When I first started to play the violin in kindergarten, and subsequently the cello in first grade, I remember a trail of beautiful star stickers that tracked my progress. I must have earned a star for each practice session, and after 100, there was a big star which I think I colored in and got some other prize for my work. Years later, in a Suzuki training program, I learned that such an innocent thing as stickers are full of controversy, the idea being that they undermine the lesson of finding the intrinsic value in the task at hand. What's a paycheck, even if we enjoy our work? I think sometimes we need a small stepping stone. For me, as a child, I had yet to acquire the ability to appreciate playing Beethoven string quartets. Nor could I grasp the glory of heightened mental coordination, technical facility, and discipline that I've come to enjoy from a good practice session as an adult. But I could certainly enjoy the beauty of shiny stickers.
Somewhere along the way I transferred my love of sticker beauty to the love of music beauty and all its inherent qualities that teachers had optimistically hoped could be the motivation from day one. What if I hadn't made the transition? How many stickers might I have accrued by this point? I feel perhaps I've cheated myself in a small way, but I'll have to let it go. There are children who need those stickers more than I.
But after a day of studying Japanese, hoping to somehow close the gap in the number of hours that all the Japanese people around me have been doing Japanese and the hours that I've been doing Japanese, I thought again of stickers. They must have tens of thousands of stickers owed to them. How many hours to make a master? How many years? It seems impossible at this point, but I'll just keep on trekking, imagining a blazing trail of shining stars in my hard-working wake.