Thursday, November 14, 2013

What Michael Lewis Taught Me

On November 12, 2013 I had the pleasure of hearing author Michael Lewis speak as part of The Florida Forum, a speech series to generate donates for a children’s hospital. As expected, he offered an informative and comedic narrative that revealed information surrounding his motivations as an author, anecdotes about his texts, and finally his upbringing. It was the latter that struck me most, for Lewis and the moderator of the conversation brought up a 2004 article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine entitled: “Coach Fitz’s Management Theory.” The article details the trials and tribulations encountered by Lewis’ iconic high school baseball and basketball coach, and how the coach was struggling to adapt to the new breed of children, and at the time was facing termination for methods deemed too harsh by a small group of influential parents at the private school. If you haven’t read it, please do, it is worth the fifteen minutes.

While I had never read the piece, I quickly found it, and gave it a good read. It struck home. As a teacher and coach working in a similar environment, I wanted to understand the situation—what had happened to make an icon, one who alumni groups were fundraising to name a new athletic facility after (as well as give a place to display the man’s numerous athletic achievements made in the name of the school) expendable? What it came down to was a very similar message to what Lewis spoke about in his speech that night—overprotection. We as parents, we as society, insulate our young against failure, feeling failure is, well a failure. If our child doesn’t get the grade we feel he should have, we did something wrong, not the child, and thus somebody needs to pay. This coach had called students out on their individual failures in order for both the individuals and the team to understand their lack of commitment. A few kids had been offended—they never fail—and the ball was set in motion.

I see such moments in the classroom every day. A student chooses not to read “The Tempest” or Candide. So said student fails to perform on his assessments, is unable to produce an intelligent and coherent piece of writing, and thus his parents are sent into a whirlwind over the how’s and why’s and the blames. Usually, when the dust settles, the emails are written, the phone calls are made, they see the light: little Johnny was supposed to read, he decided that reading was a boring alternative to Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or YouTube, so Johnny didn’t read. Thus Johnny failed. This fact may be unacceptable to some, but it is the truth. Our layer of protection, with parents hovering just above, attempts to shield this failure. According to this logic, these children should feel strong at all times, avoiding an instance where their self-esteem can be chiseled away.

Lewis validated these ideas by citing how his children are involved in two softball leagues—one that doesn’t keep score, the “sweet league” where everyone wins at least half of their games, and one that is about winning and more accurately emulates real life. He sees the benefit in both, but as his article and speech mention, society is now running from the latter. His coach, Coach Fitz, had struggled to connect with a society more focused on fun than work, one that lacked the understanding that hard work leads to the very moments where fun can be had, and that in order to live a full, complete life, one must understand life is not a party. Spring Break might have to be skipped, ski trips eschewed, if one is to find commitment. There are days you will have to work, and work, by definition, is hard.

As a coach, I have encountered the same moments. Students are given a chance to travel the world, visit another country, and have a great experience. Yet, they will miss a ton of practice, and while they can run on their own a coach knows they are not likely to. Thus the student forgoes hard work, needed work, and later on, when they are to perform athletically, they do not. The missed time added up, detracted from their performance, and thus led them to failure. They took the failure hard, sought reasons for it, but refused to face that they themselves had caused it. Their lack of commitment created failure, their search for instant gratification did as well.

What was fascinating about Lewis’ speech, is that while talking to a banker, he applied similar lessons to Wall Street and Too Big to Fail Banks. These institutions had shields, whether purposeful or not, to protect them from failure. The vast majority of the institutions continued on unscathed while the common man suffered. The problem, as Lewis iterates in his article back in 2004, is that to the rest of us, to most everyone, is that failure is frequent. We had to fall off our bikes in order to learn how to ride them. We had to get dirty, to practice sliding, in order to slide into third base properly. If we never fall, if we never fail, we fail to learn. The books remain unread, the miles not run, and life goals never fully achieved.

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