I have been enjoying Paul Tough’s important book on learning, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” There is so much to chew on in this provocative book, but one of the most interesting and difficult chapters, I think, is “How to Think.”
Here, Tough uses the case study of a Chess teacher named Elizabeth Spiegel. Spiegel is a great coach to middle schoolers learning the game and competing at a high level. Tough tells the story of Sebastian Garcia and how he lost a game during a tournament. Spiegel dissects what went wrong, and she criticizes Sebastian for rushing a critical move that inevitably led to his defeat.
Tough writes, “Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them.” (p. 115) He quotes Spiegel: “I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.” (p. 116)
She goes on to explain that she uses what Tough calls “calibrated meanness” to push her students, showing them that she takes them seriously enough to demand they improve. Tough summarizes: “Students were being challenged to look deeply at their mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently.” (p. 121)
While Tough argues that Spiegel is teaching her students grit, curiosity, self-control and optimism (p. 122), I would say she is teaching them how to forgive themselves. Making mistakes, academic and otherwise, is a profound reality of human existence. It may also be the toughest part of being human. So teaching our children, and by extension ourselves, how to get passed our mistakes may be the greatest gift we can bestow.
What I think Spiegel is doing is pushing her students to deeply understand their mistakes, digging until they see a failed moment of recollection or judgment, the fork in the road that ended with a mistake. By owning this process of criticism, her students can learn that the mechanics of decision-making can be studied. That study isolates the immediate cause, keeping another human strength and failing—the ability to generalize—at bay.
It is when we generalize about mistakes—“I’m not good at Math!” “I am an idiot!”—that we destroy ourselves. But if we keep them isolated and clearly understood, we may have found a path to forgiveness.
I remain stymied by the challenges of forgiveness. I think it’s a key to so much happiness, and yet it is elusive. But this story of Spiegel and Sebastian offers some hope. Dig deep, think hard, demand more, resist generalization and forgiveness may be waiting.