The world is a very malleable place. When I read biographies, early lives leap out the most. Leonardo da Vinci was a studio apprentice to Verrocchio at 14. Walt Disney took on a number of jobs, chiefly delivering papers, from 11 years old. Vladimir Nabokov published his first book (a collection of poems) at 16, while still in school. Andrew Carnegie
The people you mention were all compelled to do extraordinary things, things that seem inevitable and obvious in hindsight. They made choices that they felt they had to make. They did the things they felt they had to do.
They were driven because of who they were, great people with immutable characteristics that drove them to achieve great things. But they were also able to achieve so much because of their environment. To be an artist in the high renaissance or a businessperson during the rise of industrial capitalism or a programmer at the dawn of the information age is to connect with an opportunity unique to your time.
I don’t think we have a lot of agency over our personalities, but we do have a lot of agency over our environments.
There seems to be a very sensitive period between eleven and fourteen in which the things children do can capture them, and inspire a lifetime of great (and more importantly deep) work. What you find meaningful and rewarding as a young adult you will find meaningful and rewarding your entire life.
Which I think is why people are so concerned with what the pre-teens are up to. (What will be the long term effect of things like social media and influencer culture? What was the impact of gamer culture and MTV in the 1980s?)
Before civil engineering was a highly regulated and credentialed profession, anyone could build a bridge. Some people who built bridges were better at it than others. The best bridge builders had a strong understanding of the fundamentals of load carrying, materials, span length, durability. Bridges were beautiful, expressions of art. The ones that survive today are ‘over-engineered’ by modern standards, made more robust than they needed to be. A lot of bridges failed, sometimes catastrophically.
Programming today is kind of in the same place now that bridge-building was in the early 1800s, a profesionalization is happening and the same oppourtunities for innovation and creativity are not available. I expect that computer engineering will be just as credentialed and regulated as civil engineering by the time my children are in their early teens.
When Benjamin Franklin started his apprenticeship at his brother's print shop at the age of 12 he was considered a bit too old to start. By 17 he had moved to Philidelphia alone to start his own printing business, and more importantly, a newspaper. He intuitively knew the role the printed word would play in early America.
I don’t know what the exciting and new frontiers of human expression will be ten years from now. But I hope to create an environment that will allow my kids to find out for themselves, and to allow them to pursue, to do and create.
My husband and I hope to encourage our kids to start a series of microbusinesses, starting at around ten or eleven years old. If they are interested in something, we will find them a tutor or an internship or a job that allows them to explore this interest. We are also considering helping them rent an apartment (city) or building a cottage (country) when they at 16 or so to experience living independently early on.
But who knows how these plans will turn out? I have a three-year-old and a nine-month-old and so far every plan has needed to be rewritten.
Maybe it won’t be our job to facilitate at all. Maybe it will be our job to get out of the way.
My wife and I are working on exactly this problem, looking into our one year old's (and any other children's) future. We want them to have a capacious literary education, but we also want them to have the physical and technical education of a Da Vinci or the Wright Brothers.
This is a fantastic article, thanks for sharing.
I’m currently writing a book (out later this year) about people who love to work. I interviewed people who love what they do and found these people all display agency. They are consistent, conscious agents of their own careers.
If you’d like to learn more, please check out @letslovetowork on Instagram, Medium, and look for me on LinkedIn. These are the channels I keep most up to date. I’d love to share more, but I’m a working mum and time is limited! Thanks so much for sharing this insightful article.
This is connected to my most recent "satori". I was making gnudi (a kind of healthier gnocchi) -
I made the batch and then you need to push them out like pastry dough.
The first couple were complete sh**, but then as if by magic I just watched myself get better at it with no input or volition of my own, my whole body was there learning on the spot, I didn't have to do a thing.
In contrast to my day job and other intellectual activities where I "strive" to get better but it's all mental and possibly not even working.
I've been dealing with this for some time now, I've realized that being good in school doesn't mean you are gonna be successful at something you're passionate about. I'm about to turn twenty and I feel like I'm stuck learning something irrelevant, I spend most of my time looking for a way out. I started to collect agency only now and I feel like changing my reality, soon, maybe tomorrow.
I write extensively about how all this works. Agency and empathy are tied together -- no agency, no empathy. And no empathy, no complex knowledge structures, as knowledge is formed in social networks, and you have to connect to exchange information coherently.
Re: agency directly -- you might enjoy this post. Without agency, you are condemned to innumeracy. https://empathy.guru/2020/11/29/innumeracy-and-the-crisis-in-memetic-understanding/
We are all (to an extent) the ‘heroes’ of our own stories/movies (some of us with suitable soundtracks, motivational at times but depressingly often seemingly of slapstick/comedic sound, playing in the background. Sigh!). We enjoy reading, seeing, being told about the ‘others’ who succeeded, the (many more) failures … not so much.
It’s understandable in that so much of human endeavour is predicated, not so much on ‘will’ it work, but ‘can’ it examples (if something, often even only vaguely similar, is once seen to be possible, the options on ‘how’ are suddenly widespread). He/she succeeded, so maybe I can too could, I suggest, be seen as the real reason we have ‘progressed’ as far as we have (the “innovators” important not so much by what they achieve as by the example they set).
As a species we’re either driven, wilfully blind at times, or (almost suicidally) incurable optimists.
Freedom, when all the flowery phrases, ideology, beliefs and high toned language is removed is … the right to fail. And ‘that’ is what has been (deliberately, intentionally and systematically) removed from modern society.
We can lament the education establishment morphing from it’s original intention of informing and teaching how to think, through its “let’s produce as many identical widgets for the industrial grindstone as possible”, to its now dystopian nightmare reality, but … when all is said and done, it is merely one more symptom of the real malaise.
The (predictable) disenchantment and disillusionment of the young, likewise.
(Unpopular as it is) I see the main cause as the ever growing ‘feminisation’ of society as the root. Men (generic/collective) and women have different (often polar opposite) approaches, opinions, perspectives and beliefs (for good and real biological and historical/cultural reasons). Men (generic/collective) mostly see black/white, right/wrong, good/evil, severe punishments for crimes. Women (ditto) see ‘shades of grey’, extenuating circumstances/excuses/justifications/perspectives/etc., and rehabilitative/nuanced punishments (after all you wouldn’t see/punish your child ‘stealing’ a cookie from the kitchen as you would an adult stealing one from a store would you?).
That women’s perspective works ‘best’ within the family (at least when tempered by men’s) is, I’d suggest, beyond question. That it is/has been an utter disaster for society as a whole is again beyond doubt (e.g. treating that adult thief like a naughty child).
Part of that ‘feminisation’ is the utter, complete and total removal of any (or even just the possibility of) risk, responsibility and consequence society wide (from the uncountable 'protective' agencies to welfare).
So? It’s not just “the removal of agency” it’s what that signifies. The removal of responsibility, consequence, the right to fail … freedom.
It’s not that children are no longer free, it’s that we are all now children (pampered, provided for and protected from anything that might even upset, let alone hurt us) and as such we will never grow to adulthood. And, as always, the reason is power, because an independent adult doesn't need someone else to run their lives, and ‘they’ can’t allow that.
I think the key is entrepreneurship, the keenness to want to strike off on your own, to take that gamble with your time.
I suggest that this keenness is an indicator of future greatness, because it shows you are willing to push past boundaries (set by others) to achieve greater works.
Not all achieve the global recognition like the names you list. But you can become great in your own field, in your own locality, and then look back on a life well-lived, because you achieved much.
I feel bad for those I know who have great ability but lack the entrepreneurship gene, and so are held back.
This was a great post, thanks for sharing.
I can't help but wonder what your thoughts are on the idea that what society has deemed "reasonable" with regards to keeping young people in "education" until their 20's, is impart academics trying to sell us the idea of their importance?
To me, much of why people feel academic qualifications are valuable is, precisely because academics have said so.
From a very early age, teachers have to convince us that they deserve our respect and attention. More than that, they have to sell us on the idea that what they have decided to dedicate their time to was not a waste of their time and, is worth our time.
In a considerable number of industries we all openly admit in the workplace that most of what was learned in school through to university is not useful (in the practical sense). So it would seem the evidence shows there is little to no value in studying many subjects. However, by the time you have gotten to the workplace, academics have spent years reinforcing the idea of how important particular institutions, books, art works, historical figures, exam results... are. It's worth considering - how often are you asked to produce these certificates in the real / working world once you start working?
Equally, the layering on of other experiences is used to justify going to some institutions. For example, I have had countless people tell me, that going to university was the reason they got to meet people from other cultures and backgrounds. This seems like an odd justification today, as for the current price of a degree, one could travel the world, take numerous short courses, complete a number of unpaid internships and still have money left over. But I continue to watch people pay tens of thousands of £/$ for certificates, often in things they often aren't interested in. It appears this continues simply due to the pressure parents and society provide, but not necessarily employers or people doing ground breaking / innovative stuff.
Of course, there are some instances where going to a university and studying a topic for many years in depth, in a safe, structured environment makes sense. Like being a surgeon for example.
This is profound and amazing. Thank you.
as a parent of 3 it's hard to balance "what you know to be true" and "what is currently available given time, money, logistics, resources, etc."
... ... ... ... the struggle is real. we've tried homeschooling, "unschooling," public, private, and a hybrid of everything. every state, zip code, and country is different and... most importantly, every child is different.
Great article, there is something gone missing in todays education. The journeyman way of communication knowledge should be used more and would be more interesting both for the master and the pupil if done right.
This is good writing on a subject that needs to be talked about more. Thanks.
I think you would like Sudbury Valley School. It is a democratic school near Boston, where the only reason to do something is inner motivation. It was founded more than 50 years ago and spawned many similar schools all over the world. There is no curriculum, there are no grades, only a place to interact with the world and other people. When left to their own devices children can become their own uniqueness. One way to interact with the world in school is participating in the democratic proces.It is a school to develop agency, or rather not have it taken away from you (if you enroll at a young age). Every baby and toddler has agency. Nobody has to force them to learn to walk and speak etc. School takes it away from them (if I use the word 'school', I mean K--12).
I love the idea of 'onramps for opportunity' (opportunities to make meaningful contributions). These can come from various sources, depending on your upbringing and environment. The way I see it, task 1 as a parent is to develop an evolving strategy for circumventing or supplementing the bland systemised development of young people (a system which, I agree, discourages a sense of agency). Task 2 is to use that evolving strategy to encourage interest in the world around them, in ways which *might* produce meaningful outcomes.
I agree with your text and it's a great observation about how important agency is and I think you nailed it pretty well that the current space where young humans have the most agency is with computers. I too am a programmer and I am now trying to move into other harder and more dangerous domains like industrial design, manufacturing, chemistry, etc... Michal Zalewski wrote a great text just a few days ago about this very problem of limiting agency for the sake of protecting the children: https://lcamtuf.substack.com/p/a-requiem-for-amateur-chemistry
It's a very complex subject and you scratched the surface: "no one would describe Steve Job’s summer job at 13 as his exploitation". But where to draw the line and make sure kids aren't working in coal mines? Like most things in this world, if you dive deep in the problem it's not easy to fix. Maybe a lot of friction in this world is all about governments aiming for zero risk policies which kill any agency, especially with adolescents? I'm not the one who claims to have the solution but as per your last paragraph, I agree that computers are a great catalyst to let the kids have more agency.