You are a unique being. There is no one in the world that is exactly like you, who has the exact skill-set or way of going about things as you do. You have a certain unique pace at which you learn the best, and you have specific ways that you learn the best, as Howard Gardner described in his book about the multiple intelligences, through which we learned that not all children learn best through books, that some actually need to put their hands on things to best learn or to move to be able to absorb information in the most optimal way.
As a unique being, you also have a unique potential, through which you can contribute something original to the world. These potentials can manifest in as many ways as there are human beings, from people inventing useful gadgets to those whose passion it is to work with and care for the elderly.
If this seems too far fetched for you or a little too esoteric, simply have a look at how each, seemingly generic grain of sand on a beach filled with billions of sand grains, is entirely unique when you see it up close in a microscope (it is actually very beautiful), or how each part of the human body has its own specialized function that it contributes to the whole organism with. Being unique is nothing special; it is in fact very natural.
When we live our unique potential, we give the best of ourselves to the world, because what we do becomes an expression of the best version of ourselves. The doctor who is truly passionate about being a doctor, does not compromise his position by taking shortcuts that compromises the patient, because he honors his work and himself as a doctor. The baker who is passionate about baking, will keep learning and perfecting how to make the best bread possible, and does it without effort, because it comes natural to him or her.
Despite knowing that no two people learn in the same way, we have created a school system where we expect all children to learn the exact same material in the exact same way, at the exact same time, in the exact same pace. In fact, all across the world, lesson plans are being standardized to an extreme degree, where school developers for example come to the conclusion that all second graders must learn the exact same mathematical material (like multiplication) or be taught about the exact same cultural or historical references (like the stone age) during the course of a term.
As most parents, teachers and students are aware, the amount of material you have to go through on your journey from kindergarten through high school is massive, and most of it is rushed through in the span of weeks or months, with little to no time to familiarize oneself with the subjects, to dive deeper into something that interests you, or to slow the process down if you struggle to keep up with the pace that is predetermined by standardized lesson plans.
Working as a teacher, I have spoken to many students who experience not only frustration over the pace set in school, but who also experience so much anxiety and stress, that panic attacks have become a normal part of school life. The students internalize their struggles when they can’t keep up, believing that there is something wrong with them, that they aren’t smart enough or disciplined enough to do what is expected of them.
I remember when a seventh grade student, a girl with aspirations towards becoming a movie director, who was busy writing a novel in the evenings after school, looked at me with panic in her eyes when she once again had to take another test, and to her, this was all school had become: taking tests and proving yourself to the teachers.
I remember asking her what they were learning about in the history lessons (the subject in which they were being tested that day), and she said something like “The Mesopotamian kingdom”, and I said “wow, that sounds interesting!” to which she replied: “no, not really.” And when I asked her why that was, she said: “I don’t really have time to learn anything about it, because the teacher is rushing us through everything, so it is difficult to keep up.”
This example perfectly illustrates how absurd our school systems have become, that proving that you have learned something is more important than actually learning. This girl was not stupid or lazy. She was ambitious and disciplined with her school work, self-driven even, but she had completely lost all confidence towards learning inside the school system, she didn’t even see it as a place of learning, but as a place of stress and panic and achievement. To her, real learning was something that happened at night when she was alone in front of her computer, learning how to use editing software, how to use camera angles, how to write storyboards and compelling characters, an education that she had created and was mastering completely on her own. Luckily for her, she had parents that supported her in her endeavors, but for many of us, our potential gets squashed and neglected under the burden that is our schooling.
Now – let’s imagine for a moment that education in this world, was set up in a completely different way:
Let’s imagine that education was organized and conducted in such a way where the focus of the educators (or let’s rather call them educational facilitators) was on each individual child’s unique potential. Let’s imagine that there were resources and structures in place that allowed for the adults in a child’s life to walk with the child, in the natural pace of that individual child, to learn and grow and develop and discover their potential.
In a world where education is centered around each individual’s unique potential, the girl I mentioned in the example before, could be supported to go to film school already at the age of thirteen, or she could at least be given a mentor or trainee ship with a film director or screen writer, to try her hand at it and see if it indeed is something she wants to dedicate herself to, not as a permanent life decision, but as that which is her passion at this moment in time, and that may turn out to be where her potential is best expressed.
It is not so that we have to be adults before we can discover or start developing our potential in life. This is yet another misconception about human nature that is fostered through the very school system that systematically squashes, not only our potential, but also our passion for learning in general.
There are plenty of children who, already when they are young, know exactly what they are passionate about and of course there are also plenty who have no idea what they are or could be passionate about, but that is no different for adults. Some of us knows exactly what we want and others have no clue whatsoever. And one of the reasons why we don’t know what we are passionate about, or what to make our purpose in life, is that we haven’t been allowed to try a lot of things in life. Mostly, we have spent the first twenty years of our lives learning how to sit still on a chair while we passively ingest knowledge that we have no idea what to do with outside the gates of school.
In a world where education is based on each individual discovering their own pace of learning, and learning how to initiate self-directed learning in the best way possible, each person is able to focus on developing their unique passion and purpose in life. Someone may have no use for math until they decide to become an architect because they realize how passionate they are about buildings and to them, math becomes a valuable tool that can support them in developing their passion, it has a practical and real value and perhaps for them, learning math at the age of sixteen or twenty is perfect timing because their brain simply wasn’t mature until that point.
There is a wonderful story about this in one of Sudbury Valley’s videos about life at their school, where a teacher explained (and I am paraphrasing here because I do not remember the exact details of the story) about a group of students who had decided to learn advanced math and who, because they were motivated from a point of self-directed will to learn, learned an entire lesson plan that would have otherwise taken students a year to learn, in three months.
If we could learn at our own pace, in the ways that work best for us on an individual level, I am sure that many people would have completely entire education and training programs by the age of eighteen and we would see potential unfold like never before, because we, already from the get-go support each child to explore the fullness of their capabilities.
Imagine for instance, who you would have been, if the adults around you had supported you to discover your potential, from an early age. Would you still be doing what you are doing now? Most likely not, because most of us end up either in totally random positions or in some predetermined life path of doing what was expected of us, without ever questioning whether this is actually where our skills and efforts comes best to use. Because of this, I have no doubt that our emergency rooms are filled with doctors who would have rather been bakers or guitarists, or that our taxicabs are filled with drivers who could have cured cancer or who would have contributed so much more to the world as lawmakers than they do as cabdrivers, had they only been given the opportunity to explore their full potential from childhood.
The bad news is that we are doing the exact same to our kids that has been done to us, and it is therefore imperative that we, as adults, reconnect with our own passion, purpose and potential so that we may stand as examples for the generations to come, and that we find ways to hack, transform and change our education systems, both in the classrooms and in the very political structures, to become systems of support and facilitation of our children’s unique potential.
The good news is that it is not to late for us as adults. We never lose that ‘fire’ inside our natural learning ability, our unique potential and ourselves. It may be but a whisper by the time we turn twenty-five and we may have forgotten that it ever existed once we hit forty, but it is there, waiting for us to embrace it, to stir the embers of the fire that once was, so that our hearts may once again (or perhaps for the first time) burn with a passion for life, for contributing with creating something meaningful and worthwhile to this planet, and to our own lives.