Does getting a headstart guarantee success?
By ARIELLE YEN
When I was less than a year old, my mum entered me in a cutest baby contest. I didn’t quite win – but I was one of the runners-up.
Ever since then, or maybe even before, my parents have harboured high hopes for me, as many parents do for their children, especially in the increasingly competitive atmosphere. (Being cute was one of the ‘talents’ they thought I might have had as an infant!)
That contest was the beginning of my mum’s quest to guide me into the all-rounded person she hoped I would be. From thereon came a slew of piano lessons, baby ballet, mental arithmetic, art classes, English lessons, Mandarin tuition, speech and drama sessions.
What happens when we start learning or being challenged at a young age? Does the outcome matter?
Starting to learn at a young age has advantages. Studies by Harvard show that in order to speak a second or third language fluently, or at least proficiently, it’s best to start at age three. Younger learners are more able to learn proper pronunciation and adapt to processing words and grammar.
Starting young also gives you a longer time to master your crafts and figure out what talents you might have, what activities you enjoy, or what skills you might want to cultivate to an occupational level.
From my childhood to present, I’ve tried my hand at multiple endeavours. Some at my parents’ insistence, others at my own.
At one point in my life I thought I’d be a pro equestrian – I lasted three months at horse-riding lessons. At other times I tried to be an expert skier (I was the worst out of everyone in our beginners ski group), a pianist, a potter and a ballerina. It’s safe to say that I didn’t become particularly skilled in any of those pursuits!
On the other hand, being taught to read and encouraged to love books at an early age has made me an avid reader – I can devour heavy novels in a matter of days.
I also enjoy writing and drawing, which means that all those trips to the children’s library and art classes didn’t go to waste!
Sometimes, you can pick things up when you’re younger, go back to it at a later age and find that you remember quite a bit from what you had learnt previously – the human mind and the information it retains is an amazing phenomenon.
The art of learning is a skill everyone should pick up.
“It is better to know how to learn than to know.” – Dr Seuss
Jack of all trades, master of one
Unless you are some kind of prodigy, you’re not going to be talented at everything you learn, at least not without tiring yourself out through non-stop practice.
It is definitely advisable to explore your options, and not be afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone. However, it’s equally beneficial to pick out one or two interests to direct your focus towards, and become really skilled in that area.
Instead of trying to juggle many different activities, Hawk was advised in his younger years to channel his energy and time into skateboarding. By age 14, he was a professional skateboarder, and today he’s one of the best-known skateboarders in the world.
As an indecisive person, I was often overwhelmed by the many choices of classes I was given.
I do not consider doing all those activities a waste of time, but I do wish I had focused more on certain classes, rather than trying to be good at every pursuit without making enough effort into mastering any one thing.
Starting young may give you the opportunity to develop abilities and adapt to new learning experiences more fluidly than starting at an older age.
The lack of fear and the openness to new experiences are qualities you’re more likely to have as a child, but also are qualities that encourage improvement, development and innovation – the type of growth we see so often in the tech and business world.
Recently, I went rock-climbing. I found myself breathless, trembling at the height I had hauled myself up to. I was on the “easiest level” wall aimed at young children; the climbing wall holds were shaped like smiley faces and tetris blocks. There was a little boy, about five years old, rambunctiously scrambling up the wall next to mine.
“It’s really high up there. Don’t you think it’s scary?” I asked him apprehensively as he leapt off the top of a very tall structure.
“It’s not scary!” he yelled back at me, already starting to climb again. His family watched him proudly, laughed at our exchange and my apparent cowardice.
The gallant attitude of young children is something I wish I had retained in adulthood.
“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein
Where are we now? Where will we be?
Thinking back to the baby who beat me in the cutest baby competition (no hard feelings!), I wonder where he or she is, and what the future holds for the person.
He or she could be a student about to complete a degree, completely uninterested in appearance-based competitions. One of the babies who never made it in the Top 10 could be in the running for the next Miss Malaysia.
The cutest baby competition wasn’t taken seriously by anyone. It wasn’t meant to set any expectations for anyone’s parents or children. My mum thought I was a cute baby, but I don’t think she wanted me to grow up making a career out of my cuteness. I doubt that’s what any of the other contestants’ parents wanted either.
I would never expect my own child to be a Miss Universe, a savant, or an Olympic medalist. I would, however, expect my child to have interests, to want to cultivate those interests, and to enjoy learning.
I think that my mum’s insistence in placing me in so many classes as a child, whilst not turning me into a multiple-talented intellectual, has made me more open-minded and, to an extent, “adventurous”.
I would like to believe that the bruises on my knees from rock-climbing alludes to these!