A few weeks ago I chatted with a colleague. One issue that came up was this colleague’s frustration with a student whom the colleague recognized as very talented, someone with great potential in the colleague’s area of study, but also someone who had no interest in applying themselves towards achieving excellence. I understand where the colleague is coming from: when you are someone who works in the field that has always been your passion, it is indeed quite disheartening to see a person who has what it takes to succeed but who simply does not care.
It took me a while on the tenure track to accept that most students didn’t share my ambition. They just want to get a well-paying job, no matter how much potential for this or that they have. The colleague’s student simply isn’t interested in doing research for a living, irrespective of how good he could be at it. Research doesn’t float his boat. I am not sure what else does; perhaps nothing at all. There are, in fact, a great many people who go through lives without developing an overwhelming passion for any activity. This is a hard truth to fathom for the intense, perhaps obsessive overachievers, such as myself and my colleague; I cannot claim to have fully internalized it.
Last semester I taught a great undergraduate class. There were several kids in there who I think would do splendidly in grad school. I spoke with a couple of the best, and neither wanted to do grad school. One is a wonderful, laid-back kid, who reminds me of my eldest offspring; this student appears to be paired up with a very intense young woman and is very happy to just go with the flow and follow her. Another feels very strongly that he has to get a job and start earning money right out of college, and he will do great wherever he lands. Of this cohort, the most intense kid, one with passion and focus, is an AB student; very good indeed, but not the absolute best technically. He really knows what he wants to do and is voracious about learning more. We could lament the fact that the best students won’t become career scientists, but so what? They are smart kids, they can do whatever they want with their lives. Besides, what does “the best” even mean? Potential and talent are very nebulous; they just mean you could do well in a certain broad field, but if you don’t actually apply yourself, talent doesn’t mean very much. However, the student who is very good and very focused can indeed get far, potentially as far as his passion carries him.
In the US, there is a prevalent “singular-focus” mindset. You have only one talent, only one outstanding thing about you, and you have to embrace it, have it define you, and hone the related skill with all your might, if necessary at the expense of everything else. This singular-focus mindset, which is quite foreign to most of Europe, is why there are also so many achievement-related stereotypes. That’s why we have the dumb athlete stereotype — of course you can only be athletically blessed, you could not possibly have other ambitions or talents, because being able to throw a football somehow precludes being able to do math, sing, or paint. Then there is the stereotype of the socially-clueless, athletically-hopeless geek, as if one could not possibly be able to understand calculus, swim fast, and have a girlfriend. Based on my experiences, most smart kids have multiple talents; there are several things they could do quite well, even if not prodigiously. For instance, I know a number of kids who can write very well, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, and who also excel academically. Who’s to say which one of these avenues should the kid pursue? Some are very passionate about one of the things they can do, but many are lukewarm about all of them. In fact, based on a lot of time spent around geeks, and having taught at a high school for the gifted in math and physical sciences, I would say that most kids don’t have strong passions early on. I am sure someone somewhere has done research on this topic, but my gut feeling is that the following happens: when you have a very smart kid, things come easy to them, and everything being easy may be an obstacle to developing a keen interest in anything. I think to develop a passion for something there needs to be an equal mixture of awe and challenge; but perhaps this is BS and it’s all about personality — you are either A-type or B-type personality. and however gifted you may be, you won’t drive yourself insane trying to overachieve if you are B-type and you will be irritated by the perceived ambivalence of others regarding their talents if you are A-type. [I am talking purely based on my own experience (a.k.a. out of my a$$), people who follow the literature on giftedness may have different views.]
Anyway, having been a professor and a professional scientist for a number of years, I can safely say that there are a many more kids with the potential to do science than there are those who actually elect to be scientists or even purse any career with a strong science component. Many of these kids have other talents and interests that they may prefer to focus on. Many have a number of talents and they never really decide what it is that they are pursing, and are rather satisfied just dabbling in variety. I think what the A-types among us professors have to realize is that we are talking about these kids’ lives, and that they are completely entitled to spend them however they like, even if that means not using their science potential or any other potential at all. To us it may seem like a waste, but to someone who never thought of science as cool or enticing, just something they can easily do if they have to, it probably doesn’t seem like a waste at all. Being free to make choices means you are free to excel at whatever you want or not excel at anything.
Maybe the people who are not tightly-wound overachievers have a point. One day, we’ll all be dead and most of us will prove to be completely inconsequential in every way imaginable, except for perhaps having left a little bit of DNA. Instead of focusing on achievement, which for most of us appears to be just smoke and mirrors, why not enjoy the people around us, the connections for which we are apparently wired, the sunsets and good books and the giggles of our kids and grandkids? I can answer for the likes of me: because there is an internal engine that does not allow us to sit idle and just take in the world and the people we love, because the awesomeness of life and people does not scratch the perennial brain itch. But we should also learn to live and let live, and find ways to work productively with our smart and happy but itchless students, and not consider their lack of ambition to be anybody’s failure.