Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Lines less traveled

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out Logan Laplante’s TEDx talk about how he’s taken charge of his education, organizing his life around a commitment to being happy, healthy, and fostering creativity.

There’s just one small thing I wish Logan had taken a step further. He says that to follow a traditional educational trajectory is like skiing one well-worn line down a mountain, while designing a program for yourself is like heading off into the powder to blaze your own trail.  I’m with him up to the part where he says that the shared line is probably safer.  In the snow it may be, but when you’re building a life, I’m not so sure.

I think it may once have been, but it’s getting less and less safe to traverse the common route.  The competition is so great for the handful of spots there are to fill along the way (in the “best” colleges, “best” graduate schools, the “best” jobs) that it’s no longer a fail-safe way to build a life.  We just keep saying it is because the powder makes us nervous.  The powder’s unknown.  We’d rather take our chances on the thing that will almost certainly work out for some people, even if it’s only a very, very small percentage, than head off into the powder where everyone probably has an approximately equal chance of making it, because there are so many more routes possible and winning spots doesn’t matter so much, if it matters at all.

We’re not safer on the route we know.  We’re just more comfortable there.

I’m so grateful to Logan for the framework he offers, simply and frankly, in this talk. Logan lives in the kind of world I think we could build for everyone, where vitality is of the utmost value and importance and can, in fact, be the best possible guide.


I opened my computer’s browser and saw this video caption: “It looks like this guy is just lugging around a 100 pound tire, but he’s about to do something pretty cool with it.” It turns out, as you can see from the video, that he’s going to use it as a hula-hoop.  If you’ve ever tried to hula-hoop, or lift a tractor tire, you can imagine that this feat would require a great deal of strength, coordination, practice, and patience to achieve.

It also looks very, very awkward at the outset, and like an odd choice of ways to waste time.

Kids are often doing things that look the way this looked – like a guy just lugging around a 100 pound tire.  They spend inordinate quantities of time and attention on things that appear to be nothing.  They run around and around and around things.  They pick things up and move them to other places.  (Or just put them back down.) They draw the same thing over and over.  They ask the same question again and again.  They stack things on top of each other and then knock them over.  It can seem pointless and unsophisticated. But if we’re paying attention in a particular kind of way, if we’re curious about what they’re up to, we often find out later that something else, something complicated or subtle or graceful, was in the works.  If we give kids room to do the things they’re doing that seem unproductive, that seem superfluous, that keep them from what we wish they were doing, we may facilitate accomplishment and contribution we can’t predict.

Anne Lamott wrote of her infant grandson: “Einstein would probably say that [my grandson] is already every age he will ever be, but in such super-slow motion relative to our limited perspective that we can’t see the full spiral of him yet…”

We forget, in our eagerness to make sure kids get by, that our perspective is limited.  We forget that we don’t know everything there is to know about how and where a new person will fit, what potential he or she possesses and is beginning to explore and develop, and how that potential might get expressed in his or her interaction with the rest of the world.  When we give ourselves room to be curious in our uncertainty, rather than just frightened into rigidity, we make it possible for the full spiral of each new person to be realized.


Lots and lots of people watched a YouTube video yesterday of a young child’s trip down a tricky mountain bike trail.  The camera is attached to the rider’s helmet, so the viewer gets to experience the ride with him.

The whole thing made me a bit uneasy at first, mostly because I’m not much of a risk-taker and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride a bike down that trail myself.  It didn’t seem safe and I was concerned.  I got over that after a few seconds when I realized that the rider is very skilled and probably wasn’t in much more danger than I am when I ride around on streets with zero grade.  (Actually he’s probably safer, given the absence of cars and drivers.)

Once I got over that I could enjoy his enjoyment of the ride.  I think much of the appeal of the footage lies in the tone and articulation of his commentary; he’s still getting some of his consonant articulations worked out, so his expressions of the large emotions he has over the course of the ride are especially endearing.

But for me the most striking thing about the soundtrack is the quality of attention in his voice and his breath.  Behind the young exclamations it’s possible to hear the thrum of vitality, as he calls on everything he’s learned about moving his weight in concert with his bike, regulating velocity, negotiating turns and terrain.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a treacherous trip down a mountain to call forth that kind of aliveness.  It’s not the ride itself that inspired the quality of this child’s commentary.  It’s his relationship with the riding. He’s been practicing, studying the skill and performance of his dad and others, in order to be able to do a thing that delights him. Everyone has a thing they can be like this about.  At least one.

Thanks for the reminder, Malcolm.

16,380 hours

Yesterday as I was trying to imagine (because I don’t remember) what it’s like to be five years old and going to school for the first time, I got to some calculating.  Six or seven hours a day (here it’s seven, beginning in kindergarten) for 180 days a year for 13 years.  If I’ve got the math right, that’s 16,380 hours. That is a lot of hours.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours-to-mastery guideline.  (The piece that didn’t make it to popularization was that it isn’t just 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 hours of this thing called deliberate practice.  I think it’s important to mention this with any mention of the 10,000 hours. It matters how you do the thing and, one can gather from fact of the how, also why you’re doing it.)

So if most kids spend in the vicinity of 16,380 hours at school, and it takes 10,000 to master a thing, that means that the chunk of time set aside from a young person’s life for compulsory schooling is the equivalent of more than one and half potential masteries.  It seems to me as though anyone who’s required to set that chunk of hours aside for learning should have some reasonable degree of assurance that he or she will emerge with at least one mastery, perhaps close to two, or something that’s in some way comparable to that.

I don’t know very many people who would say they got anything like that, but that’s not my point.  I just think it’d be a good idea to be honest with ourselves about numbers like these, because it’s so, so many hours, and they’re precious hours, committed during the part of life in which a person’s brain is most available for learning. Are we sure enough that what kids are getting is worth what they’re giving up?

Vitalization projects

A few weeks ago I had cause to revisit Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  On the second-to-last page, she quotes a friend who likes to ask “How alive are you willing to be?”

It happened that the morning before, I was up against the edges of my own ease, a beginner among masters at something I’ve always wanted to learn. More than once I’d had to decide whether the possibility of success, which would offer me an experience of being alive and fulfilled that other things, more comfortable and convenient things, might not, was worth the discomfort and inconvenience afforded by my beginner status.

So the question struck me with some force, and after pondering it for myself, it occurred to me that it might prompt a powerful inquiry about our standards for children’s lives. We often find ourselves at odds with children, with the pastimes they are drawn to, the things they want to do with their time and energies and intellects.  We tell them and we tell ourselves that it’s for their own good that we seek to bend them this way, toward the pursuits that we think will take them where we hope they’ll go.

In the name of education and preparation, we enforce time spent on the things tradition has taught us to value, at the expense of the things that bring kids most readily to life – the things that bring out the brightness, the determination, the patience to keep at something even when it’s hard. We know our intentions are good, but is it getting us what we actually want for kids?

How alive are we willing to let them be?

Their own devices

It’s tough to use this phrase without getting derailed by the obvious pun or irony available given the various portable game consoles, MP3 players, and smartphones that populate many a modern child’s existence.  But I still often find it asking for my attention when I see young people at work on whatever is truly their own; when they’re left to what are actually their own devices –the mechanisms that operate in their minds and internal worlds, made visible in what they create and share with their speaking, drawing, singing, building, imagining, and other art and craft.

Yesterday I saw a series of drawings penned by a nine year-old I know.  One of what I would call this child’s own devices is a knack for telling terrifically dramatic and often ironic stories on paper, with spare line drawings and few words.  At first my eye was tempted to wince at the size and shape of her lettering.  And it would be easy to mistake what she’d drawn and written for an unsophisticated product for someone her age.  It would be easy to worry that she’s behind.

But the plots of these stories, the behavior of the characters, and the choice of words in the dialogue betray their author and illustrator’s wisdom and knowledge.  More than once as I was looking over the body of work I heard myself saying “I’ve never seen that done before.”

Kids’ own devices are often of this nature – a surprising and subtle confluence of the distinct neurological wiring they arrive with and the things they’ve seen and heard along the way that shape and inspire them.  When we’re distracted by how well they are or aren’t forming their letters or whether or not they can remember, quickly, the difference between 17 and nine, we can miss their best stuff.

Which is a shame, because it’s much easier to practice your letters once you find reason to do so, or devise a strategy for managing calculation, than it is to reclaim an authentically original and unique way of responding to the world after it’s been pushed aside or snuffed out all together.


The other day I wrote about waiting to offer help until it’s clear that help is needed and/or wanted.  Here’s a bit of follow-up to that:

When we skip the inquiry into the usefulness or necessity of a particular task or activity, we deny ourselves the opportunity to see what might be trying to make itself known in the space created by not pursuing that thing just then.  Any time we’re doing one thing, we have to be not doing another thing; everything we ever do requires the choice to not do something else. And it may in fact be that reading, for example, is not the most important thing for every child to be doing right away.  It may be that for some people the most important first thing to master is listening, that for others it’s building or sorting or observing or climbing or strategizing or swimming or questioning.

It’s possible that obstacles not only offer us, as Randy Pausch suggested, the chance to find out how driven and committed we are about something, but that they also give us an opportunity to find out if there’s something else that might be even better for us, at least right then.

What if, as a result of being inhibited in a particular way, we become able to find our way to the most productive, fulfilling, and otherwise beneficial pursuits available to each of us? The likes of which we might not have found if all of our attention was on that early reading, on getting that arm to move that one way? We don’t have to give up the difficult things to find this out.  They’ll be there waiting for us, inquiry or no.  We just might find a richness in the experience available on the other side of this inquiry that makes the difficult things easier to tackle; more fulfilling and useful against a backdrop of other tremendous purpose or reward because we’ve been willing to go looking beyond the confines of traditional mandate. We might also find that there are things we’ve struggled and struggled with, always held as essential, that turn out to be otherwise and that when we let our grip on them loosen, we get stronger, clearer, happier, healthier for what we become available to do instead.

Over the walls


There’s that great story about the patient who says to his doctor “My arm hurts when I do this,” hoping of course for a diagnosis or prescription related to his ailment. But the doctor only says “Then don’t do that.”

It’s a joke, sort of, about human behavior, pathology, and medicine in general.  It has some potentially interesting implications for learning, too, and what we do when kids don’t perform the way we want them to, or the way we think they should, when we think they should. I’ve been imagining an expanded version of this doctor/patient joke.  Of course in a real situation we would hope that the doctor would have more than simple functionality in mind, but here’s my alternate idea of how it might go:

Patient: “My arm hurts when I do this.”

Doctor: “Interesting.  What were you doing when you discovered that?”

Patient: “I was ______ [some activity or task].”

Doctor: “I see. Is that something you will need or want to do again? Would it be a problem if you couldn’t do it?

From here, the conversation proceeds differently depending on how the patient responds.  If this thing that he can’t do with his arm is something he doesn’t have much use for, then the advice from the original story might be sufficiently sound:

Patient: “Actually, no. It won’t really get in the way if I can’t do it.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then stop doing that with your arm.”

If, on the other hand (pun partially intended), the task in question is something the patient does need or want to be able to do, then more of a problem-solving approach would be called for:

Patient: “Yes. I need to be able to ______.  If I can’t then it’ll mean _____.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then let’s see if we can figure out a way for you to do it.”

The doctor is of course ready to offer her expertise, to do the diagnostic work it will take to get to the bottom of the arm’s limitation.  She’s ready to intervene to restore or create the functionality the patient is looking for. But she waits to find out whether or not the patient actually wants and needs that intervention before she embarks upon it.


We often skip over this kind of inquiry with kids. When we see that a child is not meeting a mark we’ve set, we turn quickly to the work of getting the child to meet that mark.  We make it a problem, whether or not kids ask for help with it.

We do this with the noblest of intentions, and we have our reasons.  The big one is that we’ve decided that certain things will get in the way if kids don’t learn how to do them on schedule.  I don’t happen to think we’re right about this, much of the time, because so far we haven’t updated our list of learning necessities as the demands of job markets, economies, and work have changed with time.  (Also, specific skills and bodies of knowledge don’t serve all people the same way.) We keep trusting that the things we’ve always insisted upon to equip and prepare young people for their lives are still and always the ones they need, and need first.  

There’s so much to gain in granting children the dignity of an exploratory type of conversation like this one between the doctor and patient.  By asking ourselves and asking kids whether an inability to do something, or a challenge that arises in the course of learning something, is actually getting in the way or might actually get in the way at some point in the future, we make it possible to see what is truly so and what more there is to see.  When we jump over this step, it removes kids from the process of navigating their lives.  We dole out “help” they haven’t identified a need for and haven’t asked for. And in making that choice we give them an experience of powerlessness and render the help itself difficult to receive and absorb.

Brick Walls

It’s of course true that getting that arm to move that way, or getting a young person to read early in life, or getting any other outcome we want may indeed be just the thing for the person in question.  I’m reminded of Randy Pausch’s point from his Last Lecture about the obstacles one encounters in pursuit of a childhood dream: “The brick walls are not there to keep us out.  The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” For some, the fussy arm or the difficulty reading turns out to be a brick wall.  It lets the person find out that this thing is worth all it takes to accomplish. For others, though, it might actually be a distraction from other more meaningful or beneficial pursuits.  At least right then, maybe always.

And then what about if there’s really something wrong with the arm or with the reading, something that isn’t about choice or will or commitment?

To me, this possibility is actually the most compelling reason to be sure that a person gets the benefit of starting from a place of his or her own clarity and commitment.  Anyone who has ever had the experience of a brick wall offered up by neurological wiring or other physiology (as with any brick wall) knows that it takes the power of personal, specific motivation to do whatever it takes to get up and over that wall.  Overcoming an obstacle just because someone else thinks you should – because someone else threatens or otherwise insists – is a much, much taller order.


When I was a kid my grandmother often sent me newspaper clippings about topics related to what she’d heard me talk about in our most recent visit.  She didn’t always get the content exactly right, but it was clear that she was listening.  She was interested, and she was paying attention to who I was deciding I wanted to be.

The other day I was reading an article about a young professional chess player and thought maybe I’d make a copy of it for a 12 year-old I know who’s recently taken up chess.  There were parts of the piece I thought she’d be interested in.  But she doesn’t usually read much non-fiction, and the article is long. Maybe she’ll just be annoyed, I thought to myself.  I know it’s really annoying when someone assumes you want to read about something just because you like to do it.

But I also remembered the feeling I’d get when one of those envelopes of clippings would come from my grandmother.  I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but each time she sent something it was as though she was saying “I’m interested in you and what you’re interested in.”  I sometimes read the articles, and I sometimes didn’t, but I always got that message.

So I’ll make the copy of the chess article, but I won’t say “You should read this.  It’s about chess.”  I’ll say something like this: “I found this article about chess that reminded me of you. It’s about a guy who got really really good at chess because he loves playing it.”

I don’t actually care whether or not she reads it; I don’t think it will have been a waste of paper or time if she doesn’t.  She’ll hear that there are people in the world who take chess seriously and she’ll know that I recognize her commitment to the game as an important part of who she is.