A grandfather explains why the most common piece of advice we give to children is wrong

Richard Muller@Richard-Muller-3
Tuesday 13 September 2016 10:30
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“Follow your passion!”

That is extremely common advice to youngsters, and in my opinion, very poor advice. In its place, I would say: “Explore!”

The problem is that children have been exposed to a tiny segment of the world; they don’t know what’s out there. When I was young, many children in the Bronx wished they could be either schoolteachers or doctors. Why? Because schoolteachers and doctors were the most educated and accomplished people they ever encountered. (In the south Bronx, where I grew up, being a “businessman” meant running the local grocery store.)

The world is huge and full of wonder, and most children have seen only their neighborhood. I never met a scientist, not of any kind, until I took a physics class at Columbia University. I did get to see some real businessmen when I got a summer job as a messenger down in the NYC financial district, but I didn’t get a good sense of what they did.

A good friend of mine encouraged her daughter to follow her passion, and she did: she became a professional bicycle racer. Of course, there is no income in that, and that means that it is extremely difficult for her to send her children to college. I know people who followed their passion into becoming ballet dancers. To earn a good living doing that you have to be in the top 100 in the country; this person now ekes out a living teaching young children to dance. That’s not a bad job, but it is not what she was hoping for when she followed her passion.

I loved racquetball. But it is easy to play racquetball when I am a professional physicist. It would not be easy to play physics if I were a professional racquetballist. I chose well.

I encourage children to get the best education they can. In college, defer picking your major as long as possible. Explore! Take classes in subjects completely out of your field. (In my senior year, I took courses in sociology and Russian literature.) See what is out there. My wife Rosemary majored in maths at university, graduated and became a systems engineer for IBM, and then quit her job to go back to school and become an architect. She loves that work, and has no interest in ever retiring. But how could she, as a child, have known that her joy would come from this (to her) obscure career. She never even met an architect until after she graduated from college.

My daughter Elizabeth majored in maths. When she was filling out the forms for graduation, she discovered that she had inadvertently fulfilled all the requirements for a major in literature; that wasn’t her intent — she had just been exploring. She took a job in Europe working for the OECD, something that was neither maths or literature. Later she became involved in a start-up company in the UK, and finally she returned to the US where we set up the non-profit Berkeley Earth to study environmental problems. Was she following her passion? No — how could such a career have been conceived of by a youngster? She was exploring. She loves her work.

Exploring is an adventure. It is full of uncertainty. It is much more challenging to explore than it is to follow your passion; there is much more uncertainty. If you feel that you must avoid all anxiety, then it is a very uncomfortable way to go. You live with doubt. It is not easy; in fact, it is full of wrong directions, and when you find yourself on a path that is not going where you want, you have to be ready to get off. (As my wife did when she quit IBM to go back to school.) But exploration is the only good way to learn enough about the world that you can discover the passions that you never knew you had.

This article was originally published on Quora

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