I often write about developing your interests or igniting the spark. For some of you this may be all you need to start down that rosy path to passion, but for others, all that talk of interest and discovery might just be feeding your frustration.
“I have no interests,” you might be saying.
“My child just wants to lie on the couch and play video games 24/7,” you could be thinking.
I feel your pain. I too, have a more than one child who would love nothing more than to rot his brain in the supine position for the rest of his days. We won’t go there right now, but let me tell you how I discovered my own interests and passions back in the days of yore.
When I was eleven, I loved horses. This is a typical girl thing, right? Every Christmas I placed the word PONY first and foremost on my Christmas list. I begged for riding lessons, I had a collection of Breyer horses complete with barn and tack room. The summer after fifth grade my mother signed me up for summer camp at the Pony Palace Riding Club, which would involve a week of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. riding and horsey-ness.
Two weeks before pony amp, I developed appendicitis. Post-surgery I was forbidden from any rigorous exercise for six weeks. SIX WEEKS. Luckily the Pony Palace Riding Club owner was a shrewd as I was desperate and she agreed that I could perform “light barn chores” instead of the more vigorous riding elements of the camp. I spent five days mucking stalls, bathing and grooming horses, cleaning tack, and measuring out feed. I saddled everyone up at the beginning of the day and put everything away at the end. I learned more about what goes into caring for horses – and what comes out of them – than I ever could have by simply galloping around the ring, and I loved every second of it. I spent most of my middle school years mucking around (literally) at that barn; I earned my riding lessons and hauled more manure than I care to remember, but just being around those animals was enough for me.
Fast forward to my high school years. Was I an equestrienne? No. Did I own a horse? No. Was this going to be my life’s work? No again. So what was the point? Working at that barn taught me all kinds of things. I was responsible for the well being of more than one relatively expensive living creature. The horses, and their owners, depended on me; and though I knew that I was never going to be a champion rider, I did know that I would always want to be around animals. The connections I forged at Pony Palace helped form my interest and passion for animals and the outdoors.
During my summer vacations in high school I worked as both a lifeguard and camp counselor. I started as a junior counselor after ninth grade and by graduation I worked my way up to being the Director of Aquatics. I needed to keep more than 500 campers from drowning each day, and I did not take that responsibility lightly.
That passion for the outdoors led me to try rowing as a sport. I went to a boarding school in New Hampshire that happened to have a large rowing program. When I tried it in the spring of my freshman year, I happened to be pretty good at it and was the only freshman (thanks to an upperclassmen getting suspended) to make the varsity second boat. For the next four years, rowing, even though it only took up a dozen weeks of my year, was my favorite thing about school. We did well as a team, we got some decent recognition, and I ended up at a Nationals after my junior year. That DID help me get noticed by colleges, but my passion for rowing also helped me make lifelong friendships. It taught me how to connect with my adult coaches who also helped me along the way.
Rowing is the ultimate sport in terms of teaching stick-to-itiveness. So it wasn’t so much about my talent as a rower, in fact I am very small for an oarsman, and at 5’5″ I wound up coxing in college. What rowing instilled in me was the knowledge that I could be passionate about something. Just like that summer at Pony Club, I could use my time rowing to remind myself that there are some pretty awesome moments in life, and you just have to keep trying for them.
As a senior at my school, you had the option of completing an Independent Study Project (ISP). I still loved animals so I came up with the crazy notion of doing my ISP at the Los Angeles Zoo as an intern zookeeper. I wrote my proposal and sent it off, never imagining that it would work out. Lo and behold, the folks at the zoo cooked up an amazing program in which I could work on all of the various animal “strings” and also take the volunteer docent course at the same time. It was my dream come true.
Long story longer, there isn’t any set formula for finding or pursuing what interests you. My path certainly was unpredictable and a little non conventional. Did I end up as a veterinarian or Olympic rower? Obviously not, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I followed the things things that interested ME. Not my parents, not my friends, ME. The key to getting noticed is to discover and follow YOUR passions and interests.
If you are a parent: I am sure that you can think back on your journey to adulthood and come up with your own version of the road that led you to where you are now. We all take a series of steps – and missteps – as we shape our lives. What is important for your child (or you, if you are the student) is to discover what INTERESTS them. Let their interests lead the way. While you’re at it, let their talents lead the way as well. While there is much to be said to sticking with a project (or lessons, or whatever) there is NO point in forcing a child to continue in an activity for which they have no real talent or passion. There is no use in continuing with the swim team or flute lessons if every practice session is a battle. Let them move on. I realize that you may have invested a lot of money into that particular activity, but I urge you to cut your losses. If your child doesn’t love it by the end of middle school, let them find what they do love.
My own two daughters started off in elementary school with the violin and the cello. They did the whole Suzuki thing. They learned to read music (sort of). I forced them to practice. We went to recitals. I kept them at it through middle school, by which time one had discovered chorus and the other soccer and track. They loved their new activities. They were GOOD at their new activities. They both hated their respective stringed instruments. Despite protestations from both my husband and my mother in law (who had only recently purchased two rather expensive instruments), I allowed them to move on.
As it turned out, one went on earn a place in the All State Chorus on three different occasions, and today she sings with a local opera company and is a paid section leader in a local church choir. The other competed at the state level in her track event and was recruited by several DIII schools. Let students follow their own path. Allow students to ignite that spark that they all have inside of them.
I promise you it will all work out.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. For Part 2, which includes specific actionable tips about how to start igniting your spark, please click here.