-- By Tom Phillips
Many years ago, when I was 17, I remember telling my girlfriend in a panicked tone – I’ve gotta figure out something I can be great at – the world’s best. It was beginning to sink in that my pro basketball dreams were going nowhere, and I needed a substitute. What could it be? Acting? No, she said, not acting.
A few years later I took my confusion to a favorite professor, who must have been feeling cynical that day. What can I be, I pleaded. His advice was to become the world’s leading expert in a field not many people were interested in – Spanish cookery, for example. I scoffed at that. Soon, I set out for
Francisco, where I hoped to launch my career as an idolized
Fast-forward thirty years or so to middle age, when a colleague of mine, a celebrated TV journalist, asked me what I was doing with myself. I described my modest position as a newswriter, and he looked at me in alarm. “That’s a wasted life!” he said.
Wounded, I rallied. Wait a minute – That’s not all I do. I play music, I teach, I’m a minister’s spouse, a father of many. He quickly apologized, but I could see where his values lay. He felt that anyone with any talent should use it to the utmost – and not let other, lesser goals stand in his way. This fellow had dropped out of college to pursue journalism, his health was awful and his personal life was an unholy mess. But he loved his work, and he was very famous, and rich.
I think of these exchanges because recently a 16-year-old granddaughter of mine repeated, almost verbatim, my teenage panic speech: I have to find something I’m great at! Volunteering in a hospital had soured her on the medical field, so she needed a substitute. What could it be? Acting?
The world is awash in bad advice these days, and has been for some time -- maybe since the dawn of the industrial revolution, when the one-trick pony entered the ring, and people began to hear that they should decide early what they want to “be,” and narrow their focus. The new role models were industrial tycoons, or scientists in search of a cure, or mad artists, or fabulously wealthy financiers. Today we admire relentless entrepreneurs like Mark Zukerberg, pasty zillionaires like Warren Buffett, super-athletes like Tom Brady and Tiger Woods, and actors and rock stars who barely went to high school. They’re all great at something.
It was not always thus. Back in ancient times, the goal of education was “mens
in corpore sano” -- a sound mind in a sound body -- and learning was physical as
well as mental. And the ideal was not greatness
or “expertise” in one subject, but a broad competency – the ability to
recognize the soundness of an idea in almost any field of knowledge. Up until modern times an educated person was
able to move between fields of endeavor – applying knowledge of the arts and
sciences to create, to invent, to do battle, to think and act across the whole
range of human activity. Such
“renaissance men” are rare today, but they still exist.