Setting and achieving a goal for resolving problems is an orientation your middle school student with cerebral palsy (CP) needs to learn now.
That ability is critical for successful career building.
I recently rode my recumbent tricycle through the Memorial Union terrace on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. The sun was setting on a placid Lake Mendota, and I noticed about seven students, scattered about but all facing the sunset across the lake, sitting on the steps leading down to the lake shore.
Each seemed so intent – not on the sunset or unusual balmy November weather – but on the spiral notebook of lined paper in their hands and the mechanics of writing something on paper. I soon discovered they were writing, some rather painfully and sloppily, in long hand. Yes, a few even looked like they were struggling.
I didn’t stop to ask, but I can imagine what their class assignment was: "Discard your laptop, smart phone etc. and use pen and paper to write a description of today’s sunset."
With cursive writing a vanishing art form and note taking no longer a requirement in the virtual classroom of 2013, I wondered what the class’s instructor had in mind when he or she gave the assignment.
I would have liked to think it as all about setting and achieving a goal.
But, perhaps it was simply an exercise in patience, helping students in a world of tweets and texting to slow down and enjoy (and think through and describe) the sunset.
The whole scene reminded me of my personal struggle with the written word – my early introduction to the discipline of setting and achieving a goal.
As a person with CP, I felt overwhelmed in high school during the late 50s (when we had no e-mail and no laptops) because I couldn’t take hand-written notes fast enough to keep up with the instructors while in class.
I knew, if I wanted to go to college, I had to find a solution to that problem. In the absence of faxes, e-mails, the Internet, social media and even recording devises, I couldn’t miss capturing important information from the professors and fellow classmates.
So, during summer vacations while in high school, I took a short-hand correspondence course and eventually, after three years of daily practice, developed my own system of taking notes. My system, which no one else can decipher, served me well while in college and on the job as a business communicator.
But, my short hand didn’t help me on essay exams, and, luckily during the 60s, I had professors who allowed me extra time to complete essay questions in long hand in the old fashioned “blue books.”
When I retired in 1994 from my mainstream job as vice president of corporate communication for a Fortune 500 company, I felt I knew what college students with disabilities needed to be “ready for work” after school. And, I felt I had the “words” they “needed to hear.”
But, I didn’t. I needed to learn the “disability culture,” even though I was disabled myself. And I didn’t realize I needed to first communicate with a different audience: employers instead of college students.
It took me another 16 years of research, study and writing (and keyboarding with two fingers) to get to that point. But, the result was "Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities", a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook I compiled and edited for hiring managers.
We’re not very patient in the U.S., and that has served us well in many cases for more than 200 years. As Americans, we pride ourselves as innovators, particularly when it comes to quick fixes.
But, our lack of patience and a short-term focus is perhaps becoming a detriment to our businesses, our economy and our globe. In short, we may be short-changing ourselves.
Here’s part of a comment Veronica posted in one of my forums in 2010:
“Most managers are looking for what someone can do for them right now, and asking them to look down the road a year is beyond the skill set of most company managers in the U.S.
“In Asian companies, that is another matter. And that is why we have many Asian companies outperforming their U.S.-based counterparts.”
I’m convinced that, if we’re going to adequately address some of our long-term problems in this world, we need to place a greater value on patience and on a long-term focus in the political leaders we choose, the job candidates we hire and the business people we promote to higher positions of authority. We need leaders who have experience in setting and achieving a goal.
Those who have learned patience and have developed a longer focus by dealing effectively with vulnerability may be just the right people for those positions. In fact, that may be your junior high student’s long-term competitive advantage in tomorrow’s job market.
Here’s why. Your youngster has the opportunity to hone the ability to turn the struggles often associated with learning how to live well with CP into a personal propensity for patience.
What is the key to a personal propensity for patience?
Geoff Colvin sums up the power of deliberate practice with a purpose in his book, "Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else " (Penguin Group, 2010). He writes:
"...The most important effect of practice in great performers is that it takes them beyond -- or, more precisely, around -- the limitations most of us think of as critical."
He pinpoints exactly why it makes good business sense to hire people with disabilities who have developed the motivation to work hard at precisely the things they need to improve so they can contribute to a company’s bottom line.
Colvin cites research that indicates what we think of as “innate talent” is more accurately termed “long-term, sustained practice at what really counts” driven by a passion for setting and reaching a goal.
Dovetail your at-home efforts (physical therapy speech practice etc.) with at-school goal-setting learning. Sixth-graders in Fairfax County (Washington, D.C.) public schools, for instance, have been taking lessons in setting and achieving SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-based and timely) goals for themselves. That type of discipline can be followed at home, too.
When I was in seventh grade, I remember coming home from school and going up to my room at 4:00 each day to do the tongue exercises I had learned from my speech therapist. My goal was to be able to gain as much flexibility in my tongue as I could so my words would be more precise and people would more easily understand my speech.
I don’t know if my speech improved that much during my junior high years, but I gained confidence and the ability to relax during that sustained process (all with the encouragement of my school teachers, therapists, my mom and my weekly house parents).
And I certainly knew what deliberate and sustained practice – and setting and achieving a goal -- was all about.