Finding our “sweet spot” in life
Dennis Sparks | Contributor
I recently watched proud high school graduates cross the stage to receive their diplomas, with many of them breaking into spontaneous (or perhaps well-rehearsed) dances of joy at their accomplishment. Later I found myself thinking about my own high school years—which an objective observer would not have described as joy filled—and about the many ways in which middle school and high school experiences can have a profound and lasting effect for good or ill on the lives of young people, experiences that shape their views of themselves and their life plans.
Some of those who graduated that evening had undoubtedly thrived during their high school years, but they were likely few in number, at least according to a recent Indiana University report which concluded that most high school students feel bored and disconnected from their schools.
There were other graduates, some of whom may even be on their way to top universities, who did what was asked of them each day while their spirits withered. And, of course, there were some we did not see that evening, classmates who for a variety of reasons departed before graduation and who are now on a path that is likely to significantly diminish their life chances.
Unfortunately, in spite of the best efforts of many of their teachers and professors, far too many young people leave their formal education with little awareness of their talents and of the subjects and activities that bring them to life. In fact, at the end of their educational journey many students are less aware of their distinctive aptitudes and passions that they were as young children.
While part of that is due to the nature of our society and of adolescence itself, some of the responsibility lies within schools and classrooms that value certain qualities at the expense of others. For instance, classrooms in which every question has a correct answer known to the teacher diminishes students’ ability to seek interesting and meaningful problems to solve and curtails their opportunities to learn how to evaluate competing views and sources of information regarding those problems.
Fortunately, though, many young people are eventually able to find life and work responsibilities that are purposeful, meaningful, and engaging. They create lives for themselves that apply their unique abilities in areas that are deeply compelling to them. As a result, they have an enthusiasm for life that infects those around them.
Life after our formal education offers infinite opportunities to cultivate our talents and find out passions, if we are willing to engage in the exploration that such cultivation typically requires. Columnist Betty Baye tells readers about her 30th graduate school reunion at which she saw firsthand the significance of the ideas Sir Ken Robinson offers in his book, "The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything." “Robinson has found in me a kindred spirit,” she writes, “when he reminds his readers that ‘We all have distinctive talents and passions that can inspire us to achieve far more than we may imagine.’ Getting into one's element, he explained, is when one's “aptitude and passion’ meets up with ‘attitude and opportunity.’ When we discover our element, we are apt to be happier and more productive because our lives, he argues, will have ‘purpose and meaning in and beyond whatever work we do.’”
Discovering our element, of course, usually requires persistence, patience, and a tolerance for the discomfort that such ambiguity entails. The good news is that each of us can find our “sweet spot,” to borrow a sports term, at this moment in time, no matter what our age. While such a promise would likely fall on deaf ears if offered to graduates in a commencement address, it takes on special significance with each passing decade of life.
Dennis Sparks’ “Things Observed” essays and photos encourage readers to see familiar things in new ways. He can be contacted at email@example.com.