I recently read an opinion piece in a well-known business magazine* in which the author, Gabe Zichermann, suggested that it was a good idea to reward children just for participating in activities like sports or in the classroom. His primary premise was that sometimes you have to “bribe and coax” kids to get them to try something and thus to discover that they like it. “Without some external positive reinforcement at the beginning,” Zichermann suggested, “the next Wayne Gretzky might never discover a love of the sport.”
Really? Did Zichermann interview the previous Wayne Gretzky to ask if he had needed bribery to learn to love hockey? Did anyone ever hear The Great One say something like, “Oh, my parents kept going on and on about this ‘hockey’ thing, but all I cared about was my Legos. They had to bribe me with candy to get me onto the ice, and somewhere around the 100th gummi bear I began to think, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad.’?” I just can’t picture that. Gretzky was a prodigy who was on the ice at age two. Could his parents really have thought to themselves, “Jeez, the kid is almost three and he still hasn’t scored a hat trick yet! Get the gummies.”
I think there is something almost supernatural about the way that children figure out what they like. Not just prodigies like Gretzky, but ordinary, normal kids – somehow they see something and just recognize that that is what they would like to do. Kids make their share of mistakes, to be sure – imagining that they are going to like something, then trying it and quickly dropping it. But I’m more struck by how frequently they pick something and get it right, starting a career or a lifelong hobby at a time when most adults wouldn’t even expect them to know how to make their beds.
The danger is not that there is some unrevealed Gretzky II out there, unaware of where his passion might lie. I think it’s far more likely that there’s some two-year-old out there who watches hockey on TV, knows with an unquestionable certainty that he’d be great at it, but will never get the chance to find out. Maybe he doesn’t live near a hockey rink, or maybe his parents can’t afford skates, or maybe he tells his parents that he wants to play hockey, and all they do is chuckle patronizingly and ignore him, so that over time he learns to abandon the idea.
I remember my very first career ambition – I must have been five or six at the most. I had seen a few episodes of the old Dick Van Dyke Show, in which Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, the head writer for a television comedy/variety show, and I had become convinced that that is what I wanted to do when I grew up. Later, as a young adult, I would remember the certainty with which the five-year-old me had announced to every adult I knew that I wanted to be a comedy writer, and the older me could only wonder where the hell that certainty had come from. After all, my older self would say, what could a five-year-old know about the life of a comedy writer? I don’t even remember being, or trying to be, particularly funny at that age. It seemed as odd and unanchored a choice as it would have been if I had announced at age five that I wanted to be gigolo.
And yet, here I am, more than four decades later, not writing (nor aiming to write) for a television comedy show, but writing nonetheless, and frequently trying to be funny about it. And given what I now know about how I work best – how much I revel in collaboration and cleverness and creation – I think my five-year-old self might have had a point. If I had joined the Harvard Lampoon, I could have ended up writing for The Simpsons or Conan O’Brien. (Of course, I would have burned out at an early age, disgusted by all the infighting and favoritism and shallowness, and left The Industry to seek more fulfilling employment, ultimately becoming . . . a teacher. Cue Twilight Zone music. The End.)
Children can see truths that adults won’t let themselves see. If you are struggling with your career path . . . if you are questioning whether you’re doing the right work . . . if you feel like you don’t even really know what it is you want to do . . . think back to the earliest ambitions you can remember — before you were old enough to worry about what other people thought. Those ambitions may not now be realistic themselves — for many of us it’s too late to try to become an astronaut or a major league ballplayer — but they can still give you an untainted view of the kind of work that truly resonates.
*That is, a magazine published by a well-known business.