After six months at home, I recently made the decision to return to the workforce. It was a very tough decision, and has been a ridiculously hard transition. There's a big part of me that simply misses being home every day, the tug and pull of a family living in freedom and bouncing around from activity to activity. But there's another part that is sad, angry and ashamed that I did not do more to ensure that I could have stayed home for longer - or maybe forever. I should have written more, I should have explored more options, I should have had a better plan, I should have networked. It's water under the bridge, but it still hurts.
The other night, I had a dream that represents how I feel about all of this. I was driving along a road that followed a small river through a beautiful, green valley, with farmland on either side. After following the road for a while, I lost track of what I was doing and ended up driving in a straight line through a field. I was going faster and faster, and was becoming afraid because I was straying so far from the road and I was afraid I would get hurt. Just as I was about to wonder if I would ever get back onto the road, I saw a stand of tress up ahead that looked like they might have a path leading through the stand back onto the road. I started to relax, and eventually reached the path. As I slowly made my way through the trees, I saw a car seat under a tree. I got out to take a closer look, and found a baby - maybe six months old - in the seat, uncovered, whimpering and shivering, and almost dead. I immediately picked the baby up and held it close, covering it with my coat and rubbing it gently to try to get his heart and blood warmed up. Eventually, other people came to help - the farmer, a doctor, some other drivers - but I simply refused to give the baby up. I was convinced that I was doing the right thing and that the comfort of my arms and unconditional love I was able to provide would heal the baby quickly and thoroughly. In a few more minutes, the baby was doing better, the whimpers turned to coos, and the tears turned to small sniffles. And then I woke up, knowing that the baby turned out to be okay in the end.
All day long I could not get the image out of my head, and my mind was racing through a thousand possible metaphors. Given the "return to work" situation, I thought that maybe the dream was a giant metaphor, where I go off the road but then get nervous and return, leaving my children crying. Right now, that seems possible - perhaps even likely.
Now, I've been accused of many things in my life, but no one has ever called me a poker face. I usually wear my stress on my sleeve, and I guess this is no exception. Today, a friend who senses that I'm in pain wrote me a quick note that said "listen to this today", with a link embedded. I clicked on the link an hour or so ago, and it turned out to be a link to a presentation I gave a couple of years ago. In September 2009, Flo Gascon gave me the opportunity to speak at the inaugural Good Vibrations Unschooling Conference in San Diego. After trying out a few topics, I decided to talk about passions - what they are, why they're important, and how critical a role they play in the future of our children. I loved writing it and loved delivering it, because it's a topic that I have a lot of passion for.
As I listened to it today, I felt greatly rejuvenated with a renewed vigor to finding a way to make things work out. The presentation itself is on Sandra Dodd's site; a written version is below.
Thanks, friend - I needed that.
Back about 13 months ago, Flo asked me to speak at the Good Vibrations Unschooling Conference, and I have to say I was completely overwhelmed. My primary thought was “why me, what makes me deserving of this honor?” And all of that sounded very nice, and humble, but for me humility often leads to the next logical emotion - total, complete, and abject fear. And when the fear caught on for real, my question was “What the heck will I talk about?” I assumed that Flo wanted me to talk about what I often write about – finding the balance between being an unschooling Dad and having a job in corporate America. When I approached her about it, she simply said – “Talk about whatever you want. Whatever you are passionate about.”
“Whatever I’m Passionate About”? Really?? Wow. Talk about a blank slate. I mean, I’m a guy with ADD who has only very rarely forced my head down out of the clouds and lived a “grounded” life in what some people call the “real world.” The very thought of picking a topic that I was passionate about was pretty daunting, to be honest. At various points of my life I have been passionate about so very many things – water conservation and dams, hockey, acting, unschooling, music, golf, movies, education – they have all enjoyed their time at the forefront of my thoughts over the years. I know many of these topics deeply, some of them passably, a few well enough to be exceptional at them at times. But I had to pick one.
I decided to talk about unschooling as a working Dad. I put down some thoughts; I blogged; I worked some ideas with some friends and on some of the Yahoo groups; I sat for hours in front of computer waiting for the structure and the words to come so that I could wow everyone with my ability to inspire and motivate. I outlined things, I read other blogs . . . .then I read some of my own old ones . . .and then . . . when I REALLY needed to narrow it down . . . I stopped.
Why? It was pretty simple, really. I didn’t have any passion for it.
How could I tell? Because of my approach, and because of my heart. I started with a defined end state. I knew how I needed to start and end. I knew how long I had. I was doing it for a specific purpose. I was THINKING it, instead of FEELING it. And it just never felt right.
Now here is where things get interesting. I made a commitment to Flo that I would come and speak. I suppose I could have toughed it out and written something that would have gotten the job done. But I would not have been passionate about it, and 450 people who flew to San Diego to have a good time would have been bored to tears right off the bat, because they would have seen a speaker who was faking it, and that just didn’t seem right. So I course corrected, and asked Flo if I could change the subject to something I AM passionate about - - - passions. Flo, being the amazing woman she is, said “Of course, silly.” And so here we are.
So I sat down to put this together. With much trepidation and uncertainty, I sat down and started writing, straight from the heart and with great freedom and gusto. Picture a dog in a park on a nice breezy day, running after a ball. Tongue out, tail wagging, happy in the pursuit and the opportunity to connect, running free, wherever the pursuit of the ball leads. That was me, just without the tongue and the tail, at least most of the time. I pursued it just like passion is supposed to be pursued.
So I’m going to speak today about passions. Why passions? It’s pretty simple, really – for me, unschooling is a bit like a tree. It starts with a seed of consciously choosing a better life for you and your family, and grows into something absolutely beautiful and unique, sometimes unwieldy, rarely predictable. And like all trees, it needs roots. I think that passions are the very root of unschooling. You know, there are many “definitions” for unschooling, but personally I think definitions are a bit limiting and rule-bound. So I try to think of unschooling in terms of principles. The simplest, most concise statement of unschooling principles is one I am lifting straight from Joyce Fetterroll: humans are born learners. Children will learn best when given the freedom to learn what, when and how they want.
I see two key parts to that statement. The first is that we are all born as sponges, capable of taking in a wide variety and depth of information. This is easier to do when you are younger, I think, because when you are young you haven’t been as restricted by the rules and guidelines and cultural norms that can create our own “internal editors” that tell us right from wrong, good from bad. As we grow older, some societal norms gradually beat that natural-born curiosity out of us – and that therefore, as unschoolers, our job is more to remove barriers to learning and boundaryless intellectual curiosity for ourselves and our children. The second point is that children will learn best when they have the freedom to learn what, when, and how they want. Think about that.
WHAT THEY WANT. Anything . . . anything at all . . . . Ninjas . . . . Recycling . . . . Hairstyling . . . .the Crimean War . . . . animal poop . . . anything at all. The possibilities, of course, are absolutely limitless. It’s like taking a funnel and looking through the skinny end. You start with a relatively small and immature lens of the world, that when you look through it provides you with a view that you would’ve never thought possible. How exciting! When they have the freedom to learn what they want, then, the question for me becomes this: How do they choose what to learn about? I mean, they cannot learn about everything in the world simultaneously – that’s a trifle overwhelming. No, they learn about things by reading, watching, touching, talking, listening, and playing with things that INTEREST them, that hold some ALLURE or ATTRACTION to them . . . . in short, they learn about things that they are, oftentimes, passionate about.
To me, the identification and pursuit of passions is the absolute crux of unschooling. But I’ll tell you - Allowing your children to learn in freedom and pursue the exploration of their passions requires a great amount of faith. I mean, most of us were raised with the expectation that we are supposed to all know certain things, and apply them in certain ways. Not quite the old world thoughts about “Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer”, but not too far off of that path, either. Allowing children the freedom of learning WHAT THEY WANT requires faith, with little real hope that our children will turn out to share our values, our goals, our expectations of success. But that’s okay, that’s MORE THAN okay. I don't want my kids to share my values necessarily - I want them to define their own values, and learn to question, and be anything but the sheep that so many of us become because we've not been entrusted with the fundamental responsibility to think for ourselves.
But we cannot simply put the words “pursue your passions” in a cookie jar up on the shelf and expect our kids to take a bite - “Hey, pursue your passions, they’re right up there.” We need to put those words into action ourselves, so that our children can see that passions, and learning, and joyful living are not pursuits for only children. The passion that we all model for our children needs to be unconditional - a true reflection of ourselves and our values, our likes, and our beliefs. THAT's what we're modeling - not the values themselves, but the joy of having and expressing them.
Doing this is hard, no doubt – there’s a certain level of resistance in our families, our friends, those who question what we do. Many observers see us allowing our children to eat what they want, watch what they want, say what they want, etc, and make the natural assumption that we are indulging our children. They believe that these indulgences are short-sighted; that we are choosing the easy path of least resistance by being overly permissive now, but setting our children up for long-term difficulties as they try to adapt to the "real world." I understand that. But I do not agree with it. I think that when you help your children focus on passions, you're taking a long-term view of your child's life and setting them up for success beyond your wildest dreams. How? By setting up an environment in which we model the pursuit of our own passions without expectations or conditions; by allowing and encouraging our children's passions and exploration without judgment; by trusting that our children will do what's right for them even if it's not what we would choose for them or for ourselves. Doing this authentically and wholeheartedly helps our children understand that their views have value, that their passions have value, that their thoughts have value - that they have value. And that builds a confidence that enables them to try new things and explore their passions as well as their fears. But most critically, it enables them to see the world through their own eyes and to define success on their own terms.
There it is. Passions are important, maybe critical, to unschooling and parenting.
So over the years, I have had a lot of experience living a life in pursuit of my passions, as a man, a father, and an unschooler. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
LESSON #1. Passions need permission. In 2003, I dropped out of the corporate world, disgusted with the fact that so many people I dealt with every day were miserable. I used to call them Drama Tornados, because they would just twirl around in their own drama until they destroyed everything in their paths. And when they were at their height of destruction, they ended up on my desk. Ugh. So I decided to try to get to people earlier in their lives, and went to teach at an inner-city charter school for at risk teens. It was amazing. We had students get murdered and go to jail for murder. Kids who were abused, mentally and physically. We had kids who were homeless, on drugs, abandoned – you name it. When they first came to us to see if we could help, we sat them through an orientation in which we tried to get them to dream and have hope. To try to reach them during this critical time, I told them a story about a kid who graduated from high school with a 1.7 GPA, was suspended five times, and had held 75 different jobs in the few years after high school. Once they all agreed that this guy was a real loser and would never accomplish anything in their lives, I told them the truth – that guy was me, but I had made a decision to leave that in the past and focus on a dream that could propel me forward. The whole focus of their first few weeks was to help them identify a dream, a small dream, but something that seemed just beyond their capabilities. And then we would each work with our 50 students each week to help them define that dream and work toward it, in small steps, with encouragement. Did all of the kids achieve their dreams? Of course not. But the point was to let them know that it was okay to dream, that there were benefits to it, and that hard work combined with hope is a powerful combination. In essence, we gave them permission to dream, which in turn gave them the permission to view their lives for its possibilities – which lead to an identification and exploration of passion. Sometimes all anyone needs is a little encouragement, a little belief and trust, to get started on an amazing journey.
LESSON # 2. Passions don’t always bloom exactly where you plant them. I tend to think of passions as having a life cycle. You’re sitting at your desk one day, or playing with your kids at the beach, and you receive some kind of input from something – could be a scene in a movie, or something you read about, or a question you are asked, or a breeze blowing through your hair. And from that small measure of input, a thought comes to your mind. It may be a fleeting thought, hard to really pinpoint. That’s the seed. You start to work with the seed, adding clean soil, water, and fertilizer – you play with it, how it feels, how it reacts to your care. Then it sprouts forth, slowly at first –now you can see it, touch it, and share it with others. Eventually of course it grows taller and blossoms, providing you with beauty, or shelter, or sustenance. Sometimes, the end result looks exactly like the seed you planted. And sometimes, the end result looks very different. It all depends. Let me give you an example. Some of you may know that I served in the Army for 7 ½ years. It was pretty tough duty – I spent 18 months in Monterey, four years in Hawaii, and then another 2 years on Monterey. I know, I know . . . .a rifle on my right shoulder, my golf bag on my left. For the most part, I enjoyed being in the Army. The main reason for this is because I enjoyed being out front, leading troops, training them on new skills, being engaged in their lives, coaching, counseling, teaching, inspiring. I’ve always enjoyed doing those things, I suppose, from the time I was selected as a peer counselor in my Freshman year of high school, to my stint as a youth hockey coach, to my time as an actor and stage manager – there was something about being out in front that I really enjoyed. When I got out of the Army shortly after Kai was born, I was filled with a ton of confidence but not much direction. We were living in Monterey at the time, and I remember having a job interview with a management consulting firm here in San Diego. I went through a few interviews, interviews went great, but something didn’t just feel right. After talking it over with Ginger, and idea began to crystallize – my passion for teaching, for helping people see things more clearly, for helping them lead happier lives. At the time, it was just a seed, but when it sprouted, I knew that the sprout would eventually turn into a tree, and that I would be a teacher.
LESSON #3: Passions can be destinations, but are more frequently journeys. It’s an interesting point about passions that they are viewed very, VERY differently by children than they are by adults. A child is more apt to pursue a passion because it is fun, without a specific attachment to be successful at it. They don’t begin the pursuit of a passion with an understanding of its highs and lows, or what it could be, or certainly what it should be. But as adults, we often tend to start a passion with an expectation about what it will look like. For example, Kade periodically talks about building a time machine. His interest is in designing it, measuring, and cutting, and hammering – and sharing it with me. Generally, an adult wouldn’t even begin building a time machine because you “can’t” – and if they wanted to hammer, measure, and cut, it would be in pursuit of a specific end goal, like a shelf or a chair. In my pursuit of my “career” as a teacher, it clearly moved from the “destination” to the “journey.” I read more, I learned more, and I experienced more about what being a teacher would be like. I realized that it wasn’t the right time for me, and with the idea of teaching still gnawing at me a bit, I dropped the idea and went to work in Human Resources.
LESSON #4. Passions aren’t necessarily permanent. Oh, I do so love this one, because it makes me have to consciously check myself quite frequently. Stop me if this seems familiar (well actually don’t stop me, I hate being interrupted – just chuckle and nod.) You signed your daughter up for piano lessons, and she instantly took to them. She has learned quickly, and plays and practices so often that you fear she may be becoming obsessed. But she does seem to love it, and says that she loves it, and it’s what she wants to do forever. Her teacher suggests that she take more private lessons and get a better piano, and your daughter loves the idea. So many months and thousands of dollars later, she suddenly loses interest. She doesn’t want to play; she doesn’t want to go to lessons; and she doesn’t want to practice. In fact, she now watches Pokemon videos most of the day. And chances are, you ARE PISSED. You spent time, and money, and effort, and she said she wanted to do it, and why can’t she keep her commitment, dammit!!! Well, it’s not that she cannot keep her commitment – she would just rather do something else. And yet you may be angry, and disappointed . . . but please take pause. Something else caught her eye, a new pursuit, and new interest, a new PASSION. She has been encouraged to explore her passions, and she is doing just that. It may not be what we would prefer or choose, but it’s not OUR choice – it’s hers. Everything in life comes and goes – interests, passions, beliefs, friends, ideals, goals, dreams – and they will go when they go, regardless of the time or money we have spent acquiring them in the first place. My own passion for hockey and passion for dam building have come and gone for the most part, to the point where I can drop them for months and then return with gusto when I am ready – or not return at all, depending on my passion. Passions like piano, or golf, or other things that require practice to be good at, will also come and go. But part of the deal is that you cannot force someone to continue a passion, because to do so moves a passion into a resented obligation, thereby removing much of the joy and freedom of learning that accompanies it. Trust that just because they drop a passion now doesn’t mean that they will fail to develop skills like perseverance in the future. As a parent in these situations, I think you have a choice – you can force them to continue and thereby risk teaching them what passions ARE NOT, or you can take these opportunities to help your child through a decision making process that focuses on joy and desire. Remember the second part of the unschooling philosophy I mentioned earlier – providing children with the freedom to learn what, when, and how they want. For me, my passion to teach has never waned . . .it has morphed significantly in response to my own desires, dreams, and circumstances, and it has sometimes taken a back seat . . . but it has never disappeared. But what if it had disappeared? Would that mean that my life is over, meaningless, wasted? Of course not . . . it simply means that I have either chosen to focus on a different passion, or am maybe taking a little break. I try to look at changing passions, either at home, or at work, as opportunities to connect with my children or co-workers in different ways, as expansive rather than restrictive.
LESSON #5. Passions bring you joy. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not a passion – a labor of love, perhaps, but not a passion. My own battle with the subject of this presentation is a good example of how this worked for me. It became clear that I did not have enough passion to write about Working Dads, and I knew this because it wasn’t fun! Every day, we see examples of people who are engaged in an activity, ostensibly of their own choosing, and not having fun. Think of the child forced to stay with piano or soccer against their will, or a grumpy worker at the toll booth or coffee shop. You cannot hide unhappiness for long, not can you hide it without an extraordinary price to your own happiness. I think of happiness as like a really, REALLY stuffed bag of luggage – one where you spent far more time trying to squeeze your stuff in and close it than you did selecting the stuff to go in there. When you have a bag that full, a life that full of happiness, it is going to explode eventually – as soon as you put just the slightest pressure of passions on it. The happiness will come out in unexpected ways, at unexpected times, and in unexpected combinations. We see examples of this every day. I mentioned earlier that I have a passion for hockey, but let me tell you – my passion for hockey trivia and statistics borders on obsession sometimes. Every year, the National Hockey League holds a draft of players from high school, college and junior leagues. Thousands of players each year are evaluated, and hundreds are drafted. In 1993, the Ottawa Senators had the first overall pick in the draft and selected the player that everyone just knew would be a future all star and hall of famer, hands down the best player in the draft – Alexandre Daigle. Amazing skills – world-class skater, hard shot, slick passer, killer moves – he was the full and complete package. And from the moment he set foot on the ice for his first pro training camp, he was - - mediocre. He had a decent first season, and passable second season . . .and then bounced around from team to team for years, the poster child of unfulfilled potential. Critics claimed he had all of the tools, but simply did not work hard enough. Management was angry, fans felt betrayed, and over the years the expectations of him became lower and lower. He was never a horrible player – just a decent one – but never up to anyone else’s expectations. But Alexandre Daigle went on record saying several times that his goal was to be selected first overall in the entry draft, not to be the best player in the league. And having achieved that, he was ready to pursue new passions and interests, and hockey just became a job. And he sounded HAPPY when he said it, and he said it many, many times. What I learned from Alexandre Daigle is that there is a huge difference between CAN DO, or potential, and WANT TO or passion, and that, in the end, regardless of what CAN DO says, WANT TO wins. I have wrestled with this professionally for a long time, because generally speaking in the work world, people who are capable but dispassionate are enigmas – people often talk of me as someone with vast unfulfilled potential. But I have found something very different – sure, they don’t know what to do with me, but that leads them to want to do EVERYTHING with me, so I am provided with amazingly rich experiences and opportunities to learn and grow. I am an HR guy, but I my passions and interests have lead me to gain experience in manufacturing, supply chain, engineering, training, coaching, leading, community relations, project management, writing press releases, etc. So I am not viewed as an enigma – I am viewed as a really valuable platoon player, someone who can get dropped into almost any situation. And this, of course, feeds my own needs for variety. And because it makes me happy at work, it makes me happy at home. Amazing, really.
LESSON #6. Passions don’t have to be gigantic or earth-shattering. The feeling I get when I am writing or speaking or training or facilitating is but one of my passions, and I am lucky enough to get paid for it most of the time. But this passion doesn’t change the world, and it doesn’t have to. I don’t have to drop the other aspects of my life to pursue it. I don’t have to pursue it to the exclusion of other passions. I don’t have to do it all day, every day. And no one else has to notice (for the most part – it is kind of lonely to speak or train to an empty room. I’ve done it – it sucks.) Some people have passions that have indeed changed the world: think Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama, or one of thousands of others. And that is absolutely wonderful. But the vast majority of us have passions that we pursue in relative balance and anonymity, whether it’s building a time machine, or working with legos, or making music, or learning karate, or playing solitaire. It is not the passion itself and its impact on the world that is gigantic; it is the freedom to pursue it that counts.
LAST LESSON. Passions are not vocations, although they can be. I mentioned earlier that I started with an idea, honed by years of passion, that I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to do this because of my interest in helping people see things more clearly and helping them lead happier lives. I learned about what it took to became and be a teacher in public schools, and didn’t want to do it. I decided to go to grad school to get a PhD so I could teach in college, but when I learned more about what THAT was like, I didn’t want to do that either. I taught at a charter school for a while, but didn’t stay with it for too long. Them I figured out that I didn’t need to teach, per se, but that I just needed to help people learn and grow while still fulfilling my need to be “on stage” once in a while. So I went into HR, but found that I wasn’t on stage as much as liked. So then I went into training, and found I was on stage too much. And as I started to learn and grow professionally, and make more money, I kept searching for the job and the balance that would help me get the joys of teaching, and coaching, and counseling, and performing, without any of the crap that goes along with it – all while making a good living. And THEN, I began to realize that maybe I could do all of those things and pursue my passions outside of the workplace in stead of inside. So I began to blog, and host circle chats at conference, and join the ultimate narcissist website – facebook – so my passions would have an outlet, just like the clothes bursting out of that overstuffed bag. Goodness only knows what it will all look like when it’s done.
And then, after a journey of some 25 years, very recently, something hit me. Why can’t I explore and exercise my passions at home AND at work? Why can’t I have it all? Why shouldn’t we start with assumption that we CAN have it all? Why not see the world for the possibilities it provides us? Why shouldn’t we ALL be free to learn WHAT we want, WHEN we want, HOW we want? And, finally, why shouldn’t we as parents model that in our own behavior as well as do all we can to help our children pursue it as well?
I am not all the way there by any means . . . but I am on my way. I know that passions have value, that they are important to me, and to Ginger, and to our children. I know that together, we are taking a journey in pursuit of a passionate life. But again, we cannot simply put the words “pursue your passions” in a cookie jar up on the shelf and expect our kids to take a bite. We need to put those words into action ourselves, so that our children can see that passions, and learning, and joyful living are not pursuits for only children. The passion that we all model for our children needs to be unconditional - a true reflection of ourselves and our values, our likes, and our beliefs. THAT's what we're modeling - not the values themselves, but the joy of having and expressing them. I think that when you help your children focus on passions, you're taking a long-term view of your child's life and setting them up for success beyond your wildest dreams. How? By setting up an environment in which we model the pursuit of our own passions without expectations or conditions; by allowing and encouraging our children's passions and exploration without judgment; by trusting that our children will do what's right for them even if it's not what we would choose for them or for ourselves. Doing this authentically and wholeheartedly helps our children understand that their views have value, that their passions have value, that their thoughts have value - that they have value. And that builds a confidence that enables them to try new things and explore their passions as well as their fears. But most critically, it enables them to see the world through their own eyes and to define success on their own terms.
Let me end with a simple “promise” that I have made to my kids that really puts all of this discussion about passion into perspective for me:
“I want you to be happy. I want you to see the world for all it can be. I want you to find the things you love to do and do them as much as you want. I want you to develop your own definition of success, and then pursue it like a dog on a bone. I want you to know that I will support and love you, even if you're down. And I have only one real expectation and hope - that you believe what I just said, and that you call bullshit on me when I deviate."