we should continue to try as adults).

      But by the time you’re in your sixth year of college and still believing that becoming Secretary General of NATO is within your grasp is what I would label “delusional.”

  8. David Gentry says:

    Americans brainwash themselves into thinking that failure is bad. Failure is only bad if one’s response is, “I’m a failure as a person.” If instead one fails and says, “That was just a short detour on my path to success,” failure is good. For example, one might learn to follow another career path or one might learn why failure occurred so that success will be achieved the next time. An adage comes to mind: If one hasn’t failed, one hasn’t tried.

    Great post!

  9. Arianne says:

    This weekend I tried to hit golf balls at the driving range on a blind date. I swung and missed more than I hit the ball. My date did not set up a follow up tee time, but I’m glad that I tried. There was a beautiful rainbow over the golf course cheering me on.

    • annewoodman says:

      Ha! I can imagine that would be very difficult. And yes, the weather and a great rainbow can make the whole experience enjoyable whether or not you’re destined for golf fame. ; ) (P.S. It was great talking to you girls last week… hope we can do it again soon.)

  10. jmmcdowell says:

    Downhill skiing, golf, basketball, . . . Three quick activities that come to mind where I have no skills at all. As others have said, we should try new things and not feel like “failures” if we never improve at them. Although I don’t have children, I don’t think it helps for all their teams to “win” in some way, just for participating. We do fail, and we need to learn how to do it well. That sounds strange, but I hope my meaning comes through!

  11. Andria says:

    When I was a young teacher, i signed up with a bunch of coworkers for ballet and jazz classes. We took classes for 3 years, and it never really got easier for me. It was the first thing I had done that I just couldn’t get it. I just could not remember the sequences in the dance and the assistant always had to pull me aside and try and help me through it. As a teacher, it was one of the most lasting lessons I’ve learned. It made me know what it felt like to struggle with learning, and how it felt when I tried and couldn’t get it. I still try to remember how it felt when I’m working with my students and they don’t get it.

    • annewoodman says:

      Andria, I think that’s a great example of an excellent teacher… Teachers should be able to empathize with students who struggle, and I’m glad you’re able to use that (not so perfect) experience to make you a better teacher. Your students are so fortunate.

  12. Amy Mak says:

    This post is so up my ally! I grew up with my mother saying the same thing – no, we can’t be anything we want to be. For instance, she would say, “I’m never going to be an NFL football player. Ever. It’s not gonna happen!” There’s something to be said for telling your kids they can decide to do anything they want to do and by golly, go after it and get it! I think this means our children innately drift towards their talents and then it’s the time to practice, practice, practice to get those 10,000 hours in. Have you read, “Bounce”? He basically says it’s all practice and NOT innate but I could never be quite convinced.

    Good job with your swim. I love that you did that. And you’re right; swimming is hard and it’s very different than running. You’ve “mastered” running b/c you run (all the time, it looks like!)

    Anyway, for me, what do I want to master? Surfing! Yes, yes, yes. I want to master the craft of writing which I know will take the rest of my lifetime. What was hard for me to master? College math. I actually failed the class and then the next time I took it, I got an A. It can be done.

    “That which we persist in doing becomes easier – not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  13. 4amWriter says:

    Quilting/sewing. Downhill skiing. Driving in Boston 🙂

    I agree that not everyone is cut out for all things. But I think passion or desire can stand in for skill while the person practices or learns whatever it is she is hungry to do.

    I wonder if the problem that the girl you knew in college had was that she didn’t have a specific dream? Or maybe she didn’t have her own dream, living out her parents’ dreams of ‘world ruler’ instead.

    She probably could have mastered something but without the true, hearfelt desire to achieve the goal, then she couldn’t get far.

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, I do think that starting with passion is key. Sometimes, kids need to be introduced to something before they realize they are passionate about it–I do think that’s the parents’ job.

      Maybe you should give up the driving in Boston skill? I’ve heard it’s tres difficile. ; )

  14. Subtlekate says:

    That is fantastic. You did something that was out of your comfort. 🙂

    I’ve been doing that a lot recently. I became a hermit awhile ago but over the last few months I have been pushing myself. Today I went back to work, I mean real work, not work that came to me in my home. I saw actual patients and talked to lots of people. I’m really chuffed with myself right now.

    • annewoodman says:

      Sounds like you had some good reasons to become a hermit!

      Congrats on seeing patients and getting back out there.

      And, while my husband is originally English, he rarely uses English-isms anymore… I love hearing the word “chuffed.” ; )

  15. Ravena Guron says:

    I’m the complete opposite! For the life of me I can barely run a lap around a track, yet I can do 100 laps of a swimming pool with ease 😀

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