I laugh somewhat wryly when I hear people say college is the best time of life. It’s not how I remember it — nor how I am seeing my two daughters experience it, either.
It’s a lot of work, this trying to launch into adulthood, learn new and difficult things and pick a major in the hope it will serve as a foundation for a satisfying career.
“You can do hard things” has become a kind of family mantra, often uttered late, late at night as they hunch over complicated homework, and I find myself fretting that they’re not going to get enough sleep. They worry about everything.
I'd love it if my kids could avoid life's flubs, embarrassments and disappointments. They can't, any more than I did when I was young. A better aim might be to tackle the downs with Nathan Chen-like boldness.
That’s not something I was capable of when I was the Olympic skater’s age, which is just 18. Nor were my challenges much more than internal, while his has played out with fanfare on an international stage, with billions of people worldwide watching. I cannot imagine the pressure he's experienced or how painful it must have been to fall during his early programs and have to endure the criticism, speculation and snarky comments of others.
While I never experienced success or failure on a scale anywhere near that grand, I know a little something about wanting to be deemed a winner. And I see my girls struggle with it, too.
As a kid, I jealously guarded my successes and limited the risks I took, especially once I finally found something I did pretty well. I wasn’t an athlete or a musician: I had zero natural aptitude for either, to my sorrow. In fact, my lack of musical ability was so apparent from an early age that a succession of grade school teachers found other things for me to do during musical programs. One year, I strummed the autoharp with an eraser while the teacher keyed the notes and counted the strums aloud. Another year, I was in charge of flipping the sheet with the words and music. Perhaps my teachers’ own version of doing hard things at that stage consisted at least in part of finding ways to make sure my song stayed in my head.
But I was good at the academic part of school, and by 10th grade, I was starting to guard my GPA, unwilling to stretch to take classes for which I had no talent, lest that suffer. The thought of losing one-hundredth of a point made me feel sick. I didn’t learn much new my senior year because I looked for the familiar and safe. I’ve regretted that for decades.
I could have used a little Nathan Chen boldness back then. And I fervently wish it for my children. If I could bottle it and give some to the girls as they feel challenged or discouraged, I would do so.
Most everyone knows what Chen did during his final performance in the 2018 Olympics. Instead of just trying to get over his earlier flubs or guarding himself to avoid another fall, he stretched. He demanded more, not less, of himself. He said afterward that he figured he’d already fallen twice, so he might as well risk falling again. It wouldn't add much to what had already happened. So he chose to be bold and rewrote the ending of this trip to the Olympics. The worst that could happen wasn't another fall, but failure to try.
He landed six quads, five of them cleanly, which was a historic feat. He surged from 17th to fifth place. He didn’t win gold, silver or bronze. But I'd say he was perhaps the biggest winner on the ice during the 2018 Games.
Disappointments are not the end of a story unless you stop writing it. If you don't believe it, ask Nathan Chen.