“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~John Muir
Ten-year-old Matias is enthusiastic about all things automotive. He calls out model and year of cars passing the street in front of his apartment in an impressive display of mental acuity. He learned every detail of how engines work by quizzing everyone he could who knew anything about cars, then turned to YouTube for more in-depth information. That led to inquiries about types of fuels and manufacturing processes, which led to questions about the history of the assembly line and the formation of unions. Books and documentaries have made him familiar with figures such as Nikolaus Otto and Karl Benz as well as Elon Musk. Matias loves going to auto museums, car shows, and races. Although he says a visit to a demolition derby didn’t upset him, he’s been talking ever since about ways to save cars from junkyards. He’s excited about the potential for energy-efficient vehicles and he really hopes self-driving cars don’t become a thing before he gets to drive.
Notice how this fascination leads him eagerly through all sorts of fields?
Natural learning takes place across a spectrum. History, math, music, science, art, literature, business, philosophy, and athletics don’t neatly divide into “subjects.” They’re interrelated. A child notices one bare sliver of a topic, and intrigued, follows it. That pursuit lights up a totally new subject until a dazzling array of possibilities opens, each refracting new angles. The thrill of exploring is inseparable from a love of learning.
Some children, like Matias, become so absorbed in a single subject that it seems their personalities are inseparable from that passion. Their bemused families can’t help but stoke the fire of that interest. Activities and discussions with the child take on a distinct tone. Indeed, family members are changed by close association with someone who loves the world in such a focused manner.
Most of the time children learn in far more unobtrusive manner. It may seem they go through their days unaffected by the influences that pour in all around them. Yet gradually their comprehension deepens. This is a mysterious process, an ongoing improvisation that weaves together previous experiences with new comprehension and insight. But then, our children are changed by what they’ve come to understand in ways none of us can measure or assess.
Few of us are absorbed by the sort of overwhelming fascination Matias shows for all things automotive. Instead we’re open to many directions, staying with our interests as long as inspiration calls us before moving on. We have what polymath Emilie Wapnick calls “multipotentiality.” As she writes,
The only constant in my life is shape-shifting, exploration and evolution… There’s something that draws me to each of my interests and it’s not “excellence.” I have no interest in committing to one thing forever. Once I no longer feel inspired in a field, I simply move on. Some people call this “quitting,” I call it growth.
You’ll notice, however, that “find your passion” is the recommended approach. The pressure starts in childhood, with well-meaning people doing their very best to get kids on a fast track to success in sports or music or STEM. The push to find, pursue, and excel in a particular field doesn’t stop after graduation. Throughout adulthood we’re told “find your passion” in our careers, our creative lives, even our spiritual development.
I think writer Elizabeth Gilbert shares an apt metaphor in her recent talk. She says some people are like her, driven to focus on one pursuit. She calls such people jackhammers. Other people flit from curiosity to curiosity. This, she says, is the “flight of the natural born hummingbird.” She admits that for years she exhorted people to act like jackhammers in order to reach their goals. Then she had an epiphany — the world needs more than jackhammers. When people allow themselves the freedom to be hummingbirds, she says,
Two things happen. One, they create incredibly rich complex lives for themselves. and they also end up cross-pollinating the world. That’s the service you do. You bring an idea from here and you weave in and take up the next thing, because your entire being brings a different perspective. It ends up aerating the culture.
Chances are, most of us can’t be fully described by terms like jackhammer or a hummingbird. The larger lesson here is the wisdom of freeing ourselves (and our children) to explore what intrigues us. Then we understand on our own terms that full spectrum learning is inseparable from life.
Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning