Friday, July 1, 2016
When I was still living at home, mom would often say things like “That’s ok, but you can do better!”, or “That’s not good enough! With your abilities, you should be better than that!” Versions of this continued, for me, less and less frequently until about twenty years ago when they stopped altogether.
I've known for quite some time that my siblings and I all had very different reactions to this. For me, these were motivational: I interpreted them as the combination of two things. First, that my mom thought I could do darn nearly anything – and secondly, that the only thing stopping me from anything I wanted was my own laziness or self-doubt.
Through the time that I finished high school, my mom's exhortations served as a counter-balance to my uniformly awful experiences in school. I've written about my school experiences before, but in short I was bored to the edge of madness, I was in class with people much older than me (and physically and psychologically), and my introversion kept me effectively terrorized the entire time I was in school except when I was hiding in the library or in science or math class (where I actually felt competent). If it weren't for mom's hectoring, I think it's likely I would have given up on school altogether.
After I finished high school, mom didn't let up at all. I was accepted to a university that my parents could ill afford. They had to borrow against the farm to raise the money; back then someone like me could never have qualified for a student loan. I went for one semester – only to discover that the environment there was even worse for me than high school had been. My maturity level and mental state at that point was such that I'd be certain to fail at university. I couldn't keep spending my parent's money for a school that I wasn't ready for, so I dropped out and came back home. I had a series of odd jobs for a while, then joined the U.S. Navy to avoid being drafted (I had number 17 in the draft lottery, which meant I'd be going to Vietnam for certain). During this period, mom was particularly hard on me. The odd jobs – all admittedly awful, menial jobs far beneath my abilities – she was pushing me hard to find a way to learn skills that would challenge me.
For instance, I once had a job assembling the electronic coffee pots used on passenger airplanes. This was all mechanical assembly; the circuit boards were all built somewhere else. Most days when I came home from that job, mom would hector me – wanting to know if I'd spoken with the firm's one electrical engineer to see if I could get an internship or anything that would help build my skills. If I said “no”, she was all over me in a very unpleasant way. To my complete amazement, when I finally did work up the courage to speak to the engineer (a god-like creature in my view), he readily agreed to take me on as an intern for a couple hours after each work day. That internship was a formative experience – but I never would have done that if it weren't for mom humiliating me for not doing it :)
So for me, mom's high expectations and all the badgering when I didn't measure up were most definitely motivational. I was about 16 or 17 when I finally realized that there was some validity to her expectations – and her exhortations started to actually be motivating in a positive way. This was especially true the first two years or so that I was in the U.S. Navy. Though I was stationed in California, over 2,000 miles from her in New Jersey, with letters and phone calls she continued pushing me to learn more, do more, be more. In that period I started studying, hard, on my own. Much of the time I was studying things of particular interest to me: history, religion, math, science, electronics, and programming. Sometimes, though, I was studying things she urged me to – especially writing, but also evolution (and I never did find out why she pushed me on that particular subject).
For some of my siblings, I've discovered, mom's high expectations were less effective as motivation. Instead they more like impossible ideals that were frustrating in their unreachability. I'm the oldest child, and my siblings are certain I was treated much differently because of that. I'm less certain of that; in fact, in some ways I think the expectations (especially from my dad) were higher because of that. It doesn't really matter, though. We each live in our own version of reality, and we'll never really understand anyone else's. For myself, though, I am thankful for my mom's high expectations of me...