Archive for March, 2013

Millennial Spearhunting

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An atlatl is a remarkable thing.

I’ve actually held one of the earliest known examples in my hands (with latex gloves), and while I know I’m probably ascribing otherworldly qualities to it, the thing just exuded confidence. It had been held, and flicked, thousands of times at a very early, distant point in human prehistory. At one point, this device I now held had made all the difference for one hunting family. Using it had changed everything about their spear throws – velocity, accuracy, and, ultimately, killing power. Once the atlatl appeared on the scene in the Combe Sauniere in France, it spread like wildfire, throughout Europe and over the Bering land bridge into North America, for one simple reason. It was a transformational piece of hunting technology, made effective through training and practice. To hunt without it was to go forth at a severe competitive disadvantage in sourcing food: overnight, the playing field for daily nutrition changed, all because of one simple device.

Why do I bring this up? Because my kids are going to have one – the modern version, anyway – and they’re going to learn to use it, right by my side. Your kids might; given that you’re reading our blog, their chances are excellent. Most kids in public school won’t – and the ultimate outcome for them doesn’t look pretty. This fact is driven by two emerging fractures in modern education, which are collectively driving a widening wedge between school and life.

The first fracture is technological. A little backstory: in 1977, my father brought home one of the earliest dedicated word processors, a great big humming machine the size of a filing cabinet, complete with eight-inch floppy disks. It was pretty amazing at the time, and he even let me do a little schoolwork on it – against Caterpillar corporate policy, I’m sure, but whatever. I found it thoroughly fascinating. For the first time, documents could be stored digitally and edited endlessly before committing them to paper. But despite how revolutionary this moment was, just three years later, our family owned its functional equivalent, in the form of an Apple II. Two years after that, Apple IIs showed up in our junior high computer lab. Total elapsed time from my first look at the technology to its public-school adoption: five years.

Cue the starry-eyed optimism of the 1980s. At the time, we really thought that this process would only accelerate over time, to the point where schools would adopt real-world work processes and technologies faster and faster, until they virtually mirrored each other. But, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that patient zero, in the form of the Apple II, was really as good as it ever got – and then only because Apple was shoving dollars at the educational market as fast as they could be spent. Over time, what was in public-school computer labs fell further and further behind what was being used in business; even Apple abandoned its educational mission, in large part. Today, I walk into our public school, and there are some of the last CRT-based, 1024×768 tube monitors on Earth. You couldn’t go out and buy a CRT monitor today if you wanted to.

The contrast between school and homeschool is pretty stark. We don’t even use flatscreen monitors exclusively in homeschooling any more. The iPad’s become our go-to tech of choice in our house, for everything from Dragonbox to Khan Academy videos to Algebra Touch. For more advanced work that does involve monitor time, we’re aiming for a directly transparent relationship between what we use professionally (Mathematica, SPSS, Google Docs/Word/Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, SlideRocket) and what they learn to use at home. Because this is what we hunt with. These products are the atlatls of our day. In ten years, our daughters will be out on the veldt of the modern labor market, armed only with what we’ve given them – and it’s our job to make sure they’re ready.

The second fracture is sociological, and I reference it, increasingly, to explain why I’m involved in homeschooling as a father. It’s simple: we’ve become confused about what the ancestral role of a father is, and what the alternative role is.  Ten thousand years ago, the only fathers who didn’t take their sons (and daughters!) hunting were crippled or dead – and even then, their children went forth with uncles and cousins and grandfathers. This was done for one simple reason: there is no way to learn to hunt in the abstract. It’s not something you could read up on (not that hunting techniques were being documented beyond the wishful) or discuss into skilfulness around the campfire. Hunting, like so many things, was learned by doing. Fathers took their children hunting, because to do so was to teach them how to survive in the world1.

And then – rather suddenly on the scale of history – fathers (in particular) grew comfortable with outsourcing those tasks. That began as the Industrial Revolution took hold and showed us a world in which children could learn life skills en masse, just like the products being produced in the factories of the day. It’s no coincidence that the rise of industrial America from 1876 – 1900 overlapped with the beginning of the Progressive Movement in education, spanning from the 1890s to the 1930s. During that time, the United States saw a dramatic expansion in the number of schools and students served, especially in the fast-growing metropolitan cities. Learning became an assembly-line task, and just as the education of any one child became unimportant compared to the need to educate large volumes of children, so too did the need for a family member to teach fall by the wayside. The tasks to be mastered were common to all, and so the process of teaching became one that a third party could take on. At the same time, the ability of parents to involve their children in their work vanished, shattered on the factory floors of the age. For every family, at some point in history, there was a singular moment when work and education split: fathers went off to work one morning, and children to school, the two divided along a fracture between the real world and the educational system’s abstraction of that world.

In the earliest days, that fracture was small, or even – for those children who left school in the afternoon and went directly to work in a factory or on a farm – nonexistent. But over time, it’s widened, exacerbated by the technological divide. With each passing year, school has fallen further and further behind the realities of modern working life; today our kids are learning roughly all the same things they learned in 1980. There’s Palmer-method cursive to be practiced and wedding-cake long division to be waded through and a seemingly never-ending fountain of facts to be memorized – despite the fact that we live in an era of texting and Evernote and ubiquitous calculators and a human knowledge base exploding exponentially year by year2. These kids are heaving spears by hand in the atlatl age.

Worse, we’re not talking just about the fracture between our public-school education and the working world in our own nation: we’re talking about the fracture between our public-school education and the preparation necessary to compete in a global economy. Being from a Cat family, I distinctly remember the arrival of that word processor coinciding with my father’s grim pronouncement that Cat had lost a deal to Komatsu for the first time. It made an impression on me at the time: new thinking and new tech will be necessary now. The good news? We had an atlatl. The bad news? Everyone else had one, too. Yet, in the intervening decades, we haven’t taken the globalized economy seriously in the most important of venues – our educational system – and as a result, we fall further and further behind every year. And we just don’t care. If we did, we’d be doing something about it. 

Once upon a time, the risk of having an obsolete survival skillset was simply too great to take on, and mothers and fathers taught their children. It’s our belief that we are there once again, on the cusp of a great disjunction in how they are to make their way in this rapidly-evolving world, and that parents – fathers and mothers alike – need to face that fact head-on. Public education is providing neither the tools nor the training necessary to hunt effectively – so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do so. To the extent possible, they see what we use to make a life for ourselves: coding languages and wireless hotspots and knowledge management systems and tablet tech. I let them watch me work up client market pursuit models and brand positioning plans and collateral deployment schedules. They ask questions, and I answer them directly.

If we’d lived ten thousands years ago, those questions would’ve frightened away something large and tasty that we as a family probably needed for the night’s repast. I’d have to caution them, then; questions have their place and time, and crouched in the brush, atlatl in hand, is not the time. Is hunting with my children alongside me as efficient as hunting alone? No, it’s not; anyone who’s ever visited Costco alone, or with kids in tow, knows this difference intimately. But by hunting with them, I show them the skills that they need to learn, and in the end, we all eat – together.

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1 The original ‘quality time.’ 

2Yes, I know that the counterargument is that human knowledge has always exceeded the learning and retention capacity of any one individual. That old saw gets wheeled out every time this datapoint is mentioned. But that argument starts to lose its weight when the exponential nature of ongoing knowledge growth is considered. It’s like saying that there’s no need to worry about a coming hundred-year tsunami based on experience managing a few inches of water in a post-thunderstorm flooded basement.

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The Long Run

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H and E are en route to the mountains today with their grandparents, leaving us with A in what we occasionally refer to as the ‘only-child simulator.’ (The DINK simulator is when all three are gone. Once we’ve had even fifteen minutes of solitude in the DINK simulator, we want to slap the living shit out of our endlessly-complaining childless friends.) I’m in the second-cup-of-coffee zone, where life slows down from permanent-moving-sidewalk speed to something like our old version of normal. It’s spring break week here in Colorado; I’m not planning out homeschooling tasks, and so our homeschooling center1 has fallen quiet. The alarm clock has been silenced, too, and I realize something odd: with Kathy working a flexible schedule like mine, and the girls homeschooling in the morning, we’re only getting up at ungodly hours for A. That’ll change, too, in the fall, so I’m looking forward to a week-long preview of what it would be like to get up at seven o’clock every day.

At the same time our home life is slowing down for a week, the local school system is revving up. They’re talking about all kinds of new options for gifted education, and some – like the promise of cluster grouping, at long last – look interesting. Ability grouping would have worked fantastically for H, who needed roughly a grade to a grade-and-a-half worth of acceleration in reading and writing, and the reverse for math. If it had been available sooner, I might have looked at it as an option – but with only sixth grade left in Colorado elementary school, we’re thinking that we may not want to trial the first year of a new teaching methodology for her. Perhaps, down the line, it might be a good choice, but we’re both pretty adamant that middle school’s a waste of time, and by the time she reaches high school, they may have moved on to something else entirely.

Regardless, it can’t really launch until 2015, which is the earliest our school system will have the tech in place to support it. That leaves H and E out of the elementary school ability grouping discussion, and even A would be in fifth grade by the time it goes live. It’s a future solution, but I’ve got ‘now’ decisions to make, so we’re now on the outside of flux and change, looking in. At some point, it’s likely that our kids’ classmates will be going back to an entirely different world, while ours will be staying roughly the same. That juxtaposition – ‘alternative’ schooling within the perceived stability of public education, and stability within the ‘alternative’ state of homeschooling, has me thinking about the long run today. (Like I said, I’m in second-cup-of-coffee world.) In specific, how are our kids going to view school when it comes time for them to think about educational options for their own children?

I grew up with something of an inner fire for educational transformation – a strong desire to do things differently for my own kids. I suppose we all did: who didn’t stare down another SRA card2, or face off against the mind-numbing horror of fifth-period study hall, and think to themselves, “it’s going to be different for my kids”? But despite doodling the destruction of our schools at the hands of an invading robot army, many of us ended up right back where it all began, shipping our kids off to public school to endure all the same trials and travails. The process has been dressed up a bit now; gifted kids have ALPs, and 2e kids get IEPs, and there are more opportunities for enrichment  – when the Sauron eye of standardized testing is looking elsewhere, that is. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it’s a different flavor of the same old, same old.

It’s been that awareness, that experience, that’s driven much of what Kathy and I have done in changing up our careers and lifestyles and responsibilities. These haven’t been easy or simple or even societally-accepted choices to make, but we made them anyway, in large part because we’d seen the alternative up close. We talk frequently about the need to run toward a desired end state, rather than run from an unwanted intermediate state. Even so, we have moments in which we acknowledge that there is some running from in this equation. It’s unavoidable, given that it is our own personal experiences that have framed these choices, and we’re living with that fact. What about their experience, though? Without flamethrowing-robot doodles or study-hall spitballs or other formative moments, will they have the same passion for homeschooling we do? They’ve had a taste spoon of public ed, but certainly not enough to rile them up the way I was. I wonder whether that’s going to color their perspective as the decision draws near for their own families. How do you rationally evaluate something you’ve scarcely had to put up with?

Perhaps it’ll be a more difficult decision for them. Perhaps school will become something truly different by 2028, or 2038, or whenever they start their own families. I’d like to think that real transformation is coming for the public education system in this nation, but I’m a realist, too. Things haven’t changed much since I was in elementary school in the 1970s, and that was thirty-five years ago; do I really think things will improve dramatically in the next fifteen? There’s a part of me that hopes that school will be a genuine option when they begin examining educational options for their families. But based on the glacial pace of progress in our own school system, I’m not entirely convinced that things will be any different then.

That may leave them in a strange position, at least from my perspective: unconvinced that school is a sound choice for educating their children, but lacking the traditional-schooling experience that would fuel their commitment to homeschooling. When the time comes, will they have the same determination to do what’s necessary for their own children? I like to think that they will, and that they’ll be choosing for the healthiest of reasons: namely, that they’ll be running toward what they grew up with themselves – what worked, and what they knew to be right for them, and what they’d like their own kids to experience, too.

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1 I know, it looks like a dining room, but it’s a homeschooling center. Trust me on this.

2 I think I actually got hives when H told me she was doing SRA cards in school. Really? 25 years later, we’re still doing SRA cards?

I Am Not A Teacher

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So I had this whole blog post spun up about MOOCs and the longitudinal demographics of MOOC courses and how interesting it is that we tend to view course dropouts as a negative, when it should be a positive in the new 21st-century philosophy of higher ed. And then, two things happened.

One, I forgot that I agreed to be on a blog hop about unschooling. And two, I got into a high lather about being lectured about my life choices by a competitive sushi eater.

This blog post is a case study in how two very unlike things can sometimes, somehow, come together into a single thought.

I had a good laugh reading Sashimi’s uninformed attack on homeschooling, but it churned into fatigued disgust over the course of an afternoon1, and thence into outright frustration. What the hell did he know about homeschooling? Qualifications? I’d do better than that; I’d give him results. I wanted to drag him into E’s room and shove his nose into the framed plaque on her wall that holds her first-place EXPLORE medal from 2012, when she finished first in the state of Colorado for her age. I wanted to show him A’s design for a Lego Mindstorm-powered leprechaun trap. I wanted him to watch H’s impassioned, interactive 50-slide PowerPoint plea for slow loris conservation. And then I wanted him to tell me I was not qualified to teach.

But the more I thought about it2, I realized – in gradual fashion – that Sashimi wasn’t talking to me at all. Because I am not a teacher.

I’m not trying to go all Basho on you here. I don’t say this in any sort of ironic sense. I’m really not a teacher. Even when I was called by that title, during my college-professor years, I really wasn’t. That was, in part, due to my own educational upbringing. My favorite teachers have never been teachers. Not in the traditional sense. They’ve been storytellers, collaborators, mad hatters with ping-pong ball guns. My favorite professor in college wasn’t even in my major; he was a law professor, and he loved theatrics. One day, he wrote the definition of assault on the chalkboard: an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Then he took hands for volunteers and invited a young woman up to one end of the auditorium stage. “I want you to walk from this end to the far end,” he told her, “without ever looking back.”

Once she was underway, eyes dutifully fixed in front of her, he produced an enormous and very sharp-looking chef’s knife from his suit jacket pocket and proceeded to follow closely behind her, waving the knife in an undulating arc and making a boogedy-boogedy face. Just before she reached the end of the stage, he pocketed the knife, stood up straight, and ran a hand through his hair.

“Assault?” he asked the class. Turning to the young woman,he asked, “did you feel an apprehension in me of an imminent harmful or offensive contact?” She had not. Point made in the interpretation of law.3

Unschooling, I suppose, makes me an unteacher. Schools have teachers, after all, so if we’re unschooling, I need some other sort of title, and unteacher seems to fit. What I do isn’t so much teaching as it is functioning as an educational co-pilot; I provide resources, frame projects, lend assistance, watch presentations, and, in many cases, learn right alongside them. They like that; there’s something about the traditional teacher-student dynamic that tends to rile my kids up. So, when I’m confronted with a question I can’t answer offhand – Dad, do all cultures have a trickster god? –  I’m happy to shrug and give them my stock response for many questions: I’m not Google. I haven’t been in a long time, actually. Not since why-is-the-sky-blue and do-whales-poop were the questions of the day. These days, I get questions like which has greater biomass, Dad – insects or mammals? 

I’m not Google, I remind them. But what a Google-worthy question! And while you mention it, I wonder if K-selected species or r-selected species have greater biomass! What’s that? You’ve never heard of either? Let’s pull up a concise Internet explanation – care to run with that as a project? Awesome. Let’s frame it up.

Teachers don’t get to do that. They have curricula and lesson plans and defined units and quizzes, and everything is sorted out neatly by subject. They don’t get to make the large leaps, the hopscotch learning that we do. What we do evolves from collecting roly-polys on a sunny morning walk, to a discussion of the fact that roly-polys are more closely related to lobsters and crabs than to other insects, to the fact that they’re essentially diminutive trilobites, to a discussion of where trilobites went and how extinctions work and the fact that the Jurassic dinosaur Stegosaurus already had been extinct for approximately 80 million years before the appearance of the Cretaceous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus.  (In fact, the time separating Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus is greater than the time separating Tyrannosaurus and you. Fact!)

This is what unteachers do in unschool. We get out of the way of passion and excitement. That empty desk up at the top of this post? That’s us. We vacate and evade the didactic role, circling around over and over again to come up beside our kids, as their educational companions. When necessary, we’ll jump out in front to beat down obstacles in the path of our charging unstudents, but we’re right back beside them as quickly as we possible, to fill their backpacks – while running alongside! – with tools and technology. We’re silent sentinels of well-roundedness, reminding them that it’d be a sweet addition to a project to add an Excel model of trilobite population demise, or a creative-writing piece from the standpoint of a time traveler in the Cretaceous. We let them fill their own minds, and their own days, with learning of their own design.

Unteachers can do that; teachers can’t. Not in the setting they’re in. I could probably import school structure into our home, but why bother? Note, for Sashimi’s sake, that this does not mean I am arguing that I’d be a good teacher, in the strictly-defined sense, in my home – or in a school. I’d probably make a ghastly elementary school teacher, despite having taught college courses for three years. In fact, I’d wager that teachers would make far better unteachers than unteachers would make teachers.

But that’s not the real question, is it? I’m not arguing that I should be allowed to try and bring unschooling into a traditional school environment; that would be a mass extinction of intellect, I’m sure, and not just that of the kids. I’m also not running around with a TEACHER pin affixed to my lapel while I discuss the origin of the Bardic tradition as I make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Teachers don’t do what I do, and I don’t do what they do.

Could we, maybe, just leave it there?

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1 Kind of like I’d been involved in a competitive sushi-eating contest earlier in the day.

By which I mean, “drank beer and watched hockey”

3I don’t think you could pull this off today without getting about 500 complaints from parents, making me glad I went to college in the 80s.

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unschoolingbloghop

More posts scheduled to appear on this subject today, March 18 (time of publication may vary by site):

Red, White, and Grew

Laughing at Chaos

Building Wingspan

Thea Sullivan

Buffalo Mama

Cedar Life Academy

Wenda Sheard

Life with Intensity

Pygmalion’s Regret

Capture

Once upon a time, I was – like a lot of kids – a Suzuki violinist. My parents dutifully schlepped me to Suzuki violin lessons, to weekend Suzuki events, to orchestra practice, to state performances, as I slowly (and painfully) progressed from Lightly Row to the most basic of symphonic works. On and on it went. The entire time, as I accepted sheaf after sheaf of sheet music, I kept asking when I would get to write my own pieces. But that’s not really part of the Suzuki program (and, to its credit, it never purports to be a creative program, just a good method for violin instruction). So as the years went by, the cognitive dissonance mounted up for me. From my perspective, a violin was a box of colored pencils, ready to transform a blank sheet of paper into new sounds and arrangements. But the message coming from all around me was one of reproduction, not creation.

My parents were saddened and disappointed when I quit the violin at age 15 to take up the guitar. I still play the violin from time to time; I even picked up the cello a few years back. But my main musical love is the guitar, and I’ve spent more time making music with it in the past two decades than I ever would have spent churning out rote classical performances on the violin. I wonder, as I look back, what their goal for me was: to become a classical violinist, or to become someone who loved making music. I honestly don’t know to this day. If it was the latter, they might have achieved their goal, but only by allowing me off the path they’d set out for me. It was in the act of departing from that path that I found a better one for myself – so if their goal was for me to enjoy making music for my whole life, that moment was a moment of success, not failure.

I thought of that moment this week as Jack Andraka, the sixteen-year-old creater of an innovative and inexpensive cancer test, vaulted into the headlines with a Forbes article entitled “The Genius of Raising Brilliant Kids.” The Forbes piece itself is actually fairly benign: it’s a point-for-point discussion of how the Andrakas raised Jack(and equally impressive brother Luke). Their checklist of parenting recommendations had me nodding as I went through it line by line: independent learning, focus on passion projects, parental engagement, limited rules, child-directed investigation, Socratic learning, problems as opportunities-in-disguise. A few Andraka family touchstones slowed my nodding (I don’t keep college guides around the house, and mine tend to have multiple irons in the fire at any one time, which I encourage). But by and large, I don’t have an issue with the Andrakas, or even how Forbes spun them in its article.

I do, however, have an issue with the derivative press emerging surrounding prodigies like Jack, most of which centers on the concept of turning your child into…well, into the next Jack Andraka. Some are chillingly clinical. Others are chillingly batshit. (There’s one actually titled “How to Create a Science Prodigy,” and ironically, it’s actually one of the more reasonable considerations of Jack.) Most aren’t articles recommending the Andraka checklist for uncovering your own kid’s passion; they encourage you to chisel a Jack Andraka clone out of the kid you have. Even the Forbes article itself couldn’t resist the urge to get into that line of thought itself, closing with a section called “Unlocking the Genius Within,” as if there’s a cancer-researching wunderkind inside every one of us.

First off, I’m not sure I want the next Jack Andraka. Society already has one, and he might be the greatest thing ever, or he might be someone telling a better story than the first person to try what he did; maybe the timing was better for his iteration of the nanotube story than the original one. (We all know that timing can be everything in this world.) Regardless, I think what he’s done has been fantastic; I’m not sure I’m more impressed by his creativity or his diligence. He found what was important to him and worked mindfully toward a goal he set for himself.

That’s what I would take out of the Andraka story – not the outcome, but the process and the passion. It’s not as if the Andrakas knew what Jack was going to become; they let what was within him come forth, in a supportive environment.  What I want from my children is not necessarily for them to follow in Jack’s footsteps, but to find a path of their own on which they’re as creative and passionate as he was. That might lead them into scientific innovation, or it might not; they might write something groundbreakingly creative, or  they might not. Perhaps they’ll touch the lives of a few deeply, or touch the lives of millions in some momentarily engaging way. What I want for them is not Jack Andraka’s life, but rather his clarity of purpose and vision. I want them to find in their lives what Jack found in his: an endlessly fascinating pursuit that made the clock hands circle like the wind, mindful within the flow of their activity.

But society isn’t making it easy on them. It doesn’t help when we refer to ‘ingredients’ making up a child prodigy, or reduce their existence to checklists. (Jack Andraka himself should probably take umbrage at the idea, no matter how tongue in cheek, that “any kid can be Jack Andraka.”)  This fall, we’re going to throw more gasoline on this fire with a new television series on prodigies. I’m not sure our success-at-all-costs society has really taken into account the unseen toll taken on normal children raised with the expectation that they will become prodigies when it may not be within their abilities to do so. In this article, pianist extraordinaire Lang Lang lays it out simply when asked about the brutal treatment he endured at the hands of his father during his musical upbringing. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang says.

For me, the question comes down to your perspective on your child’s development. Are you a sculptor or a guide? Pygmalion, or Bridger? Pygmalion parents believe there to be a defined form within the limestone of their kid, one that can be directed to assume a final form with enough chisel time. Bridger parents believe that they aren’t the ones to determine that form; they believe that their children should find their own way, with help and support, and that the task of the parent is to provide opportunity and exposure to a broad variety of paths. Pygmalion parents raise children they can be proud of. Bridger parents raise children who can be proud of themselves.

I see the evidence of sculptor parents all around me – lawyers and engineers and IT professionals and business executives who became what they were sculpted to be, but are not happy with their lives. Kathy tells me the same stories about doctors who can’t wait to escape from day-to-day practice to become medical practice administrators or pharmaceutical executives or clinical researchers, because being a doctor was what they were told to do – but not what they love to do. Those children grew up in Pygmalion households, shaped carefully for a single purpose by doggedly persistent parents, whether their child was ever meant for that purpose or not. And now they stand, for the remainder of their days, trapped in the stone they were carved from, never able to stretch and move and run down the sunlit paths that Bridger children were always encouraged to explore.

The Woodpecker and the Hummingbird

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We have an extremely irritating woodpecker who loves to drum on our house. It’s likely different woodpeckers from year to year, but I like to imagine it’s one single, annoying bird. Despite each of us wandering out and shooing it away, taping old CDs to our house, and putting metal protection where it likes to work, it continues to drum away at our house year after year.  Knock, knock, knock.

We also have a neighbor who loves to attract different types of birds. He has several hummingbird feeders, and I love to watch them as they flit around our garden, precise in their approach, going from flower to flower. They don’t stay long, but they are beautiful to watch. When they leave, we look wistfully after them, wanting to follow.

I grew up thinking that being like a woodpecker was a good thing. Not the annoying part (though I’m certain I was pretty good at that skill as a child), but the persistent part. Keep at it, keep working at it, and eventually good things will come to you. Perseverance was the key to success. For my own life, this has actually worked out to be pretty much true. I decided around the age of eight that I wanted to be a doctor. I took Latin in high school because I thought it would help me understand medical terms. I majored in biology in college, went to medical school, then internal medicine residency, and then found a great job. I might be a case study in the success of persistence.

I have come to observe, though, that recommending this path is not always a good fit for gifted individuals. Meeting my husband was interesting. Here was a brilliant man (he will protest this post) who was good at everything. A true polymath, as comfortable writing a novel, performing calculus, or playing in a band. I have come to understand, over the years of being married to him, that the multipotential nature of these folks is often a curse and a blessing. Do you persist at something that you are insanely good at, but don’t really enjoy? How many things should you continue to focus on, when there are so many options to choose from? When is it OK to let go and move on?

One of our daughters has turned out to be a polymath as well. I am thankful every day that she has my husband to help guide her. She could so easily look at my life and think to herself, “that’s how I should do things.” But, in following me, she would be miserable. Polymaths get restless easily, and can persist in doing things far beyond their useful life to the person involved. I think of them as the hummingbirds: they attack each subject they are interested in with deep intensity, ingesting everything they can from the experience in record time. Before long, they are done with it, and can then move onto the next thing. I imagine there is no other way to live your life when everything has so much possibility.

Other folks may observe this behavior and think, “they quit too soon, they had such potential!” For those of us who are really good at a few things, the woodpecker life suits us well. We continue to drum away, happy in our success, never yearning for anything more. For polymaths, however, only a hummingbird’s life will do. Making them continue to do something, long after the flower has been sucked dry, is more harmful to them than teaching any lesson of persistence. My house may be full of finished and discarded projects, and probably a lot of lost potential, but the birds of various types are all happy, which is what matters to me.