By Darius E. Bennett, Esq.
Before becoming editor-in-chief of Self Magazine, Lucy Danziger was a college athlete, competing in rowing and ski-racing. Between the two, Danziger preferred rowing because she feared it less, and was “naturally good at it.” What’s more, she was not a particularly strong skier, and was rather more adept at encouraging others to perform well. In fact, she would train hoping it would end quickly, and discouraged herself with constant thoughts of how she always fell on the difficult slopes. These negative approaches produced little improvement. At one training session, her awakening, she looked onto the sidelines and realized that her father had driven miles to stand in the cold and watch her defeat herself. That sudden realization conduced to a more positive focus, on smaller details, specifically what she did well and how to improve. Then came change. She later concluded, “I improved because I stopped defeating myself with negative thoughts. I started understanding the importance of attitude.”
Mostly, we are the obstacles, our thoughts the ties that bind us to an unserviceable past.
During my first semester of college, I scored a bruising and demoralizing ‘D’ grade on my first exam in Basic Science. I felt dispirited because I had almost always performed well on exams. I prided myself on ‘A’ marks and upbraided my performance whenever I earned a ‘B’. Consequently, the very sight of the ‘D’ marked on that science exam felt like someone had stomped my toes –hard!—and, while I bent to console myself, pushed me over into a trench filled with mud and waste. I had gone into the exam “knowing” that I was terrible at understanding all-natural sciences and could never possibly understand them well enough to be an excellent student. Basically, I had not expected a sterling performance. Nonetheless, I had hoped for a bit of luck in spite of my “limitations.” Yet fortune had eluded me, and I began to worry that I might ultimately completely fail at science. My limiting story was that science was a debility. My professor could sense my distress and asked me to stay after. She offered free tutoring once a week to help me improve. Defeated, I accepted the help, but warned her that I just did not have a brain for science. She was patient and thorough. There were other students at the tutoring sessions who had their own questions and were fighting possibly the same fears. We grew in confidence as the professor parsed out important details of the science, and she helped us to build a solid foundation on which we could base further understanding. The details began to make sense! I spent late nights studying by booklight in the hallway of the dormitory so that my roommate could sleep, and so that I could pour over notes and review the corresponding book chapters. I finished science with an ‘A’, and I learned to never give up on myself again.
I have carried that lesson into my career. At my first court appearance when the presiding judge —unsolicited— rated my performance as “good, not great,” in open court, before the rest of the bar, and in front of my client, to avoid feeling demoralized I re-examined my performance and scrutinized my preparation. I set small goals, prepared more thoroughly, watched others, and established sensible indicators of improvement. A year later my cross-examination of a police officer was so thoroughly convincing and effective that a member of the public met me outside afterward to say that he was very impressed, and felt certain that my client’s “charges [would] be dropped.” Not only had earlier difficulties with science taught me to avoid defeating myself, they had also taught me right focus, and how to engender conditions for improvement.
It is our attitudes that bind us to the adversities of the past. Here in this new world founded on the difficulties of a pandemic, we will meet obstacles that feel like certain defeat. We must pick those obstructions apart but put ourselves back together.