Thursday, November 03, 2011

Doing what you love, loving what you do

My oldest child is currently in his senior year of high school. During this very strange time, I'm having difficulty remembering what it was like to be in his shoes. Granted, my son and I are quite different, with his aspirations falling squarely in the performing arts, where I ended up pursuing my adolescent fantasies of being a fighter pilot by starting my college career as an aerospace engineering major in a Naval ROTC program. Nevertheless, with application deadlines looming, I'm more than a little perplexed by his apparent lack of resolve to move beyond high school and embrace this next phase of his life.

Given the outcomes of my own aborted first attempt at college life, however, my feelings about how best to approach my son's apparent apathy are conflicted and nebulous at best. Pushing him into a corner and forcing him to make life altering decisions at this juncture could be disastrous. This is one of the most vulnerable times in a young person's life, a time when fear and self-doubt, along with confusion and the expectations of others, can converge to undermine personal goals and self-determination. This is not the breeding ground of well-thought out, intentional decisions or behavior. It can be the catalyst for a series of irreversible decisions that  alter the course of a person's life in profound and sinister ways.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a link to Steve Jobs's well-known commencement speech at Stanford University to my son. I don't know if he watched it, but my hope was that he would take to heart Jobs's message about the importance of finding what you love to do and then doing it well. My son is in the enviable position for a 17-year-old of knowing exactly what he wants to do, and already being quite good at it. Which makes it all the more frustrating on some level that his ambition isn't translating into a concerted effort to find the right school and do everything in his power to make sure that school is within his reach. Then again, another point Jobs makes with something short of subtlety is that a traditional college education is exactly what he didn't need to find his niche and make his mark on the world. So maybe my son intuitively understands what it took Jobs several semesters at Stanford to discover. I know I'm grabbing at straws, but if there's one thing I have come to realize about my son, it's that I can't presume to be either smarter than him or, in some areas, wiser than him.

So how do you guide your child at such a precarious and potentially costly turning point without the whole scenario blowing up in your face? I'm a firm believer that our children need to be allowed to fail, but I also believe that our children can and should learn from our mistakes (or can they?). I guess the best thing I can do at this point is share my own experiences with my son and then let him draw his own conclusions. The key is I have to have a heart-to-heart with him, and soon ... before it's too late.

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