The kid competition starts early, with sleep. For the first six months of my son's life, someone would ask me every day, “How's his sleeping?” As if sleep practices are a window into a baby's genius. (And let me tell you something, if sleep is the SATs for babies, I am living with the village idiot.)

Then there are parents who say, “My son adores his books!” like he is the next Shakespeare. And there are the parents who say, “I bought puzzles for her age group but they were too easy for her!” Two words: Who cares?

I am not hoping for an early reader or a math genius. I am looking for my kid to be able to navigate adult life in a way that makes him happy. And since I do not have a trust fund to bequeath, my son will have to find happiness in a career. As a career columnist, I am pretty certain that there are things way more important than sleeping through the night:

1.Take risks
Many people write to me to say they want to change careers and they are too scared. It doesn't matter how gifted these people are: they are stuck because they can't take risks.

Parents are not natural teachers of risk because a parent is all about creating a stable home and keeping the kid from danger. (We have a joke in my family that if my mom is giving someone advice, it must be to do whatever has less risk.)

But if a kid is scared to take risks the kid will get into ruts. The kid will not see possibilities. Adults who take risks understand that failing is okay. Kids need to get practice failing.

2. Be passionate
Many adults cannot figure out what to do with themselves. They have never learned to look inside themselves. They have never developed their own, internal gauges. If you want your kid to figure out what career to go to when she's twenty-five, help her learn to figure out what she's passionate about when she's much younger.

School does not teach passion. In school, a teacher tells kids what to investigate. Whether the kid is a genius or just an average student, school is not teaching him to follow his own passions. (In fact, you could argue that at the end of eighteen years of school, the kid with straight A's had less time than the average student to figure out her own passions; those perfect students are too busy learning what they are supposed to learn.)

There will come a point for your kid when his world is not made of Scantron tests — but of wide-open, connected fields for the kid's dreams. The kid needs a working, internal compass to move in this world.

3. Work hard to attain goals
Gifted kids don't need to work hard to get A's. Pray that you have a normal kid so that schoolwork can be a lesson on working hard. For kids who can do things easily, teach a kid to work hard at something else.

Remember, though, that hard work is not an end in itself. I know too many people who worked hard in school, went on to Ivy League, and now have no idea what to do with themselves.

Hard work only matters in the context of passion and risk taking. Otherwise, you can only work hard at someone else's dreams. So lets all raise dreamers, adventurers and leaders. And don't bug me when I tell you my son never shuts his eyes, because sleep isn't the only place for dreams.

6 replies
  1. charlotte
    charlotte says:

    ” I know too many people who worked hard in school, went on to Ivy League, and now have no idea what to do with themselves.”

    couldn’t be more true! that’s my situation. i’m only 23 though. : )

    thanks for the article.

  2. Bryahnn
    Bryahnn says:

    Educational studies will tell you that success in reading and math, no matter socio-economic level, is the most reliable predictor in a student’s sucess post-graduation. But, even as a High School English teacher, I agree with your life lessons here, too. But I think that good teachers and well-structured schools can, and do, teach those things, when using best-practice methodologies and a diverse curriculum. I teach how to set and attain goals, formally and informally. I teach how to choose what to research and what classes to take so that kids achieve their goals, learn more about themselves, and learn more about what they are passionate about. And I counsel kids to take some of the biggest risks in their lives, to defy their parents to do what they love. Good schools–and when I say good schools, I don’t mean the ones with the highest ACT scores but actually work to meet students needs and prepare them for career and life–think the same as you.

  3. Sunil
    Sunil says:

    I do agree with the first point (more than 2 and 3), since I also suffered a huge setback in my career due to this less-risk-approach instilled by parents. I wish there were more posts like this.

  4. T
    T says:

    Penelope,

    Brilliant points! I particularly like tip 1. Ingenious! I’m willing to bet in a random sample of 100 people, not more than one of them will realize it.

  5. Anna
    Anna says:

    Ouch. I’m the straight-A kid you mention in #2, and at 31 I’m still wondering what career would be best for me. Being “good at everything,” I have to admit I feel cheated by a school system that didn’t help me determine what kind of work I would find fulfilling.

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