A few years ago, some well-meaning adult asked my son what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was five.
He said he wanted to be a wineglass.
Of course the intended question was, “What do you want to DO when you grow up?” But Grey isn’t one for subtleties.
Most of my kids are too little to have any idea what they might want to do. After all, they’re still mastering putting their clothes on with the tag in the back. They don’t know that ice cream comes in flavors other than chocolate and vanilla, let alone that there are exactly one bazillion different careers they could choose. They’re gonna have to try a lot of stuff before they find their thing.
And then what?
Well, if you grew up like me in the nineties, you’d find that thing and then you would do a whole lot of other things too, because WELL-ROUNDED.
Raise your hand if you spent your high school years striving to be some version of well-rounded.
Perhaps you joined the debate team, the Civilian Club, ran for student council, played basketball, auditioned for plays, worked on the school paper, held down a part time job, took music lessons.
There’s a scene from The Gilmore Girls that pretty much sums up my high school experience. I’ve transcribed it here for your reminiscing pleasure:
PARIS: When you apply to an Ivy League school, you need more than good grades and test scores to get you in. Every person who applies to Harvard has a perfect GPA and great test scores. It’s the extras that put you over the top. The clubs, charities, volunteering. You know.
I started volunteering in fourth grade. I handed out cookies at the local children’s hospital. By ten, I was leading my first study group. The youngest person in the group was twelve. I’ve been a camp counselor. I organized a senior literacy program, I worked a suicide hotline, I manned a runaway center. I’ve adopted dolphins, taught sign language, trained seeing eye dogs.
RORY: But when did you have time to have a life?
PARIS: I’ll have a life after I graduate from Harvard.
In other words, DO ALL THE THINGS. That’s what it takes, right?
Man, I hope not. Otherwise my kids are screwed.
See, I DID all the things (okay, Paris, maybe not ALL the things). And I was all the kinds of tired. And since I was spread in a million different directions (often among things I didn’t even like), it took me a lot longer than it needed to to find my thing. Like three colleges worth of longer.
So, now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted an alternate strategy. It goes like this:
Find the thing you love and do it a whole, whole lot.
Clunky, yes, but it works.
I tell my kids that it may take some time to find that thing. You may have to try gymnastics, and karate, and lacrosse, and pottery making, and programming, and ukulele, and acting, and gator wrangling, and who knows what else, but eventually you’ll find it, and when you do: pick that lane.
Screw well-rounded. Be brilliantly lopsided. Be obsessed.
It turns out that colleges these days aren’t looking for well-rounded students anyway. PHEW. (Don’t believe me? Look here, and here.) But that’s not the point. The point is that if, as Malcolm Gladwell says, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, it takes 10,000 hours to get great at something, then you’d better go ahead and get started, and you’d better be in love with it enough to keep going.
My daughter Zoë thinks at thirteen that she has found her IT.
It is, big surprise… musical theatre.
I’m tempted to make a joke here. Something like, “God help us, another artist,” or “She’s young yet, perhaps she’ll develop an interest in investment banking.” But that’s crap.
The truth is that I see her light up when she discovers a new play, masters a new song, teaches herself dance routines by watching Youtube, or lands a part bigger than her last.
If this means that I, along with the rest of the family, am subjected to hour after hour of Hamilton, or The Book of Mormon; if it means that we will hear Every.Single.Detail. about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s life and career, or have to plug in the cable box to watch The Tonys – well, so be it. Because my job is not to give my child “realistic expectations” or caution against being “too invested.” My job is to help her go ALL IN. To help her be brave. To encourage her passion, not roll my eyes at it.
This isn’t always easy. Like when she uses singing as a weapon against her brother. (Yes, it can be done.) Not easy. Or when a play requires two hours of driving a day. Not easy. Or when I want to offer some advice or some criticism but know that my input is not needed nearly as much as my support. Not easy.
But sometimes it’s the very easiest thing.
Like when I get to see this:
She may change her mind. She may become obsessed with French literature or website design. That’s ok. I’ll do my best to help her go all in with that too. Because the truth is, no matter how unlikely success is, no one ever got anywhere by being a little bit invested.
Well rounded is for tires.