Now that my kids are getting to an age at which their proclivities are becoming more defined, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us good at things and what makes us like things. I’ve heard people claim that talent and passion go hand in hand, that we naturally like the things we’re good at. We achieve some level of mastery at a task and we feel good about that task and ourselves. That good feeling inspires us to work harder, which makes us better at the task. And the feedback loop continues.
But I’ve always been a little skeptical of this line of reasoning, if only because my own experience doesn’t quite bear it out. For example, while I consider myself a good writer and am usually satisfied with the writing that I eventually produce, the amount of frustration and self-doubt during the writing process far outweighs the small pleasure I feel upon its completion. In short, I really don’t like to write.
And yet, despite my own experience, I still find myself saying to my eight-year-old daughter, “But how can you not like math? You’re so good at it!” Why in the world would I do that? Oddly enough, I didn’t even know about her aptitude in math until the parent-teacher conference this past fall. Within the same conference, almost in the same breath, the teacher told us that our daughter’s test scores were fantastic and that she struggled with learning new math concepts. So, once she gets it, she locks it in, but until then, she is frustrated. She absolutely loves gymnastics, on the other hand, and she is a natural at it.
Maybe it has more to do with something “clicking.” Maybe that feedback loop between being good at something and liking it only occurs when we can achieve that mysterious flow during it.
Like me, my ten-year-old son doesn’t seem to like writing very much. He didn’t think he was good at it either until earlier this school year when his teacher, in a truly inspired moment, told him that of course he could write his report on a classmate instead of an animal as the assignment had stipulated. The result was a much more clever, nuanced piece of writing than I had ever seen from him before. Here it is, quoted verbatim*, with his permission:
So you think you know Evan Baker: A Trivial Guide
First, if you know anything about Evan you know he is a handful and you will need a lot of Ritz crackers and cheese whiz. If you read on you are going to find out some amazing things about this incredible Michigan mammal: habitat, diet, description and a few interesting facts.
First off Evan burrows down under the cement base of houses and with mole like reflexes he digs magnificent tunnels and guards his territory with unrivaled ferocity. During the summer he resides in an abandoned bar off the east coast of Wisconsin where he enjoys great foosball matches with his many loyal (imaginary) friends, Norman and Wilson.
Evan’s diet consists of many things, some of which are: Ritz Crackers, Cheese Whiz, honey baked ham, Liverwurst, Red Wine, Banana Cream Pie, Cherry Cheese Cake and brownies covered with powdered sugar. Evan enjoys countless more things that I do not care to mention at the moment. But I may mention in the near future.
Evan enjoys his odd but comfortable spiky green hairstyle. Frightening but all the less comforting neon purple skin tone draws the eyes of many a passerby! His eye color is very surprising glow-in-the-dark sunflower yellow. His ferocity is matched by no one and his viciousness is not taken too lightly. His weight unknown, but scientists have discovered that by the end of his lifetime Evan may grow to eight foot seven. He is very muscular and last time he checked he could knock out a full grown rhino in one clonk to the head.
Some interesting facts about Evan include that his scientific is Evanicious Bakerium prounounced (Ev-un-ish-us Bake-ore-e-um), his species died out and Evan is the last one of his incredible race and will do anything for a pound of 100% butter.
I hope you enjoyed this trivial essay on one of earth’s most amazing creatures.
While he hasn’t been saying lately that he thinks he stinks at writing, it doesn’t look like his previous dislike for it has transformed into outright affection either.
As my kids get older, I’m finding that in many cases the best thing I can do is stay out of the way. Too much praise, even merely paying too much attention, is a surefire way to kill someone else’s passion. It’s hard, though. I reflexively want to say, “Great job! That is wonderful!” It’s a tough job, this parenting business.
* Actually, I did change the friend’s name, to protect the innocent.