A friend of mine recently shared an interesting article provocatively titled, “The Learning Myth: Why I Never Tell My Son He’s Smart.”
I thought it was going to be a treatise on how to avoid making your child obnoxious, arrogant or insufferable, which I can get behind 100 percent. (Feel free to hurl insults – I am one of those childless adults who has little practical experience with how difficult it is to raise great children).
But I was wrong. It was actually more important.
“Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows,” writes Salman Khan. “They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.”
What this had to do with Khan not telling his son he’s smart was this: Praising the boy for the sometimes painful struggle to do something difficult rewards a mindset of intellectual growth, rather than the expectation of easy success.
What this has to do with shooting and hunting should be obvious, unless you’re an elderly Olympic shooter who can’t remember missing any target in the past 50 years: Shooting isn’t easy, but failure and perseverance will ultimately reward you with the thrill of learning, which ultimately leads to connecting with your target more often.
The importance of failure is something I share with all the new shooters I work with. While it’s great to smash that clay, your brain learns from missing it, too: It learns what not to do.
Having pretty much zero innate shooting talent, I know full well how hard this can be for new shooters to accept. You see other people with great hand-eye coordination dropping more ducks with fewer shells than you, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get the hang of it.
The answer, of course, is that if you persevere, you will get better.
While I have little natural athletic talent – yup, I was always picked last for every team in school – I was blessed with tenacity that I never really put to good use until I was 30, when I decided to enroll in a tae kwon do school.
Tae kwon do is one of the flashier martial arts, incorporating a lot of aerial kicks that look beautiful if you’ve got a knack for them. With me, though, I just looked like a cat that’d been hurled into the air and blasted with a hose while she was up there for good measure: utterly graceless. But I did ‘em anyway, and I did in fact get better at them.
When I took up hunting 11 years later, I was grateful I’d conquered my lifelong expectation to be perfect at everything I did. While that attitude had made me look accomplished, it had really served only to narrow the range of endeavors I was willing to attempt.
Very early on, I started going out duck hunting by myself. If I always went with other hunters who did the calling and called the shots, I’d never know whether my calling and my perception of “in range” were improving.
It was more than a year before I killed a single duck while hunting alone, and another year before I killed more than one duck while hunting alone. This wasn’t for lack of shooting. It wasn’t uncommon for me to bring home a shell box that was empty as my strap. I just had not even remotely mastered the timing, mount and follow-through required to drop a duck.
But there were other things I began to learn right away. What kind of calling brought birds closer. What kind of concealment it took to avoid flaring incoming birds. What I needed to bring into the field to stay comfortable, hydrated and fed. What kind of weather produced good hunts. What kinds of birds made what sounds as they whizzed past me unscathed.
Even when I was frustrated with my results, I finished almost every hunt feeling like I’d learned something useful, and that was enough to keep my self-esteem afloat until I got the hang of things a few years later.
With the 2014 hunting season nearly upon us, I’m confident that this season, too, will be full of learning as I navigate the challenges (and probably benefits) of hunting waterfowl during the worst drought California has experienced in decades.
Oddly enough – or maybe not so oddly – I’m excited about the adventure.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.