I forwarded a notice to a friend about an upcoming volunteer clean-up event. It’ll be on a Saturday morning, on one of the local beaches.  My friend has two young sons who, whenever they have the chance, walk around their neighborhood picking up litter.  They learned these stewardly ways by watching their parents, but both of them seem, at the ages of 4 and 6, to have surpassed those parents in their dedication to tending the nearby earth.

Their mom responded to my email to let me know that the boys were very excited about the beach clean-up day.  “They have soccer on Saturday mornings,” she wrote, “but they may just have to miss a week for this; it’s more up their alley anyway.”

The boys like soccer, and they’ll probably keep playing at least for awhile because it’s a relatively fun way for them to spend a Saturday morning.  But their mom knows soccer doesn’t invigorate and inspire them the way cleaning up the beach will.  It’ll be lots more inconvenient, and to an uninformed onlooker it might appear as though she’s keeping her kids from playing, from being kids.

But the truth is, kids are more connected with the playfulness of work they take seriously than adults tend to be. For these two boys, there is more satisfaction and delight available in tidying up a patch of land than in running up and down the soccer field. For other kids it’s the opposite.  And no one’s right or wrong about how kids should be spending their time. People, including kids, are just different from each other, and when we’re given the chance to be who we are and care about what we care about, the lines between chores, work, fun, and play will blur all the way until we can’t see them anymore.

Growing limits

At the end of last summer we brought a little fuchsia inside with low hopes.  I picked up the diminutive plant early in the season expecting that it, like the one I bought the summer before, would thrive in the gentle morning sun where I hung it, spilling over the sides of the basket like fuchsia are wont.  Instead it grew about two inches in two months and produced a single tiny pale blossom. In the spirit of Arnold Lobel’s Toad, I spoke to it occasionally.  I may have been more insistent than Toad, but I’m sure at least once I said simply and perhaps ever so impatiently, as he did, “Now, plant, start growing.”

Once inside, the fuchsia maintained its low stature until December or so, at which point it finally started to grow.  Straight up.

I found this frustrating.  I wanted it to grow like I’ve come to believe and expect a fuchsia plant should, with graceful trailing symmetrical vines.  And to bloom.  It seemed to have no intention of that.

But then a few weeks ago, a pair of buds began to swell at the end of the tallest stalk, a precarious two feet above the surface of the soil. I was less encouraging this time. “No way can you handle the weight of blooming,” I said.

But as the flowers grew, so did the diameter of the stalk.  Soon there were two more pairs of blossoms. The stalk listed slightly but held up.  Other stalks followed suit, and soon the plant was an unlikely display of top-heavy splendor.

“Point taken,” I replied. Apparently it would succeed in pulling this off.

I’m sure there are all sorts of simple botanical reasons the fuchsia grew and bloomed this way, but when something like this happens in my house I have a hard time not taking it as metaphor. I’m constantly asking people to consider that this may be how growth works, when it comes to children who show their greatest potential in areas or directions that seem odd or unlikely to produce results or success. When they don’t read right away because they’re busy perfecting their climbing or they’d rather be on the phone with a grandparent than go to a birthday party with classmates or they don’t care about learning to throw accurately but they’ll pore for hours over architectural drawings.

Children, like plants, often don’t abide by our wishes for the timing or content of their development.  But if we make it our job only to offer the steadiest support we know how, and trust kids to find their way to whatever unique expression and contribution they may be capable of, we may well be surprised and delighted at how they turn out. We may find, for example, that the avid climber wasn’t trying to get out of learning to read but knew she did her best thinking when she was in motion.  Perhaps she later leads outdoor adventures, or restores ecosystems.  We may find that the party-avoider was not anti-social but simply preferred the quiet company of one person at a time. That the fascination with architectural drawing was the beginning of a capacity for visualizing and solving complicated technical problems.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote “Man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” We can keep doing that, keep holding back the human organism with static hope and prediction, or we can watch each new person with the expectation that we have absolutely no idea how much is possible, and what the limits of the world, the limits of human potential and growth, might actually be.

One child’s hockey is another child’s…

It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen.  When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice.  Practicing, actually.  They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.

It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice.  Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!”  “It’s different! It’s a game.”  “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”

But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance.  (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)

Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force.  And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.

So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun.  I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job.  After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted.  She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.

Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity.  When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery.  Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.

We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.

If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them.  What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.

When free of imposition…

A friend sent me a quotation from Buckminster Fuller, excerpted from a conversation printed in New York magazine in 1970. Panelists were asked to comment on urban planning, air pollution, and the possibility of a new lifestyle that might promote healthier urban coexistence.  Here’s what Fuller said:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

I’m pretty sure if he’d thought about it (or maybe if he were saying it now rather than 40 years ago) he’d take out the “back to school” part.  What he means there, I think, is that earning a living is getting in the way of people doing their best work.  For some people, thinking about whatever they were thinking about might involve schooling of some kind.  For many others, it wouldn’t.

In my search for the source of that quotation, I came across another of Fuller’s which I had heard before but whose origin I didn’t know.  In response to a young boy’s letter asking whether Fuller considered himself a “doer” or a “thinker,” he wrote: “The things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.  Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.”

It has been my experience that what Fuller is saying about people here (in both quotations) is true – each of us is already up to something before we start getting told what to be up to.  I have not yet met a child who wasn’t, very early in life, already busy with the work of mastering something, often something distinct from what anyone around him or her was up to.  Among other things, children study patterns, organize and categorize things, invent, take things apart, put things together, tell stories, make peace, mix and combine ingredients, draw elaborate diagrams.  They think a lot.  It sounds to me as though Fuller thought that the essence of one’s potential contribution (and probably livelihood) could be found in those things he or she had already noticed needed to be done and would have gotten right to work on had there not been the imposition and distraction of making a living.

Our fear of finding ourselves (and worse, our children) without means for livelihood compels us to think first of earning a living and only later (if at all) of this sort of unique and potentially valuable contribution.  But what if the very things that qualify each of us for unique contribution may in fact ultimately prove better access to livelihood than the collection of things we’re told we must learn in order to be employable?

It’s interesting to me that if I run through a mental list of the people I know and what they tend to do when left to their own devices, I find an astounding diversity of preference and capacity.  If we started from scratch, and each of these people put their full attention on the things they love to do, there’d quickly be food growing and structures built, trash collected and leaves raked up.  There’d be new things invented, old things fixed, art made, efficiency demonstrated.

I can be as pessimistic as the next person.  In fact I’d venture to say that I am more pessimistic than the next person.  But the nature of my work is such that I encounter many people for whom it has not worked (including with respect to livelihood) to be primarily engrossed in the pathways we have created for the purpose of pointing ourselves in the direction of making a living.  It has made these people frustrated, tired, sick, depressed, alienated.  It has distracted them from the things they are best at and originally committed to. It has cost a great deal in the realization of potential.

I can’t help but wonder what we might be able to create if we were to frame our lives another way – if we were to release the task of living-making and take up instead the task of giving whatever there is for each of us to give.  Of thinking, as Fuller invited us to, about whatever it is we are already thinking about.

The future of smart hiring

Yesterday’s post about the two NASA engineers reminded me of the excerpt from Stuart Brown’s book Play which I’ve mentioned a few times before.  (Here’s a link to the most recent mention.) Brown tells the story of how the managers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the lab behind the Mars landing) noticed in the late 90s that graduates of top engineering schools were often unable to solve the kind of problems JPL needed them to solve.  The hiring managers started asking candidates how they spent their childhoods, looking for those who’d done a lot of tinkering, taking apart, fixing, building… playing.  If Brown has his dates right, this JPL realization came before Steltzner and Ferdowsi were hired.

It can seem, given the competitive job market and the competitive college admissions realm,  as though it doesn’t matter to employers whether or not you can actually do the work they need you to do, as long as you have the right alma mater and the right grades.  But employers who really want to do the best possible work are changing their ways, which means it’s no longer a good idea to forsake genuine inquiry, investigation, and relevant training for the sake of toeing the academic line.  Like I said yesterday, the Curiosity guys didn’t make it to the control room just by building things out of blocks and gazing up at the stars.  But the fact that they were driven by their connection with these experiences not only made it possible for them to conquer the obstacles that surely came up in the course of their training and education, it also made them appealing candidates for the extremely complicated work they were interested in doing.

Specialists, glorious generalists, unifiers

I’m reading a book called Mash-Up! about building what the authors call a plural work life; blending a range of skills and disciplines.  The passage below reminds me of Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook.  Grace celebrates the notion of what she calls a “glorious generalist,” someone who makes a point not to stay confined to one pursuit. The Mash-Up! authors happen to use the word glorious as well as to describe a close relative of what Grace has always encouraged young people to give themselves the freedom to do:

A teacher didn’t suggest you mixed up a load of random subjects; she suggested you specialize in one area… Clearly defined.  Black or white. The trouble with the black and white world is that it misses the glorious spectrum of technicolor that sits in between.  That kind of delineation may be great in theory, on an organizational chart or in a linear career trajectory, but reality tells us there is a disconnection between this single-specialism focus and how people really, truly are.

The Mash-Up! authors encourage readers to identify a “personal unifier,” which is just like it sounds: the thing that pulls a group of apparently (but probably not) disparate capacities together.


It’s not as though there’s no place for specialty, but many of us are much more effective, could be much more effective, especially in a world like the one that currently swirls around us, if we didn’t have to narrow ourselves down.

If we let kids know that just as it’s OK to pick one or a few things to give themselves entirely to, it’s also OK to cast a wide net for exploration and acquisition of skill, we increase the chances that they’ll find a way to make a unique contribution and find themselves most fulfilled, not only when they reach adulthood but all along the way.


Yesterday one of the 10 year-olds I know told me that his younger brother can stay up much later than he can. And he didn’t mean by odd parental decree; he just gets too tired even when he’s allowed to stay up longer, while his brother could keep reading on and on into the night.

Over and over I’m reminded that there are myriad ways like this in which we’re different from each other, no matter how similar our experience or genetic makeup.  And it’s easy to imagine that if we had more latitude to live the differences we might realize more of our actual potential.

I’ve been reading Till Roenneberg’s book about chronotypes. The book is about internal physiological clocks and how individuals have different sleep needs.  Roenneberg suggests that we’d be wise to stop forcing the same schedule on everyone.  He points out that 9-5 is not at all the only work schedule available, and the school hours we mandate for young people and their learning doesn’t bring the best out in many of them.

The little guy marveling at his brother’s talent for staying up late doesn’t know it, but later on if all goes according to tradition, he’ll be the one who’s commended for his sleep habits, while his (also) brilliant little brother may well have to struggle to get his mind to work during other people’s hours.

There’s certainly value in finding a way to function in the social world as it is.  But it’s costly to try to force-fit one’s self (or someone else’s self).  The world is getting more flexible not less in options and configurations for work and livelihood.  It’s the perfect time to stretch our conceptions of how it might be possible for each person to figure out what works best for them and then find ways to reconcile that with the societal structures they need and choose to engage with.

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.

Chore, not chore

The two young boys who live across the street spend most of their outdoor time either shoveling dirt or carrying water around in a watering can.  It’s not because they don’t have anything else to do; there are various “toys” and more traditional play options available.  They’re doing this by choice.  And it’s easy to see that they take it very seriously and also that they delight in it.  When under the burden of a probably oversized load of cargo, they’ll squeal cheerfully “This is so heavy!”

No one has told them yet that this is the kind of work we consider chore.  To them, it’s just one thing to do.  They do it because they’ve seen the adults around them doing it (in the course of tending yards and gardens), and found that when they do it themselves, they like it.  The digging and carrying feels good and purposeful.  (Or maybe just fun.)

I know several other young children with this kind of relationship to the types of tasks and activities that are generally understood to be a drag – one who loves sweeping and vacuuming, another who insists on being included in cooking and washing dishes, a third who always wants to be in charge of organizing.

We run the world and talk about it to kids as though there are fun things and not-fun things, chore things and not-chore things, work things and not-work things.  But we know it isn’t really like that.  We know that just as digging and hauling dirt is fun for one person while it’s boring drudgery for another, a 5-mile run is a dreaded chore for one and the best part of the day – a blissful rush of peace and fulfillment – for another.

So I wonder if we might be wise to stop teaching kids the age-old mantra that you have to do things you don’t want to because that’s the way life works.  Maybe things would actually work better, all around, if we let kids see us acknowledging and celebrating preference.  Maybe everyone would get to keep doing the things they were attracted to when they were young – the things that felt the most purposeful and fulfilling.  And maybe everything that there is to do – the art, the sport, the building, the teaching, the farming, even the accounting – could still get done.