Having Anything You Want versus Having Everything You Want

I was inspired by a recent blog entry on “getting rich slowly”, which said, “You can have anything you want – but you can’t have everything you want.” At this holiday season, and especially at this moment in history, the truth in these words resonate for me. It’s one of the lessons I believe is essential to teach our children, and is inherent in learning to live happily.

One of the common questions I am asked by parents both in my program and considering enrollment in this program is how to “balance” sports, music, academics, community service, and other extracurricular activities for their children over time. The answer I typically give is that the experience of committing to any activity in a serious way, early in life, lays the foundation for the child to eventually make that commitment to anything they choose. However, the truth is that you can do anything, but not everything.

This was an important lesson I learned at a young age, coincidentally through my desire to learn to play the violin. Instead of doing a smattering of different activities at various levels of commitment, I learned, from the age of four, to choose something and do it well. When I begged my parents to let me take violin lessons (I watched Mrs. Haag’s repertoire classes every Saturday starting at age 3), they waited an entire year, since I had already started taking piano lessons at that time. When I wouldn’t stop asking, they finally agreed, but only after explaining to me what it meant to “take violin lessons” – that I had to practice every day, go to lessons, and go to repertoire class. I would not be allowed to enroll without following through on all those things, and I needed to agree to that process. Yes, at the age of four. And, since I had already agreed to take piano, I had to understand that if I started violin, I was committing to both instruments.

Every single year, before they would sign the tuition checks for both piano and violin lessons, my parents would ask me if I still wanted to study both instruments, or if I wanted to give one of them up. If the answer was yes, I had to remember what “yes” meant – practicing every day, going to lessons, and listening to the teacher. I had that one chance each year to say “no”, but “yes” meant “yes” for the entire year. I kept saying yes to both (some years, with quite a bit of reflection on whether it still made sense) until the year I graduated from high school, and at the end of that year I gave two full-length solo recitals – one on violin, and one on piano. At every stage of that process, I was very aware of the commitments – and sacrifices – I had made in order to enable me to get to that performance level. Sometimes I had to focus on one instrument over the other, in preparation for a key event. Other times I was able to do both, such as the gift of soloing both piano and violin on concert tour. And at other times, thankfully rare, there were conflicts, and I had to make a choice that I knew would disappoint one of my teachers. Overall, I learned to accept that these situations were part of the process of commitment to something.

This story illustrates the kind of parents I have. They were not afraid of teaching the truth to their children, even at a seemingly young age. They had a tremendous level of respect for the capability (and desire) of children to understand the world around them. They believed strongly in explaining their life lessons to us in almost every interaction. Did we roll our eyes at their “lectures” most of the time? Of course. But do I now recognize the value of what they instilled through those frequent, sometimes long, oftentimes repetitive mantras about the meaning of work, education, and opportunity? Yes.

It’s true, I didn’t get to participate in every other activity that was offered to me. For example, I never learned to read and write Chinese, my parents’ native tongue. Saturdays were already filled with music, and attending Chinese school on that day was just not logistically possible. Nor was daily additional studying on top of practicing two instruments and finishing normal schoolwork. So I live with that decision to this day. I have a Chinese face and last name, but cannot speak the language of my grandparents. It’s ironic to me that now, only a generation later, so many preschool-aged, American-born children are studying Chinese as the “language of the future”! But in exchange for that sacrifice, I have the eternal lessons of my music experiences. And I now have the chance to pass these along to my own students. It is a gift that I appreciate on a daily basis, and I know it is a result of the conscious investment decisions I made during all those early years of my life.

So now, I’d like to share my answer to the question of how I believe one “balances” the commitment to various activities in a child’s life. I urge parents to consider the value of this truthful, and sometimes painful, lesson: You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. When the universe seems to conspire against the best-laid plans and throws a challenge in their path, it is an opportunity for children to re-examine their choices, and to face the consequences of those choices. Only through the process of asking these difficult questions, and discussing them with parents and teachers or other trusted mentors, will they develop their ability to think independently one day.

  • Am I trying to do too much?
  • Am I really learning to do something well (even if it’s just one thing),  instead of doing a little of everything?
  • What principles (besides just “wanting” to do something) will I apply in order to decide and choose among the many opportunities that will be presented to me in life?

These are questions I constantly ask myself as an adult. In this challenging time for our world, ’tis the season to decide what we really want, and through the process of committing to those desires, encounter what we’re willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of them. Let’s first learn to keep one promise to ourselves, before adding more. What we end up with may become more valuable to us than we ever imagined.

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