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Just Do Something: My Take on the Parable of the Talents

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Lately, I’ve been giving some serious thought to this old story I’ve heard since I was a kid. You’ve probably heard of it: “The parable of the talents.” Whether or not you are a Bible-believing person, this lesson on maximizing what you’ve got is timeless. No matter what you believe, we all could benefit from the wisdom in this profound ancient passage. If you are so inclined, it comes from Matthew 25:14-30. It could be seen as a lesson in financial stewardship, or maybe even more than that. In case your Bible is dusty, here’s a quick summary (the paraphrase is completely mine):

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One day, a real estate master gave out talents, or bags of gold (each bag was worth a large amount of money–we’re talking enough to buy property). To his top employee, he gave five bags of gold; to another, he gave two bags; and to the third guy, one bag. Their job was simply to invest the boss’s money and make it grow. Remember, the boss entrusted his own money with them, expecting a return on his investment.

After a year or so, the master called a meeting with each of his minions. The first employee said, “Here, boss. You gave me five bags; I’ve doubled your investment.” Proudly, the boss says, “Good job. You have been faithful with this. I will increase your job title and responsibility.” The second guy said, “Here, boss. You gave me two bags; I’ve come with four. Another 100% ROI, and the master is equally proud of him as stated in his identical response: “Good job. You have been faithful with this. I will increase your job title and responsibility.” The third guy is embarrassed. Out of his issue with risk aversion and fear of failing, he hid the money in the ground and did not make any money. Clearly upset, the master says to him, “You idiot and lazy ass. You had my money the whole time and didn’t do anything with it. You didn’t even put it in the bank where you could have at least made some interest on it! You’re fired. Get out of here!”

Although my paraphrase isn’t exactly how it’s written, I tried to capture its original voice as accurately as I could. Note the vastly different reaction of the boss between the first two guys and the last guy. Further, the boss didn’t consider the employee #2 any less in his success. His overall yield was less than the first guy, but the master was equally proud of him. Then, I think about what it must be like to be “that” guy–to get a Donald Trump-style firing, and how awful that must feel. He must have struggled with that ugly fear of failure that is familiar to some of us, and what did he do? Nothing.

Does either fear of failure or laziness stop you from moving forward with something you think you’re supposed to do? In my experience, fear and laziness are intertwined. I find myself entangled in this cycle quite often, and even as I write this.

God has given all of us something to work with. It could be a good brain, ability with numbers (I think I got passed over on that one), money, a good network, musical talents, ability to fix things, just to name a few. Some of us are not even sure what our talents are. That’s okay. Join the masses still searching for “their thing.” No matter what, we can do something that empowers someone in our community, society, or maybe even the world. You need to recognize what that “something” is and give it an identity. Name it and claim it to share.

We moved our family of four to Seattle from Southern California almost a year ago this month. My husband John and I have found an amazing group that resembles a book club, but it’s more like a “life” group, where we take a couple of hours to get away from the shallow part of ourselves and try to be there for each other. We’ve been reading “The Hole in Our Gospel” by Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, a well-known organization that gives aid to children who are dying by the thousands. An eye-opening and challenging read. I highly recommend it, unless you’re the type that would rather live in ignorance (I know it’s simpler, but not better). This book has made all of us realize how self absorbed we can be, even in the things that are not necessarily bad in and of themselves: our jobs, managing our families, trying to gain upward mobility, storing for our future.

In the U.S., the average salary is $25,000/year. In most parts of our world, the average person lives on $1/day or less. The spread between these two is ridiculous, and yet the problem seems so out of reach that we choose to do… nothing. Stearns’ point is that you don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems. Just do something.

Giving is also good for the health of your soul. Try thinking about someone who’s in need, even if you don’t know him/her, and do something about it–even if it’s just a meal or a few dollars, or maybe even a few hundred dollars. Let’s learn our lesson from the moron in the story. Don’t fail to do something just because you can’t do everything. If you’re the type that’s overprotective of your stuff, start small and grow in the practice of giving or take the opportunity to do something outside of yourself. As a bonus, you just might get an “atta boy” later from God when it counts.

Focused Relaxation

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This may sound like a giant paradox, but this is what budding piano players (and all of us) need to understand: the concept of focused relaxation. Some will laugh when they hear that having the wrong technique at the piano could lead to serious physical injury. After all, it is the piano–not wrestling, football or gymnastics. My husband, an amateur golfer, would say that golfing employs a very similar concept. You must be relaxed but extremely intentional in your setup at the same time.

The point is that piano technique starts in the head, then seeps down to the arms, hands and fingers. The mental precedes the physical at all times.

When I see a well-intentioned piano student who really starts digging into the piano, playing vigorously, I appreciate the effort he brings. With his shoulders hovering over the keyboard and his power arms, he gives it all he’s got and is expecting a knockout performance review. However, after the ending, the first constructive comment I might say is this: relax and let your arm weight and gravity produce the sound. It must not be forced from self-powered tension. Even your musical output suffers because we can hear that it’s forced and not “natural.” Intensity does not have to involve tension.

In the long run, good technique not only frees up the student to play really well, but importantly, serves as injury prevention. I know and have heard of many accomplished pianists who suffer from permanent injury because they were not very aware of their stress; sadly, these dazzling talents are now unable to play. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’ve come to a point where I usually recognize and admit when I’m stressed and not in control. I know people who pain themselves to portray a calm, collected person who’s in control when they are a mess underneath the guise. Pain awaits them.

Some of us may identify with the notion that a certain career or life move would be the key to ultimate satisfaction. For others, we’ve worked relentlessly on a project or a job while losing sight of the purpose. Or someone pulled a bait-and-switch on us and the point of the whole thing just got flushed down the toilet. Injury.

For me, my mind is flooded with “to do” lists while managing four different schedules and tactical needs as well as emotional needs, which are more tricky. On a typical day, I will have changed about five diapers, dressed and undressed 1 1/2 children (daughter dresses herself half the time), brushed their teeth once or twice and maybe their hair, prepared breakfast, refereed fights, cleaned up breakfast, provided snacks, cleaned up, fixed lunch for them, then cleaned that up, along with a usual spill of milk all over the wood floor, mopped that up, then flipped through recipes for a 30-minute dinner which probably tasted 85% good because I omitted the ingredients I didn’t have. Somewhere in there, Daddy came home if he’s in town. This is woven in with at least four one-way trips to/from preschool. There are about five more things I’d add, but I don’t want to belabor the point (I guess I already have).

My scenario is pretty typical of a stay-at-home mom, if not easier than many other moms I know. At the end of the day, I feel neither focused nor relaxed, nor fulfilled many days–if I were to be honest. From what I know, working parents don’t have it any easier too. Back to my memories of concentrated piano training, the rarest and most special moments came when I had a combination of tack-sharp focus and a surrendered heart and mind.

Have you ever been injured as a result of overextending yourself or neglecting to care for yourself? What do you do for focused relaxation? All my leftover time spent on the internet isn’t working and my smart phone is not making me smarter. I’d love to hear your ideas or personal lessons learned.

Courage in the Making

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Chicago - Summer 1996

PREFACE:

I was one of those kids who expressed a very early interest in the piano from age two or so. My Korean-American parents who never subscribed to a cable channel must have been running PBS shows in the background when something must have struck me; as a toddler, I was glued to the TV every time a concert pianist performed. They tell stories of me pretending to play piano on our 70s dinner table next to my doll with retractable eyelids. After seeing pictures that prove this, I’m relieved to know that she was awake during our duets. Then, I remember the day two guys knocked on our door and started wheeling in an upright Baldwin soon after my 6th birthday; I knew I found my thing and the lessons began. After some ups and downs and not being a prodigious pianist, but a decent one, I was a music major in college. Studied some more in New York and… fast forward, I became a full time mom and a piano teacher.

I guess I’d call myself a semi-serious piano teacher, but not a super serious one. I’m talking about the kind that devotes every weekend following students to competitions like an Olympic coach with students winning prizes all over the place. That’s not me. However, I’ve taught enough to gather some insights about how we learn, how people are wired differently, and what holds them back from playing well. What many don’t realize is that studying music is so much more than being able to play fast notes to impress others or win trophies. There is so much internally and emotionally I had to develop before I was able to understand the piano and its capabilities as well as my own. I’m embarking on a series of thoughts I finally decided to put together mostly for my own journaling and benefit, but also hope they strike a chord with you as well, even if you are not musically inclined.

Courage In The Making

Last week, I had a frank conversation with a parent regarding her daughter who has been studying with me for over three years. “Jenny” has been one of my favorite students because of her openness to learn, although she isn’t necessarily a natural performer. Her mother asked a common question: “Is she actually improving, Grace?” I could hear the concern and slight insecurity in her voice. In Jenny’s case, she is a quiet natured, introverted girl who is extremely careful at all times. At the same time, she is endearing and as sweet as a kid could be. I told Jenny’s mother that I believe one of the things that holds her back from progressing is partially her timidity and being afraid to take risks. When I ask her to play a section with more boldness or more gusto, she has a difficult time doing so. It also holds her back from trying new things. She gets stuck in the middle. The great thing about her is that unlike most teens or preteens, she has the patience to stick it out even when times get…well, unfun. I call it “delayed gratification.” The rewards come at a cost. How many adults today don’t get this concept? I think there are a plethora of lost opportunities because of this unlearned lesson.

Back to the part about risk taking, so many of us have grown up to be adults who are afraid to take risks, even calculated ones. Playing the piano is largely a solitary discipline and some people have a hard time stepping out of their norms, even on an instrument. The reality is that people are concerned with fear of failure, fear of vulnerability or looking stupid if things don’t come out right. When there’s an opportunity to do something a little daring, my default voice always says, “That’s just not me.” I know there’s a deep internal reward to taking a step outside of my comfort zone, then realizing I am capable. Though it seems that we constantly hear messages like “the power is within you,” the truth is that the power resides in you and me. His name is God. When his love his fully realized in me, I get the courage and power to do things I did not know were possible. If I’m not doing it alone, it becomes less daunting. These new feats may not be monumental to others, but they are victories to me, and that’s what matters.

When I look back to my college years, sometimes I can’t believe I had the guts to do the things I did because I was not by any means an adventurous person. I grew up in a very sheltered family unit, but there was a small driving force within me to try new things. I think about the time I was 20, through some serendipitous timing, I landed an internship in downtown Chicago as an intern for the Chicago Symphony. My first time in Chicago, I found my way around the “L,” not knowing anyone, and then had one blast-filled summer of learning and meeting great people. Although I hated running, I thought it was so cool to put on my Walkman and run from my apartment to Wrigley Field. I think I did that run about three times until it wasn’t so cool anymore.

After seeing a little sign on Michigan Avenue (I believe it was the Blackstone Hotel), I even waited in a room to try out to be an extra in the movie, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” with Julia Roberts. Once the lady with the clipboard found that I didn’t have an agent, she dismissed me as a fraud and a wanna-be. That summer was an important experience for me, not because it built my resume, but because it was a building block to my character growth. Oh, to have that kind of freedom to try new things…. Now that I’m a full blown mom of two, I think my risk taking sensibilities are embedded under a pile of kids’ laundry, or maybe they just look different now. I’ve been asking God to reveal how I can stretch myself at this stage of life. Actually, writing this blog has been one a big fat step of courage for me. All the typical insecurities keep popping into my head, especially this one: “What if no one thinks this is worth their valuable web time?”

Without the risk of failure, courage cannot exist.

I do think of this famous Serenity Prayer. Many of us haven’t heard the second half:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

Kindergarten- Ready Or Not, Here I Wait?

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What is Redshirting?

Are you thinking about either holding back your child from starting Kindergarten or enrolling your child on the earlier side this fall? I am with you on this boat and remain rocking in both directions on any given week. I’m sure you have heard of those who intentionally hold back their five-year olds, also referred to as “redshirting,” for the main purpose of giving them an advantage in sports or academics. The term comes from college athletes who engage in delayed entry as a means of enhancing their status. I admit, I’ve been obsessed with gathering information about this issue, as well as talked to parents with varying responses; I’ve gathered some objective and subjective thoughts on this topic that I hope will help steer you in your right direction, not the right direction.

We obviously didn’t check the school calendar for smart planned parenthood: Both my kids, a girl and a boy, have borderline cutoff birthdays, in September and August. In Washington State, it’s a strict August 31 cutoff. While age 4 1/2, I will have to pay for a child psychologist to give her a lengthy, expensive assessment in which she must pass at an equivalency of age five years, six months (why couldn’t they just say “5 1/2”?) in all areas of readiness, even though she’s a year shy of the suggested standard for testing purposes.

I’m almost sure she’s ready: She is verbally expressive and has a knack for language, reads sight word books and so on. As a current four year-old, she is perfectly socially and academically compatible with other five-year olds. In today’s day and age where schools are pressured with test scores, administrators do not like younger students entering their classrooms. It’s not only more work for teachers in general (lest they should help a few kids button their coats), but often, they bring down the school’s average test scores and ratings. This veers into the murky political realm where reputation and school funding are in the mix. During a recent kindergarten orientation session I attended, the principal expressed that it is not uncommon to have an 18-month spread between the youngest and the oldest students, and she seemed to be in favor of the older students. I had visions of my little petite but sassy daughter standing next to six year-olds who view these little kids as what they are–younger and shorter. This unfortunate form of Darwinism probably starts in the preschool years, and it only gets worse with age.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

Regarding this topic, everyone cites the famous section in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers about the Canadian professional hockey team. In short, he found a remarkable correlation between the team’s top-ranked athletes and their relatively early January or February birthdays, compared to other players whose birthdays were later. Granted, much of their training occurred in the youngest grades where physical size directly influenced their placement on the training circuit, already giving them an advantage. I’m pretty certain my daughter will not become a professional Canadian hockey player. Unless you feel that this study is closely relevant to your child, I would personally take this study with a grain of salt. I know for a fact that many–possibly thousands–have used his study as a basis for redshirting their would-be kindergartners.

Could There Actually Be Harm In Redshirting?

So could we actually be doing harm in redshirting our children? Some researchers believe so. Depending on location, 10-20% of kindergarten-age kids in 2011 were held back from starting kindergarten. Brain scientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt claim that the academic playing field between younger and older students level out by fifth or sixth grade. In a large-scale study of 26 Canadian schools, they noted that the younger students made larger strides in improvement than their older peers. They even say that by high school, the older children are often “less motivated and perform less well.” While I understand the intention, I have mixed emotions about this tendency to hold back a child so he will be a “leader of the class, not a follower.” I get it, but I can name at  least a dozen friends with late birthdays who were among the youngest in their class; these men and women are now leaders in their industries, were at the top of their class, are high achievers, and are among the smartest people I know. My theory is that being educated around slightly older peers pushed them to succeed and adapt well. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.

Boys And Girls

With all of this said, as a mom who would enroll my four year-old into kindergarten if I could, I risk becoming a hypocrite. Yes, I will probably hold back my son, who will actually turn five a week before the cutoff. We are not doing it because we think he is slated to become an athletic star; like everyone says, little boys and girls are just plain different at this age. As his parents, we have a strong feeling that giving our son another year will be the right thing for him to be in line with the average classmate. From the experience of having two different children who represent different paths, this statement is trite but true: each child is unique and has different needs. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do.