Reframing Character Defects

Written by Parker Gates
Posted January 11, 2016

When I was in my early teens my parents and teachers started to notice certain unsettling character traits in me. Lack of focus and/or interest in my studies, and later in life a downright rebellious attitude toward doing anything I didn’t want to do. As you might imagine, this created lots of tension in the relationships with the adults in my life.

In addition to getting poor grades, I was starting to question why I was having such a hard time. My confidence was getting pretty shaky, although I certainly couldn’t identify or articulate it at the time. I felt stupid. I couldn’t understand why the rest of the class seemed to get the content being taught and why I felt so disengaged. For me, this often led to trouble as I would become terribly bored and start talking to other kids and generally messing around when I was supposed to be working.

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This behavior started showing up in other other areas of my life. In particular I remember being in martial arts class one night. The typical schtick in a class like this was to be taught a “form” (routine) which you would then practice over and over again until you could take a test on it and hopefully ascend to the next level (belt color). Now, I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I do tend to catch on pretty fast. This led to my learning these “forms” pretty quickly and then as soon as the excitement of learning something new wore off , I’d become disinterested when we had to keep practicing them over and over, week after week. Eventually, the sensei (teacher) explained this to my parents who were already starting to see this pattern in other areas of my life. To me, this is interesting because, in general, experiential learning like this was able to get and hold my attention. But eventually, with so much repetition, I still grew bored and inattentive. So, I’m able to learn experientially really well, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stay engaged long term.

School, in general, was always challenging for me. Sitting in a chair being talked at all day by mostly unengaging teachers made it hard for me to focus or care. I struggled and as a result attended summer school twice and failed the 8th grade once. No one knew what to do with me and I continued to feel dumb and more and more like an outsider. My defense mechanisms kicked in and I embraced it. Ran with it. Made jokes about it. I took on the role that I thought others wanted me to play. I looked up to Judd Nelsons’ character in The Breakfast Club and I became that insolent ne’er do well. This behavior was not helping!

The only times where I really seemed to excel were in summer school and then finally in my last 1–2 years of high school when I was placed in an accelerated learning program (originally created for teen mothers).

There are a couple of elements that made these environments more suitable for me than previous settings. There were much tighter time constraints, smaller classrooms, more one-on-one time with teachers, and often an ability to move at my own pace. I wasn’t forced to slow down.

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What we eventually started to recognize was that when I’m not forced to sit around for 50 minute blocks, seven times a day, regardless of what I’m actually doing, I do have the ability to stay focused. Clearly focused. When I’m learning experientially, versus being lectured to by an apathetic instructor, I have the capacity to remain present. And when given the option to progress ahead of the seemingly arbitrary schedule, I can get amazing amounts of work accomplished with both interest and care.

So, great. What’s all this mean to you? Well, what I’ve learned is that these disruptive character traits that were not super popular with both my teachers and parents when I was young, are actually serving me well at this point in my life. Today, I love that I get bored quickly. It acts as natural filter for how I spend my time and energy. For who I choose to spend time with.

Boredom and loss of engagement can be a barometer for what’s interesting and help me course correct on a project or line of thinking.

And that insubordinate, rebellious attitude that got me in so much trouble when I was younger….well, it helps me determine which clients or what projects may or may not be a good fit for us. It keeps me thinking about other (less conventional) ways to dream about and achieve success. It keeps me true to myself and, as it turns out, that’s more important than anything I could’ve learned in school.