Because of my involvement in progressive and gifted education, I am lucky to know people – many of them kids – who are prodigies in a variety of fields. I have met children who are speaking on a global scale about reform and literacy, who are designing acclaimed fashion lines, who are composing symphonies and making astounding breakthroughs in math and science. These young people are inspirations, and at the same time great sources of humility.
Last summer, a dear friend of mine asked me: what do you do if you don’t have a passion? She had been reflecting on my kiddos – on Ian’s drive to professional musicianship, on Eva’s early self-identification as an author. This friend, by the way, is an incredibly successful attorney, and one of the most brilliant and kind people I know. But she was struggling with finding that magic formula that Ian and Eva seemed to already possess: that of what you want to be when you grow up.
At the time, I sent her a verbose email and said a lot of Hallmark-card-worthy things like “most people have a lot of passions” and “everyone’s different,” and “passions don’t have to be grand to be valid,” etc. And all that is true. But it’s tricky. Because deep down inside, I think when we look at successful people – people who are so on fire about whatever it is they do – we want a piece of that. It’s a rush that we feel vicariously, and we want the real thing.
Also over the summer, I turned 40. I’m ok with that, really, but it’s a landmark age – one at which you begin to reflect upon where you’ve come, what you’ve accomplished, and what your worth in the world is at the moment. And this is what I’ve learned about myself: I am a restless person who loves to generate new ideas, but quickly gets bored with the follow-through. I need regular variety in schedule and activity to be content, but I also need to feel like I’m contributing to society in some way (hence the continual generation of new ideas). My short attention span is a frustrating quality – one that has gnawed away at me my whole life – because what it creates is a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type of scenario. And I really would enjoy being a master at something; to be able – like the rest of my family – to wake up in the morning knowing exactly what it is I wanted to do that day; to be able to say I’m a filmmaker, writer, musician, teacher or some other passion-driven one-word occupation. Though improving, “homeschooling” has such a mix of connotations in our society, that the word despite my best efforts, still does not delight in springing off my tongue. And my path as a homeschooler has offered its own set of complications, as it necessarily dictates how I spend my time. Is that my passion? Or am I simply bringing my passion to my necessary situation? Does it matter? I do genuinely enjoy my time with my kids, and I feel passionate about sharing the joy of our educational experiences with other children, both in and out of the public school system. So does it matter if it’s the chicken or the egg?
Because my path of homeschooling was not really a choice for me, however, I often wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t done this. Would I have found it? Will I one day once the kids have graduated? Or am I simply wired differently? Ian the other night reflected that his dad was a writer and filmmaker and teacher, that Eva was an aspiring author, and that he was a musician. He observed that I wasn’t something like that – that it appeared to him that I spent my life helping other people pursue their passions. He said it lovingly, gratefully. But I’ll confess: it bruised the old ego just a tad.
Because here’s the real truth: I have lessons to learn. Lessons that we preach to our children and to our adults. Lessons that I preached to my attorney friend last summer. You don’t have to be a master at something to be valuable. You don’t have to have a sexy one-word occupation ready on your lips for the next cocktail party. Though our society has conditioned our egos to want to say “I’m a ____,” in order to secure self-worth, this in itself doesn’t hold universal truth. That’s hard stuff to learn when we encounter people who are focused and driven in a particular field. But what’s really important is that we actively engage in the world and with ourselves, remaining open to our present experiences and situations that we encounter. That we bring passion to the coffee we make in the morning, to the songs we sing while we’re folding laundry, to the conversations we have with our kids while we’re toting them off to the next band practice, and for me – now – the style and quality of education that I make sure my kids and I experience together.
It’s the passion that’s key, not the subject we’re passionate about. That’s what we love about passionate people – their energy. Why else would we listen to TED talks on such a wide array of topics? From nuclear fusion to strokes, nutrition, posture, farming – we’re not listening because we have an undying fascination with biochemistry – we’re listening because we’re addicted to the speakers’ passion. And we find their passion contagious. So maybe we have an It. Or maybe we have lots of Its. But I do know one thing for sure: if we’re constantly worried about finding It, we’ll never really experience it.
For more on this topic, check out Cal Newport’s sweet little piece in the NY Times.
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