I was thinking today that I learn best through adversity. It was practising the fiddle that gave rise to these thoughts. As a result of last week's fiasco of a lesson, or at least my fiasco performance at the lesson (regardless of the health issues that may have caused the problem), my teacher probably made more er em suggestions than usual. Or maybe I was put in a frame of mind to be more apt to pay attention to them and work more diligently on them. Maybe it was not even the suggestions so much as my own disappointment that may have caused me to re-evaluate how I go about practising and learning the instrument. While I can't say this for sure, I have a feeling that I will advance more as a result of the bad lesson than I would have from another good one.
This is not a completely new insight for me: most thoughts aren't terribly novel at this age. It's more of a remembering: "Oh yes, I knew that, but now it comes to mind again."
Back around the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to play tennis with a neighbour, Mike. I hadn't played much for a few years and was eager to pick up the racket once more. While self-taught adults are not going to set the tennis world on fire with their prowess, I thought that I wasn't too bad at the sport. Maybe I wasn't, but Mike was a lot better. We'd go out day after day, and he would win every time. We'd often play three sets, and I don't know how long it took me to win even one, never mind a match. If I were Mike, I might have thrown a few games to my poor opponent, but I'm glad that he didn't. He did me a favour by keeping his level high and forcing me to get better. By the next summer, we were playing very evenly, each of us winning approximately 50% of the sets. Come the third summer, I was actually beginning to pull slightly ahead although if I wasn't at my best on a given day, and that happens quite a lot in life, he would beat me.
Early in the 1990s, I joined the local chess league. For years, I had mentored the school team and run the county chess league [sic]. Students would come into my room almost every lunch hour for almost the whole school year, and I would let them play. Frequently, I would play with them. Even though we had some very bright student, including the occasional genius (well, one anyway), I usually held my own – even against the genius who, being used to things coming so easily to him, tended to move a little too impetuously.
Anyway, there came a time when, wondering how I might fare against adults, I joined the city chess club. As you might well conceive, in a small city, the turnout wasn't huge; only eight to ten guys showed up on a typical evening. I think that they started the tournament on only my second week. I remember my first game. I was doing well against someone who had been a club regular for years. Then he made a brilliant sacrifice that blew my mind. It really did blow my mind because I lost the game even though I still had the material to have won.
However, I'd take the games home and learn from them by replaying them on the computer, and I'm sure that the others did the same. Invariably, there were a few key moves that decided a game in which opponents were fairly evenly matched. Not only that, but I learned to play at their pace, a different pace that I had to adapt to. While students could often finish multiple games within a less than one hour lunch period, some of the club games easily lasted for more than two hours even though we played with clocks to keep us on some sort of time track.
Without trying to be overly braggadocios, I won the tournament: tied for first actually. It wasn't as big an accomplishment as you might think because the two best players weren't allowed to participate in this amateur tournament. Still, I finished with a higher standing than all but one of the more seasoned players.
In all three cases, tennis, chess, and now the fiddle (hopefully), it was early adversity that drove me to become better. None of these things are serious or important, but I think that the lesson holds. A little adversity can serve to make us better people – eventually anyway. Nobody courts adversity (and please understand that I'm not talking here about serious illnesses or dire mishaps that life may throw at us but the more ordinary setbacks that are part and parcel of the normal ebb and flow of life), but if we face adversity with the right attitude, we can emerge from the process better than when we went in.
It's neither a unique nor clever insight: just the one that has been on my mind tonight.