To Help Kids Find Their Passion, Give Them Free Time
“What did you love doing as a child that you’re still sort of doing today?”
That’s the question I’ve posed to lots of people, including a businessman I briefly spoke with at the TED Talks in Vancouver a few years ago. I didn’t take notes, but the conversation made a strong impression on me.
“Nothing,” I recall him replying.
“I played,” he conceded.
“You don’t have something better than that?” I wheedled.
“Well…” I remember him saying after a pause. “I grew up in Miami. There were a lot of fruit trees.”
As a kid, he would go around picking up the fruit that fell onto public property. Then he’d put it in a little wagon and sell it. That is, he took stuff that other people produced and sold it to someone else. And in a way, he still does.
His name is Jeff Bezos.
Bezos is uncommon. Going from underage fruit salesman to the founder of Amazon is a singular career path. But his trajectory from childhood diversion to adult career is not. So many people who have found an occupation or serious pastime they love were drawn to it at a young age. This wasn’t something they were doing for a grade or a trophy. It was just something they did either because it fascinated them or because it allowed them to get something else they desperately wanted.
Kids with a passion are as lucky as can be. They’re finding direction. They’re developing confidence. Best of all, they aren’t listless lumps. They are learning how to make things happen.
That’s why it’s tragic that so many kids have seen their noodle-around time colonized by adult-structured, adult-supervised activities. A 2004 University of Michigan study calculated that between school and homework, kids were spending 7.5 hours more a week on academics than kids were 20 years earlier—and that’s not counting the explosion of extracurriculars in the last couple of decades. COVID-19 has given them back a lot of free time and we’ve seen some encouraging leaps in independence, though the pandemic has also limited their freedom of movement and chances to interact with other kids in unstructured ways. But the general direction of childhood for the past two generations has been toward more and more time spent in organized activities.
Without free time, children don’t have a chance to explore and expand. This isn’t just bad for the kids. It’s bad for the country, which loses out on the development of entrepreneurship and talent that makes all our lives better.
“The child is father to the man,” poet William Wordsworth wrote in 1802.
It’s a weird observation, but it’s also true. We’re kids before we’re adults, which means our childhood selves have had a lot longer to influence us than our more recent incarnations. Our childhoods are the oldest, deepest parts of us. That’s why it’s so important to keep that time from becoming indistinguishable from adulthood.
It’s obviously fine for kids to have some social obligations. But they also need the freedom to goof around and get something started, whether it’s a project, a ballgame, or business. That’s how they come into their own.
Take Dan Senor. Four days before his bar mitzvah, his father died. From then on, Senor recalls, times were tight. But on his way home from school, he would stop at the magic shop in his Toronto neighborhood. He taught himself some tricks and started entertaining at children’s parties. By high school, he was working Saturday night galas entertaining adults.
He made enough money to put himself through college. He also learned how to keep people’s attention. If a trick went wrong, “I had to learn to think on my feet,” he says. “It was like bootcamp.” At the same time, “I was negotiating with the adults who were hosting these parties. These hosts were my clients. I was a kid making calls pitching new business every week.”
Senor hustled some more on weeknights, selling programs at Toronto Blue Jays games, jockeying for position at the gates where the buses dropped off the Americans. Why? “I made a premium on the currency trade.” American dollars were worth more than Canadian. All the time, he said, “You’re busy plotting, planning, figuring the system out when you’re a kid. No one’s training you.”
And therein lies the difference. Senor wasn’t doing any of this for a test or a teacher. It was his internal drive.
He absorbed those lessons and has used them all as an adult. During the Iraq war in the early 2000s he was chief spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition in Iraq, giving daily press conferences from war zones for 15 months. He came back and started a private equity fund. He invested in Israeli startups and eventually co-authored Start-Up Nation, a book about a topic near to his heart since boyhood: entrepreneurship. It was a bestseller.
Now Senor is making deals as senior advisor at Elliott Management, a major inv
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