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Alleynian Review: Stoicism in Skill Acquisition: Teaching Children Staying Power

Head of Junior School Music, Mimi Munro examines how students can tackle the conundrum of failure versus excellence in the pursuit of their disciplines, through illuminating some important lessons from the ancient Stoics.

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Introduction 

Last spring, as I prepared to swim across Lake Windermere, I became familiar with the Stoics. Training between fifteen and twenty hours a week, both in the pool and in the ice bath, places demands on my resilience like nothing I have experienced before, and many ask not just how I stick with my programme, but why. “I’m training for life” is my usual flip response, but, as I think about that statement, the more it rings true. If I can handle a six-hour swim in cold water, then I can take other, smaller challenges in my stride. If I can keep my concentration on my stroke with nothing else to think about, other than the prospect of my next feeding stop (Bovril, bone broth, tea and digestive biscuits, in case you are wondering) for those six hours, then I can concentrate on adulting long enough to complete a tax return on time. This swimming project involves a high degree of single-mindedness, making sacrifices and prioritisation. Yes, I chose to do this swim, but as a result of this large choice, in the months leading up to it, I made hundreds of “micro-choices” that I believe lead to my success.

In the international school sector, we should celebrate the incredible wealth of opportunities afforded to our children. However, this range of choice can be to the detriment of the resilience, sense of commitment and pursuit of quality that we are also trying to teach; leading our children down the garden path of faddishness and Epicureanism. This article seeks to examine the culture in which we are teaching and how the words of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus can inspire us to help children harness their inner Stoic to help them succeed in their versions of an ultramarathon swim.

Stoicism was founded in Athens in the third century BC. The most famous practitioners were Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, who will feature heavily throughout this article. The main Stoic strands of thought I will explore are:

·      The brevity of life and the value of time

·      Relying not on events but our reaction to them

The modern interpretation of Epicureanism generates the idea of a Friar Tuck like figure, imbibing and ingesting with equal gusto. However, the original ideas behind Epicureanism are surprisingly balanced: Enjoy life’s pleasure, but not too much for fear of pain later. Neither take part in politics or public affairs in order to avoid stress, nor worry about death or the Gods. This all seems very reasonable but how does that relate to an international school education?

I find the idea of ‘avoiding pain by flying in the middle of the radar’ to be somewhat opposed to the risk-taking that we are frequently encouraging our children to do. The idea of enjoying things in a shallow way, and trying out lots of activities but never fully committing to one, is what I find troublesome. Fear of failure is crippling. Sometimes we have to encourage our children to stick their neck out and take a risk, even if we know they might fail. It’s great if a child does all the co-curricular activities on offer but what have they risked excelling at? Have they made a choice? Or do they do lots of things for fun, without ever investing any of their pride in a specialism for fear they may fall short or get bored? Of course, we need to throw up the sticks and see where they land. In my career, I have discovered many musicians who didn’t even consider themselves as such until they had an orchestral instrument thrust upon them in Junior School. Likewise, your child may have a talent for textiles or a brain for biology and this simply won’t be discovered until they give things a whirl. However, there are only so many hours in the day but an infinite number of accomplishments a child can try.

Quitting

“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women,” Eve said. “The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions...”(Quinn) 

I find the words “I quit” followed by whatever hobby has fallen by the wayside incredibly disappointing. The phrase itself is so throwaway and reflects so poorly on the person saying it, I wish they would choose another way of framing the unpalatable truth: they don’t want to do it anymore. “I quit” is final and it invites no discussion. “I don’t want to” leads to questions being asked and thoughts and ideas being unpicked. What if we insisted that our children had to make a case for giving up an activity and really explored why they chose to “quit”? I propose that we will often find failure (perceived and actual), as well as struggle, to be prime drivers for these decisions. I also propose that we can potentially head this off at the pass by having the difficult conversations with our learners at the beginning of their newfound love affair with their chosen pastime. 

·      How will you cope when you have a test at school you need to work for? 

·      Will you need to make sacrifices in terms of your social life? 

·      What about your daily schedule - will you need to retire and rise earlier to fit in activities before school? 

I find that one practical approach to the self-mastery of Stoicism is rehearsing the bad times and what your possible reaction to them will be. In the fascinating podcast Ear Hustle, inmates of Saint Quentin Prison describe in frank detail how they manage the prospect of lengthy lockdown protocols. I was struck in particular by one gentleman’s strategy of delayed gratification in creating a gourmet sandwich.

“Well, you know, one day you may get Graham crackers, so you got to hold onto the Graham crackers. Then the next day you'll get a banana. So you save that. And then when you get your peanut butter and jelly you can make a Graham cracker, peanut butter and banana sandwich ... jelly sandwich. And those are the best sandwiches.” (Poor and Woods)

So perhaps, instead of being bowled over by opportunities and grabbing as many as we can hold, why not string them out over a longer period in order to gain a richer experience as a result?

In ​The Enchiridion​, Epictetus writes:

“In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise, you will begin with spirit, but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist... ... Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like little children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes like gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy... ...Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another gladiator, now a philosopher then an orator, but with your whole soul, nothing at all.” (Epictetus)

Marcus Aurelius also advocates a single-minded approach:

“Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wondering to and fro”.

And:

“They will say commonly, meddle not with many things, if thou wilt live cheerfully.” (Aurelius)

As adults, we can see that going to scheduled sessions, be they training sessions, musical rehearsals or workshops in the art room, is only part of the process of learning a new discipline. It is necessary to practice. It is necessary to practice with precision. As Bruce Lee allegedly put it:

“I don’t fear the man who has practiced 1000 kicks once, I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1000 times.”

Returning to the idea of micro quitting, I do feel that setting strong foundations of practice routines and discipline when trying new things is key. At the outset, it gives a new activity a backbone of rigour to complement its novelty.

Your child has taken up the ukulele. What are the non-negotiables? Little and often practise, listening to artists, taking part in performances? Let’s say you negotiate these terms, allowing the fledgling ukulele player some choice in terms of what nights and how long to practice. Allow them the choice of a ukulele greatest hits playlist on Spotify, helping them to plan their first performance. Once all this is done, they should understand what micro-quitting looks like: practicing for only nine minutes instead of the agreed 15, ‘listening’ whilst doing homework to kill two birds with one stone, bouncing a performance to the following term.

Once one micro-quit has happened, it is easier for more to occur. In my swimming training, it would be similar to setting a target at the beginning of a pool session: 20x100m on 2:00, target time: 1:35 for each. I typically enjoy the first three or four of these reps but obviously, as time progresses, they become ever harder. My reptilian brain is deafening “it’s ok, just come in at 1:45, it’s only ten seconds difference”. I know that if I micro-quit on rep number 12, the following eight will be far more challenging mentally, as the rate of perceived exertion will be much greater when I try and claw my pace back.

Seneca encourages us to abide by whatever moral rules we have deliberately set ourselves as if they were laws, regardless of what others may think. (Ziccardi) In the same way, I believe we should encourage our children to set themselves truly high standards in this refusal to micro-quit. To succeed, they must learn the skill of sticking to their non-negotiables when working at their hobbies even if those around them don’t have the same interests or values.

And so, when we face a problem that gets in the way of the non-negotiables, we might draw upon a Stoic approach: the situation is unpleasant, but I can see beyond the unpleasantness and understand why it is difficult (the task is too challenging for my current level of fitness) and why I am doing it (to get fitter). Taking the emotional angle out of the setting is key. In the same way, if a child is finding the mastery of a skill frustrating, simply working on keeping calm and understanding the reason why they are striving for mastery in the first place can help. Simply, “if I do X then Y will happen”. This self-control is extremely challenging and doesn’t always come to children naturally, but it is crucial in the journey of mastering a difficult, new skill. Sometimes, this is as simple as training yourself to hit the ‘red pain’ button and get a bit tougher!

Eleven-time cycle tour champion Eddy Merkx sums up this point adroitly:

"What is talent, really? Is it the fact that your heart pumps more volume than the average person’s or that your blood turns less acidic when exercising? No, talent has to do with your capacity for suffering." (Merkx​ in​ Malnick)

Lack of time

Lack of time is the number one reason I encounter for children giving up on a musical instrument: “I don’t have time to practise”. In my opinion, if a child wants to play an instrument and loves it, they will make time. Did they have time to watch Netflix or go on Instagram? If so, then I am certain they can make time to spend twenty minutes on the piano. What do we want - children who can learn to try new things and discard them after the initial experience wears off or struggle sets in or children who become proficient at fewer things and hone their capabilities of stickability and patience? Could they do well in fewer things and then transfer these skills to other areas of their life when faced with new challenges?

Seneca has stern words about this, writing ​On The Shortness Of Life:​

“In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.” (Seneca)

He asks the reader to consider the length of time they spend with a moneylender, a friend or arguing with one's wife. I am asking you to consider how much time is frittered away on social media. The Stoics believed that nature cannot be controlled and neither can time. Our self-mastery in responding to the challenges that the fleeting nature of time presents is crucial.

Seneca also talks about the preciousness of time increasing several-fold when we have less of it: at the end of our lives or perhaps, heaven forfend, when facing capital punishment. Consider the notion of preparing for a competition, test, or concert. The date looks to be far in the future but then suddenly, it is upon us and every moment of preparation time becomes as valuable as gold.

He also warns against procrastination in “Postponement is the greatest waste of life.” Seneca also alludes to the idea of ‘being in the moment’. According to him, time is separated into three parts, the past, which is certain, the present which is fleeting and the future, which is unknown. From Seneca, I understand that a mind free from distraction can move between all three areas: reflecting on the past, being in the present moment and making plans and preparing for the future.

Seneca calls a mind which is distracted “engrossed” and although this is counter-intuitive to how this word is used today, the idea is that a distracted mind cannot be anywhere else but in the present, “being distracted as they are by many things”. (Ibid)

Risking choosing 

In my experience, many children ‘check out’ of a particular activity because they compare themselves unfavourably to their peers. Person X might get more flashy parts to play or make their way into the first team. The fact is, this is often because they put in the work behind the scenes by practising hard or putting in a more concentrated effort on the sports field. These things may appear to come easily to a child’s peers, but on closer inspection, talent is often mistaken for hard work. Epictetus likens this choice of commitment to a simple transaction, but I think parallels with prioritising goals can easily be drawn.

“For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give.” (Epictetus)

So your child has chosen not to train? They have gained more free time. Another child has chosen to train so they have made gains in their fitness, but not had the luxury of relaxation time. I believe that it is our place as teachers to guide our children not just into making choices, but also into being able to step away from the emotions of decision making and weigh up the pros and cons afforded to each.

Think back to when you were learning how to ride a bike. On one end of the spectrum, you were riding along with training wheels, and the other has you whizzing along, confidently and safely. Somewhere in the middle lies the difficult bit. The bit where you fall off, the bit where you have to get back on, the bit where you’re a bit bashed and bruised. This rings especially true for adult cyclists who take road cycling seriously and have to learn how to clip into their pedals! However, unless you risk the unpleasant bit, you will forever be using training wheels. Year 5 students particularly enjoy the analogy of picturing a 35 year old riding with stabilisers on!

Soviet psychologist, Vygotsky, termed this unpleasant area of falling off bikes, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where a learner must struggle through a zone of difficulty, during which new knowledge is constructed with the support of more able others - either peers or teachers. (McLeod)

If the idea of struggle in skill acquisition is explained to children they will, in my opinion, be able to master their inner Stoic. If something were to go wrong in a class, rehearsal or match, this may well be the result of the necessary situational skills not being adequately secure because the child is still in the ZPD. This, at present, is out of their control. However, what ​is​ in their control is their response to the situation. Perhaps they messed up a scale. Rather than throwing a tantrum and stopping their practise session, they could isolate the troublesome notes and practise them on their own. Maybe they missed the goal on a penalty: They need to rise above any disappointment and shame and make time to practise their aim.

Often, I find that struggle in skill acquisition can give rise to anger and resentment in young children. Seneca warns against anger, calling it a “short madness” often triggered by trifling causes and rendering the sufferer deaf to reason and advice. Even in wars and battles, anger serves no one, bringing its sufferers and those around them into danger. (Ziccardi)

“If in doubt, zoom out!” I frequently say to children struggling with a scale or shift or tricky passage. In five years, a child won’t remember this difficulty as this particular skill will hopefully be mastered. They will, however, remember giving up the instrument because they couldn’t command their frustration. I say this as a reformed tantrum-thrower. Don’t tell my mother this, but I once broke a bow because I threw it across the room in a fit of pique aged 8. I simply could not organise my left hand for a fast passage of playing and I thought ​I had done my due diligence. However, I was so incensed at the difficulty itself rather than the process of overcoming it, that I neglected to do the simplest of things: play it more slowly. Imagine for a moment that I had decided to let this passage of music get the better of me: no Royal Northern College of Music, no orchestra tours of Europe, no international teaching career... And all for the sake of some difficult semiquavers and a broken bow.

Conclusion 

So, let’s challenge our children to rise above struggle and see it for what it is; a stepping stone on the way to skill acquisition. Let’s help them to understand how to respond to challenge with a clear mind and clear intentions. Finally, let’s help them to understand that different is not necessarily easier.

Challenge them to leave the company of the comfort-driven Epicureans and step away from the hobby buffet.

 

Thank you to Mimi Munro, Head of Junior School Music, for contributing this thought-provoking piece to The Alleynian Review.

 

Works Cited

Aurelius, M. ​Meditations. ​2014. ​Scribd, https://www.scribd.com/book/286684270/Meditations

Epictetus. ​The Enchiridion​. The Big Nest, 2016. ​Scribd,​ https://www.scribd.com/book/382761062/The-Enchiridion

Malnick, J. ​Into the Suffersphere: Cycling and the Art of Pain.​ Crowood, 2016. ​Scribd,​ https://www.scribd.com/book/353168316/Into-the-Suffersphere-Cycling-and-the-Art-of-P ain

Mcleod, Saul. “What Is the Zone of Proximal Development?” ​Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding | Simply Psychology,​ 2019, www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html.

Poor, N. and Woods, E. “Ear Hustle Episode 20: Birdbaths and a Lockbox.” www.earhustle.sq.com​, 2019, static1.squarespace.com/static/5bd0d552e8ba44146721bb3c/t/5cab8f4b4785d3d788a5 fdac/1554747234490/Birdbaths+and+a+Lockbox+transcript.pdf.

Quin, K. The Alice Network. Harper Collins, 2017. Sribd.h​ttps://www.scribd.com/book/348571030/The-Alice-Network-A-Novel

Seneca, Lucius A. “On The Shortness Of Life.” ​Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum, www.forumromanum.org/literature/seneca_younger/brev_e.html​.

Ziccardi, James M. ​Stoicism: A Practical Guide to the Select Works of Seneca. 2013.​Scribd​. https://www.scribd.com/read/194946242/Stoicism-A-Practical-Guide-to-the-Select-Work s-of-Seneca