Commentary by Col. James Fontanella
315th Airlift Wing commander
5/1/2013 - JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (AFNS) -- I
recently read an article that cited a number of studies on the benefits
of preschool. As the father of three school-aged children, it was
interesting to me because it validated a number of beliefs that I had on
the advantages of starting learning early in a young brain. What I
didn't expect though, were the lessons and benefits that were shown to
carry forward into adulthood, and the rewards of challenging ourselves
over a lifetime.
In a nutshell, the preschool studies that began in the early 1970s
reversed the previous thinking that infants and toddlers needed nothing
more than their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter to be met for
them to thrive.
The experiments were carried out over years, and then followed for
literally decades later. They proved that youngsters who were exposed to
social settings and given the challenges of building with blocks or
finger-painting reaped measurable rewards later in their school years
and adult lives. The metrics evaluated performance in high school,
post-secondary education completion, job placement and even IQ.
Significantly and undeniably, these early studies proved a positive
correlation between preschool attendance and all of the measures of
success later in school. What was more astonishing, however, was the
added quality of life that was garnered by the experimental group -- to
the tune of appreciably reduced arrest records, drug use, teenage
pregnancy, poverty and welfare rates, and increased employment rates,
income levels, home ownership and socioeconomic status. All from playing
with trucks and dolls! Why?
The studies proved that a child's brain grows and develops in complexity
as it is stimulated and put to work. What looks like fun to an adult,
like playing with blocks or doing a puzzle, is demanding labor to a
toddler. Because it is a challenge, it is good for them and literally
pays them (and society) back over the decades of his lifetime.
As adults, we choose to do hard things and they are still good for us,
whether we make that choice consciously or unconsciously. In our
personal lives, we voluntarily engage in tests that may have very little
tangible rewards, although they come with some obvious degree of
satisfaction -- like running marathons, climbing mountains, fishing for
the "big one." You may have opinions when you see a "26.2" or "140.6"
bumper sticker, but trust that the owner acknowledges that he or she
accepted a challenge and overcame it. I even like the "1.5" sticker, but
that's a topic for another article.
The personal growth and long term benefits of doing hard things are
constant among humans. The examples are nearly unlimited: reading to our
kids, a long session at the gym, picking up a book instead of watching
television, and working on a graduate degree, etc. Sometimes, we know
why they are good for us and sometimes we don't.
When you were a kid, did you ever have a parent tell you, "it builds
character" when you were prone to gripe about doing something hard? They
were probably more correct than they realized.
In the Air Force, we excel in doing hard things. Whether it's vying for
the next skill-level progression and potential promotion, or maximizing
work center production and training in a given week, it is in our ethos
to challenge ourselves. For example, we launched 13 C-17 Globemaster
IIIs in six minutes from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., a few weeks ago
and made it look easy.
Fixing and flying airplanes in austere environments, precisely
airdropping cargo to ground troops in a combat zone, aerial refueling
humongous airplanes within feet of other huge aircraft at 250 mph, and
saving the lives of the critically wounded at 30,000 feet are all
unarguably high in the risk management department. But as successes,
they are possible because of the lifetime of skills we have accumulated
Are our successes in our professional lives due to all that character we
built as kids, or the finger-paintings we created when we were 3 years
old? It's hard to say, but I'm sure the lessons and discoveries of our
juvenile years are a good start in accomplishing the hard things we do
In the military, we operate at the pinnacle of doing hard things and we
do them routinely. We do them not only because we can and because they
make us better, but because they represent service to our country. Let's
keep on doing the hard things!