Talent and Passion

One-handed layup

One-handed layup

I’ve been thinking a lot since the Amy Chua, aka Tiger Mom, posts and  reaction articles exploded last week, including Michelle Rhee’s own response.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around what people consider necessary skills or necessary knowledge versus sheer talent.

So, what exactly do we expect kids to know and be able to do? Does talent fit in this answer? Or do we explain away that some people have God-given talents that most don’t have… and that’s okay?

[cc licensed photo by Eagle102.net]

Here’s my thought process:

Point 1: I was born with an incredible memory. My parents did not force me to perform memory exercises over and over and over until it clicked. That’s just how I was born. Because of this memory ability, I learned how to read as a toddler. This advantage helped me to excel in school, especially in those classes that rarely asked more of me than simple recall or application. I was a test-taking whiz!

Point 2:  In music, I would say that I have a lot of “gifts.” Because of my parents’ encouragement and, at some points, insistence, that I practice, I learned to excel in areas of music… however, I was surrounded by music at a very young age. I was singing into a microphone before I could walk. My dad is an extremely talented musician. Interestingly enough, both my siblings and I are considered very musical people. We’ve put in a lot of hard work and practice time, and it has paid off. How much of our “talents” would you say are natural? How much did our environment factor into our abilities? How much of it was our desire to practice and improve? And how much of it was our passion for music?

Point 3: Although I love softball and golf, I have to admit that am a terrible basketball player. Horrible. Painfully horrible! My dad used to take us out to our backyard and either throw baseballs at us (to help us not fear the ball) or practice dribbling and jump shots. From the ages of 10-18, I played softball competitively. I loved softball, and I practiced a lot. I have never played basketball competitively. I practiced dribbling for hours, as well as  many, many jump shots. I practiced layups, but I hated it. In fact, I hated everything about basketball except watching others play. No matter how hard I practiced, I was never as good as the other kids on my basketball teams. I feared the time in the game when the coach would put me in, because I didn’t play well… and I didn’t really WANT to play.

My dad never gave up on me. He set very high expectations for me and told me that all I needed was more hard work. I would be a dribbling machine, if I would just practice more.

But here’s the deal… all the years of practice did help me improve my game, but I was still awful… and I HATED it.

Many reading this post might argue that you have to have talent to be a musician or a basketball player. I don’t agree. You can learn to sing in tune, and you can learn to dribble. Maybe the degree to how well you do those things lies within your natural talents… but I think it’s more likely found within your own passion.

Many might also defend the point that memorizing facts is an essential skill.  Again, I don’t agree. These things come more naturally to some than they do others. It doesn’t mean we stop setting high expectations for each individual, but it does mean that we need to recognize that some people do not memorize as well as others.

So, here’s where my thought processes are leading me:

  1. What are those things in school we expect students to be able to do? That, with some hard work and practice, they will be able to excel in those skills?
  2. At what point do we cut kids some slack for those things they don’t love? What is a necessary skill versus one we could just let go?

I’m not arguing to let children pick and choose exclusively what they learn in school. Kids need exposure to a variety of experiences, along with someone helping them to keep raising the bar on what they are able to do. I really believe in continually pushing up that bar to help kids challenge themselves and accomplish a task they couldn’t perform at first.

At some point in their academic ‘careers,’ however, is it foolish for us as educators and parents to keep expecting the same goals for all kids? If they must all get A’s on their report cards, like Amy Chua’s children,  or pass certain standardized tests- some of them will reach that goal easily. Others will have to work fairly hard to get to that point. Some might continue to work hard over and over until frustration sets in- and then they might stop caring about ever achieving anything. We tell them that, with hard work and a positive attitude, they can accomplish anything… but is that true? Can we accomplish anything simply through determination and hours upon hours of practice?

I practiced layups for hours upon hours. I know HOW to do a layup, and I can tell someone else how to do it… but to this day, I’m still not able to make a layup consistently. The difference here is – making a layup was not a skill I needed to graduate and  no one really cared about it (other than my dad).

Maybe a better question is this:  When do kids get to choose to follow their OWN passions and grow in those areas? What is the magical age for them to start making these decisions? I asked my parents this question once, and they thought it might be college-age. I’m afraid that’s too late for most kids.

What do YOU think?

3 thoughts on “Talent and Passion

  1. I feel like ninth grade is a good time to start. In upper school, the demands get to be such that one person really can’t do it all and participate in everything. And by eleventh grade they need to know enough about their own passions to choose their elective courses.

  2. I teach gifted 3rd – 5th graders, and I think it’s important to help them explore their “multiple intelligence” – those natural skills/abilities/talents that everyone possesses. I also try to help them begin to understand how these abilities, in combination with their personality type (Myers-Briggs) influence what they excel at, what they may be passionate about, and how it affects all parts of their life.
    I think it’s critical to encourage elementary age children to participate in a variety of experiences to help them figure out what they may be(come) passionate about. Sports, music, dance, scouting, acting/theatre, photography & videography, art and crafts, writing, programming/gaming/technology, math, science…. I try to help with this by providing different types of activities they can choose to participate in: our daily in-school broadcasts, after-school clubs such as Lego Robotics Club or programming club, and letting students choose the topics of units we study in Enrichment.
    Children need exposure to as many of these different areas as possible, and I do think it’s important that they make the choice as often as possible. I believe follow-through and persistence and high expectations/goals are important, and I think that’s what you were referring to when you said that your parents at times insisted you practice your music.
    My son took piano from age 5 until he was in 6th grade. Though he loved piano, getting him to practice was difficult. Though he enjoyed playing pieces he’s already learned, he really disliked learning new pieces. He auditioned to get into our local fine arts high school in music (piano) during his 6th grade year, but did not pass the audition and was not extended an invitation to attend. He was so disappointed that he quit playing piano, and hasn’t really played since then. (He wasn’t passionate about playing piano.) He did, however, participate in the band during 6th & 7th grade, so he didn’t give up music altogether. The next year, he auditioned in 2 different areas & got an invitation for both math/science and creative writing. Though we discussed the pros and cons with him, my husband and I insisted he make his own choice. He chose math/science, but the following year, he switched to theatre tech as his major, and has become truly passionate about theatre lighting and is avidly pursuing a college degree and a career in lighting. My son’s interest and talent in lighting evolved/developed via learning photography from his dad and assisting his dad in his photography business. (Talent becomes passion? I would say yes!)

    My almost 12 year old nephew is enrolled in an Olympic-prep gymnastics program, which requires 3 3-hr practice sessions per week, with competitive meets during the winter/spring. My nephew is intensely competitive, and won medals in several meets last year. Though he really enjoys gymnastics and likes the competitions and winning meets, he still requires lots of encouragement and discipline from his parents and his coaches to insist he regularly attend practice sessions. I imagine his parents/coaches will have to continue putting pressure on him until his passion for winning or personal performance becomes the dominant force driving him, or he loses his passion and interest.
    I think we must require students to exert a certain amount of effort towards learning in all subject areas. However, all children are going to have things they enjoy more than others, which will likely be the same things they have “a knack or ability to do better at”. Personally, I think we must make sure all students “learn how to learn”, how to teach themselves or find experts to teach them, whatever they need to be able to do to succeed. I think everyone needs to find a passion for whatever makes them happy and productive, though it may not be news-worthy, or change the world, or even make a major contribution of any kind.

  3. I don’t think any age is too early to let students pursue their passions. Their passions may change and adjust (but doesn’t that happen a little in life anyway?) The difference is that when they are younger there are some basics (reading, basic math, writing, history, science concepts) that need to be learned and practiced regardless of how they fit a students passion. I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive.

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