Cultivating Passion

From The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner.

“Michael Jung. . . believes that ‘there are only three reasons why people work or learn. There’s push, which is a need, threat or risk, but this is now a less plausible or credible motivating force [in the industrialized countries] than it has been, even for the disadvantaged. There’s transfer of habits—habits shaped by social norms and traditional routines. But this, too, is becoming weaker now, because of the erosion of traditional authority and social values. That leaves only pull—interest, desire, passion.’ I understand Jung to be talking about three kinds of human motivation. Physiological need is one—the need for food and shelter and so on. But he suggests that with high rates of employment and government safety nets, this is less of a motivational force in many young people’s lives than it once was. The desire to adhere to social norms is another human motivation that is weaker than it used to be, because traditional sources of authority, religion and family, have less influence on young people today. Jung believes that it is the third motivational force—interest, desire, and passion—that increasing numbers of young people are seeking and responding to in school and at the workplace.”

We tend to be products of our environments so I wouldn’t describe the transfer of habits/adherence to social norms argument quite like Jung and Wagner. The influence of significant others, for better or worse, is still there. My clearest childhood memories of my dad are of him pacing the house as he memorized his sales presentations.  Five or six at the time, the impact was indelible. Every family has momentum, whether positive or negative. Because of my parents, ours was positive which is not synonymous with perfect. If a critical mass of adults in a young person’s life aren’t working and planning for a better future, we can’t expect that young person to care much about school work, continuing their education, or making a positive difference in the world.

If we agree that young people are mostly motivated by interest, desire, and passion, as I’m inclinded to do, we need to rethink teaching, coaching, and parenting. In his book, Wagner tells Kate’s story, a senior in high school. “Kate suffered from too much of the wrong kind of adult authority,” Wagner writes. “She was overmanaged for success—success being narrowly defined as getting into a college her parents and teachers considered to be top-notch and having a high paying job.”

What good are high standardized test scores and good grades if a student lacks specific interests, desires, and passion? What if they learn to “do school” but fail to become passionate about anything?

The seventeen and eighteen year-olds that I know are striving to get into the best colleges possible. But what makes one college better than another? US News and Report offers pseudo-empirical answers based upon numbers colleges get good at manipulating, but there’s more art to educational excellence than science. Maybe the best college is the one where faculty and staff help students discover their interests and desires. They advise and teach passionately; consequently, students become more passionate about writing, or a language, a culture, an environmental challenge, a historical period, a social movement, global politics, law, or medicine. I’d like to see USN&R measure staff and faculty passion for advising and teaching.

If I did a focus group with my daughter and her twelfth grade friends, I suspect all of them could identify things they like, but only a few could explain in any detail what they are most passionate about and why. And surely those few that are ahead of the curve need guidance on how to turn their passions into purposeful vocations. My wish for my daughter and her friends is that over the next four or five years they become more passionate and begin translating their passions into meaningful, rewarding work.

Excellence

Two events recently made me think about excellence, what it entails and how to cultivate it. Event one was Olympia High’s final orchestra concert of the school year. I’m always blown away by their individual and collective musicianship. Event two was Sunday’s Pre(fontaine) Classic track meet in Track Town, USA, Eugene, OR. In the mile, 12 people went sub 4, an American woman ran 3:59.9 in the 1500; a shot putter went over 71 feet; a long jumper 28’8″; the 100m winner, 9.94; and on and on. 

One thing musical and athletic excellence entail is beauty. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a gifted musician embrace and bring a piece alive just as there’s something almost mystical about watching an elite middle distance East African runner pull away in the last 400 meters.

Often there’s a knowledgeable, committed, demanding coach eliciting excellent performance. Chip Schooler, the Olympia High orchestra conductor is a case in point. I don’t want to put him on a pedestal even though he does stand on one, but those students are privileged to get to work with him day in and day out.

There also has to be an intrinsic love of the activity that translates into dedication to repetitive practice. Then there’s very careful preparation for the excellent performance. One of my favorite parts of the meet was watching the pole vaulters warm up an hour before their event started. Running drills, spraying the handle of their poles, taking practice runs and flopping into the mat, stretching, hydrating, narrowing their focus.

In excellence versus equity debates, I typically advocate for equity, but they don’t have to be mutually exclusive all the time. Maybe I’ve slighted excellence out of fear that it too often produces elitism.

Too Excellent?

It gained momentum during the Pennsylvania primary when Obama passed on beer shots and rolled a few gutter balls. Hillary’s peeps went on the attack saying he’s not a regular guy, he’s an elitist, out of touch with beer drinking bowlers who work factory jobs and hunt on the weekends.

The criticisms multiplied after Hockey Mom burst onto the national stage. Obama was too professorial, too intellectual, too eloquent, too damn skinny. He was a media darling, because like him, the media are arrogant out-of-touch east-coast intellectuals. On the other hand, Palin was celebrated for not being professorial, not being intellectual, not being particularly eloquent. She was regular folk. She hunted moose.

Obama was a man of ideas, she was a woman of action. Like ordinary folk, she hopped from anonymous college to anonymous college before graduating and reading the sports news for a living. In contrast, Obama attended the Punahou school, then Occidental, then Columbia, then the bastion of elitism, Harvard, where he became the first African-American to edit the Harvard Law Review.

Even though we tell ourselves that education is important, people are suspicious of those that attend elite institutions. Obama went from editing the Harvard Law Review to a community organizing gig in Chicago which cynics charge was simply a calculated plan to jumpstart his political career. There’s another strike against him, too ambitious.

I understand cynicism, but maybe there was something about growing up poor that combined with classroom and extracurricular experiences at Punaho, Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard that resulted in a genuine social conscience.

For awhile there, at the end of the Republican Convention, when McCain-Palin pulled even, I thought our national motto had become style over substance. Better not to be too poised. Better not to be too intelligent. Better not to be too fit. Better not to be too ambitious.

All of a sudden conservative Republicans who always advocate for excellence over equity were back-pedaling en masse.

Obama illustrated there was a tipping point, one can be too excellent. I can’t help but wonder if latent racism explains why many on the right felt compelled to portray Obama’s excellence as elitism.

Even last Wednesday night, McCain repeatedly referenced how eloquent Obama was, by which he meant, he’s just too smooth, he can’t be trusted. 

So Obama’s probable victory will restore my faith that what I’ve attempted to model and teach my children—pursue excellence in school, learn to communicate well, take care of your body, be ambitious about serving others—still resonate despite the best efforts of the Palin fanbase to retreat on excellence and dumb down the election.