Things we’re good at and things we like

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.

The Ends

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.

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Handedness and Decisiveness

Researchers have firmly established as a very true factâ„¢ that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people and that ambidextrous monkeys are more talented than both. But what about people and robots who are neither right- nor left-handed and cannot show off their ambidextrosity at the talent show? What do researchers have to say about those who are right-handed at some things and left-handed at others? And why would anyone care?

Posted in self-indulgence | 4 Comments

What did you say?

When I read the first couple examples of a recent blog entry on “Marital by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic, I laughed in absolute recognition of the scenes in my own life. Then I read this…

Posted in miscellany | 1 Comment

Calling All iPhone Users

I finally got my very own iPhone this weekend, and I’m very excited about it. A lot of my geek friends are talking about the Android-based phones now and some are even acting like the iPhones are a bit passé, … Continue reading 

Posted in technology | 14 Comments

The World Is Too Much With Us

I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of guy, but something about these first few lines from William Wordsworth’s poem resonates with me.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers …

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Goodbye, Edgar

It all happened much more quickly than Sara and I had expected. We put our 1993 Volvo 240 Wagon on Craigs List last week, and within two hours it was sold. In addition to the guy who bought the car, three others called to ask if they could check it out…

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XyliChew Mints

A big box of mints arrived at my doorstep last week. But they weren’t just ordinary mints. No, they were XyliChew Mints with 100% Xylitol! I’ve been a big fan of XyliChew and its dusty purple cousin Ricochet for a couple years now, but their great taste is only one small reason for my affection.

Posted in miscellany | 1 Comment

Paper Airplanes

On Sunday at one in the afternoon, a local Grand Rapids guy named Rob Bliss and a handful of friends started to dump paper airplanes off of downtown buildings. By the time they finished, one hundred thousand planes had descended on the nearly 20,000 people crowding the streets below…

Posted in friends and neighbors, photography | 3 Comments


I started writing this thing a month ago with some lame generalization about how kids behave radically differently from one minute to the next while they all pretty much look their age. But I couldn’t sustain the thought, and I’m not even sure I believe it, so I’m just going to relate a little anecdote about Ben and Sara that occurred earlier this summer.

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Happy Anniversary

Some people like to propose marriage in a public way — a banner pulled by an airplane, a radio call-in request, an electronic marquee at a ball game. When I asked Sara to marry me nineteen years ago, I chose a more private setting: the front steps of the dormitory where we had first met. The actual proposal was merely a formality anyway, since we had discussed getting married for the previous eight months or so.
My attitudes about self-revelation have changed quite a bit over the years, and the change, I admit, has coincided with the Internet Age and its ubiquity of online information about everything and everyone. But here is one thing I know I’d want to shout from the rooftop of my house if I didn’t have this virtual rooftop …

Posted in family | 10 Comments