Slaying Goliath… a word to my students

Another school year over. Another group of seniors graduating. I’ll miss this bunch. As a graduation present, I give them the following reading assignment.

Being a complete Malcolm Gladwell fanboy, my heart races just a bit whenever I crack a New Yorker that features one of his articles. This week’s issue features Gladwell’s How David Beats Goliath. While primarily focusing on improbable sports and military victories, the main thesis applies to all facets of life. Applied intelligently effort can beat talent. It’s evident in my students’ work. As I grade final projects, I see that students who may lack key technical skills overcome that deficiency by sheer force of will – spending hours on complex workarounds to get the desired result.

Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Outliers are multiple must-reads, with Blink worthy of a trip to the library. In Outliers a recurrent theme was practice trumps God given talent. Within reasonable limits, virtually anyone can be an expert in anything after 10,000 hours of practice. Of course to spend the equivalent of nearly every waking hour of just under two years at anything requires passion. Just like your dad told you: Passion + Effort = Success.

If what you do doesn’t make you jump out of bed in the morning eager to get to work, you won’t be any good. I’ve left several jobs and a couple of careers not because I was burned out or miserable, but simply because I’d lost my passion for what I was doing. As another school year ends, I again counsel my students not to do anything they don’t love. If you want to direct, don’t work at Banana Republic. If you want to edit, don’t take a job at an insurance company. Don’t think about money. If you love what you’re doing, you’ll be good. If you’re good, the money will come.

Some of my students have gone on to careers far from the daydreams they passed the time with in the back row of FT504. I’ve taught future special education teachers, web application developers, nutritionists, and a few bankers among the many writers, editors, producers, and directors I’ve had in my class. Now my own kids are thinking about college and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It’s not what they do that counts, just how they do it.

My day job still fires me up, but there’s that extra bounce on teaching days during the semester. I don’t really look forward to summer vacation as an adult the way I did as a kid. Good luck, graduates. You’ll be missed on campus. Fare thee well.

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