How I Built A Career From Strengths and Interests—And How Your Kids Can, Too
What will your kids do when they grow up? Who will they be?
And what can you do now to help them on their way?
I was talking with some other moms about these questions recently. Some had teenagers who were learning to drive and thinking about college and careers. The consensus was that you can't know for sure - but you can definitely see patterns and support interests.
The bottom line: People build lives and careers out of what they love, not what they hate.
Children and their paths
Sometimes, people with kids in conventional schools worry that their kids are falling behind in some subject or another, that their kids aren't going to know as much of one topic as other kids in the class. But we all have gaps in our knowledge. We have different interests. We dive deeply into different topics and activities. We find different information interesting and relevant, and so we commit to different information to long-term memory.
More experienced homeschooling parents have told me that you ought to expose your children to many different subjects and topics, and see where they shine. Where does your child light up? What excites them? These are the seeds of the rest of their life.
As parents, especially as homeschooling parents, part of our job is to help our children unearth their strengths. We can help shore up their weak places, too, but their strengths and interests are what motivate them. These are what will drive them forward.
How interests can come together
Your path is easiest to see in retrospect. Human minds are notorious for creating stories that tie experiences together with meaning.
When I look back at my own experiences, I can see clear threads tying my interests as a child to what fascinated me as a young adult, and from there to my college studies, my graduate school research, and beyond. The mix of science, art, writing, reading—the lack of focus or perhaps the focus on breadth, context, and connections—my interests in people, psychology, self, identity—it's all there, from the start.
(Read and watch: Kids Can't Be Taught, But They Love to Learn)
My research in graduate school explored how social robots could help support young kids in learning language skills through storytelling and play. I examined how children understood and empathized with social robots; what long-term interactions with robots were like; and I considered the ethics of using social robots in young children's lives.
When I was interviewing at different graduate schools, I was struck by the difference between the perspectives of the advisor I chose, Cynthia Breazeal, and another professor. This other professor asked me, "So, you've got a background in both computer science and psychology. Which one do you want to focus on in grad school?" I remember shrugging, not really sure—both were interesting! Why did I have to choose?
When I spoke with Cynthia, she explained how her students all pitched in on the lab's ongoing research projects. I expected her to ask me what area I was good at, what I would focus on, which parts of the projects I could handle. But instead, she told me that one reason she thought I'd be a good fit for her lab was because I had experience with both psychology and computer science, and that I'd have to continue bridging fields in her lab! I was sold.
Grad school involved forays into art, robot voice acting, philosophy and ethics, psychology, child development, cognitive science, programming, electronics, statistics, and not a small amount of writing. I teleoperated fluffy muppet-like robots. I played with kids. I created graphics for tablet apps and wrote stories for the robot to tell. I made new assessments and ran experimental studies.
I can draw lines back to earlier interests. As Leonard Cassuto said in The Graduate School Mess,
"[G]ood scholarship is usually autobiographical in some way: It tells the story of the writer's interests, refracted through the work of others."
As a kid, I spent a couple years making puppets and putting on puppet plays with my homeschool friends. I took a chipmunk puppet to girl scout day camp to entertain the four-year-olds.
I was in a science club; we did an annual tech challenge at the Tech Museum of San Jose and built stuff—and I documented everything.
I took art classes, including perspective drawing and acrylic painting. I dabbled in crafts. I did some theater. I did NaNoWriMo several years in a row as a teenager, writing over 50k words each November.
I read constantly, and widely. When I learned to drive, I had to learn where everything was, because I'd never paid attention—I'd always been reading. The textbook on consciousness I picked up at the library spurred my college major in cognitive science.
(Read: My Introduction to Cognitive Science))
I took computer science classes in college because I decided it'd be fun to learn how my black box of a laptop worked. I programmed robots over the summers, first at Vassar then at NASA.
And the threads available to tie together increased. I pulled some threads into my PhD work, earlier interests coming together to meet in that series of projects. I drew on my strengths. And I continue to do so—while I'm not working with robots at the moment, I'm still learning, working with kids, writing, reading, doing crafts, and so much more.
(Read: Why I Went to Graduate School)
Support children's interests to build careers
We build on our interests and strengths. As parents, we need to help our children discover and build on theirs.
You never know how they will combine all the things they enjoy and love. You never know, except in retrospect, how the different threads of your own life will come together. It's like a tapestry that you can only see from the back, and then when you flip it over, there's a beautiful picture laid out.