How to Succeed at Anything.
When I was a child, I had a lisp. It wasn’t terrible, but it was noticeable and prominent. I don’t recall ever being made fun of for it, possibly for an embarrassment of riches on the part of my bullies. I could have gone on to have a long and ordinary life without addressing it; my speech impediment was not severe. But I recognized that I didn’t talk the way other kids did, and it bothered me.
If it bothered my mother, she never really let on. But she did arrange, once I was 10, to have me see a speech therapist. I was in fourth grade in a new school. I was getting into the ages where children more consciously and assertively separate themselves into cliques. It was apparent I was not going to be joining one of the more prestigious ones, and I think my mom wanted to make sure there was as little fuel for exclusion as possible.
And so several times a week, for many months, I was pulled out of class and went to a small room in a temporary, mobile structure, and sat down with a nice young woman and practiced my “s”s. She taught me about tongue placement and showed me videos. I had to learn to make a new consonant. Anyone who’s studied a foreign language knows how hard that is.
The way you make an “s” sound when you don’t lisp is really nothing at all like how you approximate it when you do. The tip of the tongue is lowered and tucked behind the lower gums. The mid-tongue hovers near the hard palette. The side edges press outward against the grinders. Learning, practicing, and adopting this was hours of frustration. I worked at school, and practiced at home.
The speech therapist had a buzzer. We’d have conversations and she’d buzz me when I lisped. And then she’d pretend to lisp and I’d buzz her. I liked her. She made me work very hard, and I cried several times thinking I’d never succeed. It was an incredible relief, sometimes, to leave that room and go back to talking “normally” – without having to think carefully and strain my mouth and my tongue.
But time went by. I adapted. I adopted normal speech. I learned. I’m grateful my mother didn’t adopt the current prevailing attitude that “my child is perfect so your standards are wrong”. I had an impediment. I’m glad I wasn’t taught that my impediment was society’s responsibility to coddle, rather than something undesirable about myself I could change. Mom got me the resources to address it. She had expectations that I would succeed. I worked very hard for a long time. I succeeded.
That experience has helped frame a lot of what I do in life. Success depends on a lot of factors. People who teach you what it is. Difficulties to overcome. Willingness to work. Support from people who know what to do.
I learned, through speech therapy at a young age, that incredibly difficult work, focused on a particular goal, has rewards. Internal rewards. I never got an “A” in speech therapy; it wasn’t a class. It didn’t teach me any subject matter. I never got a ribbon or a plaque or a certificate. What I got was the ability to speak the way other people speak. I earned something internal: a skill others didn’t need to learn, and the ability to blend better with the groups that I wanted to join.
It taught me about fundamental unfairness. In two ways. First, that it wasn’t fair that I had an impediment and others didn’t. I had to work and learn and struggle and fight just to do what others could do naturally. This has been echoed throughout my life. And second, much later, it taught me about the unfairness of access to resources. Without being in a good school system and having a mother who could afford this specialized treatment, I’d never have been able to do the work in the first place. And I’d have been saddled with a minor social detractor my whole life.
It took me a long time to internalize the lessons from speech therapy. It is work that has been ongoing in my life, now, for 32 years. First the muscle, then the mind, now the soul. I learned a lot of things the way I learned to correct my speech. Piano. Cooking. Running. There’s a simple trick to succeeding at anything: work hard at it for a long time. Get a teacher. Let your emotions through. Accept setbacks. And then fight like hell again the next day.
And define success appropriately. All I wanted to was to be good enough. I wasn’t training in Shakespearean diction. I was just trying to be the best I could be. The best I could be, in speech, is normal. That’s all I was going for. I’m not even sure what “great” would mean there. But I learned that being ordinary is worth aspiring to.
And so, the best I can do at the piano is good enough to make music that satisfies me. The best I can do at cooking is make pretty, nutritious food that I enjoy eating. The best I can do at running is complete slow, agonizing long-distance runs. I’m happy with that. I’m good at that. I work really, really hard at all of that. And I have done, for a long time now. That’s why I’ve succeeded.
I’m not ashamed that my best isn’t better. I don’t mind that I’m not as good as you are. I line up for races next to elite athletes; I cross the same finish line that they do. It’s not important that it takes me twice as long to get there.
I can say my “s”s just like I should. When I learned to do that, I learned I could do anything.