To My Students – What I Want For You – Part 4 (from 6-11-13)

Dear Students,

“Do your work!” You hear it all the time. Work! Work! Work! No wonder so many students hate school. It must be confusing for you students. In case you hadn’t noticed, adults have a lot of different views about work. Work can be see as a rotten way to spend your time– something you do only so you can earn money so you can enjoy the time left over when you’re not working. I’ve heard educators find the word work so unappealing that they say we shouldn’t even use the word “work” in the class room. We should instead focus on the word learn. On the other hand, some of my 8th grade students this year read a book called Study Is Hard Work, and I think there is a lot of truth to that statement: study can be hard work.

But on the other hand, some of us adults are workaholics. We obsess over work; we neglect our families so we can work harder; we focus our educational institutions on eventually getting good work – often defined as work that will earn a lot of money so you can buy stuff to enjoy when you’re, once again, not working.

I have sometimes asked my classes if they know any adults who love their jobs. Most times, most students say no. All the adults they knew would quit their jobs if they could.

So work is a paradox. We spend anywhere from thirteen to 24 years (or more) educating ourselves so we can get a good job, we make work the focus of our lives, yet we also seem to hate work and live for those happy moments when we are not working.

We teachers frequently observe that many students don’t want to work: not on paper, or even in their heads. Thought is hard work, and if it’s work, it’s to be avoided.

But here’s the other paradox: the more you work at anything, the easier it gets. For people who work hard, the things they work at eventually becomes easy, and they have to work less hard. In fact, the things they have worked hard at no longer seem like work. To those who refuse to work, or avoid it, everything remains work to them. The more you avoid work, the more everything seems like a terrible chore.

So I want for you to understand the need for work, and how it actually makes things easier and more fun in the long run. Learning to ride your bike is hard work when you are falling and skinning your knees. It’s impossible if you give up. If you work at it, it’s an almost effortless glide down the road.

You may think I want you to work hard so you’ll get good grades. To a certain extent, I suppose you’re right. Good grades usually mean you’re learning, and you need both good grades and the learning they represent to succeed at most jobs or to get into college. Grades say more than, “I learned.” They also say, “I worked. I have perseverance. I want to succeed.” Poor grades say, “I don’t care. I’m not interested in succeeding. I’m not capable of working or trying. I just want to be entertained.”

But grades aren’t everything. I want you to worry less about grades and more about learning. Grades inspire a point of view that school is an exercise in jumping through hoops and passing tests for someone else. Grades and test scores are a “bottom line” way of looking at school. I’d rather you got a C you really worked for, a C that made you grow intellectually, than an A that demanded nothing of you and taught you nothing. I want you to understand that you learn for you. Not for your teachers. Not for your parents. I want you to understand that learning is its own reward– if you are interested in things, as I’ve suggested in another of these posts.

We’ve made work into a dirty word. It shouldn’t have to be. Because there’s a secret hiding in plain sight that we don’t talk to you about very often.

The secret is this: work can be fun. (And fun can be work, as well.)

A guy named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has, for decades, been studying what makes people happy (a task that has been, I suspect, both hard work and really, really fun). Here’s what he found: doing nothing, goofing off, isn’t what makes people happy and engaged. He claims that people all over the world report being happiest and most engaged when they are doing something, and that that something is often work. He claims people are happiest when engaged in a state he calls Flow.

A Flow experience is one where you are:

Think about something you do for fun. Playing a video game. Playing a team sport. Writing, drawing, or painting. Making music. Almost anything we do for fun is a flow experience. So is the very best work. Some things are easy flow experiences for us. Some tasks just seem like chores. But part of Csikszentmihalyi’s message is this: you can make just about anything a flow experience.  Doing your laundry or taking out the trash more efficiently. Cleaning your room. Finding a better way to study. Studying itself. Once you start trying to make things a flow experience, all of life becomes more fun.

Not only that, according to Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, we not only have more fun when we’re in Flow and motivated by “the thing itself,” we actually do better work. Working for money or a grade gets one kind of result. Working at something because you love it results in a different kind of result altogether.

Of course, we don’t need to go as far as the great psychologists and business gurus of our times to find this truth. We can go to a “children’s” movie– a movie about philosophies toward life. In it, a father sings:

The children must be molded,

Shaped and taught

That life’s a looming battle

To be faced and fought.

I am afraid that many of the people in education have this attitude toward education and life. I’m afraid some of your teachers have this attitude, that I do at times as well. And perhaps there’s a certain epic quality to that attitude that might be useful at times.

But I prefer the other philosopher in the same movie, the one who sings:

In every job that must be done 

There is an element of fun.

You find the fun, and snap!

The job’s a game!

And every task you undertake

Becomes a piece of cake.

A lark! A spree! It’s very clear to see…

That a spoonful of sugar

Helps the medicine go down.

Yes, our philosopher is Mary Poppins. But I want you to note who finds the fun in her scenario: you do. Don’t wait for your teachers to make things entertaining. You must find the fun. And note, the fun isn’t found in distracting yourself from the job. The fun, the “element of fun,” is found in the job itself. Mary Poppins knew about Flow.

One last thing about work. One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, suggests that your best work, your vocation or calling, is the found in the place where your great joy (the thing you love to do the most) and the world’s great need meet. In other words, our work should make us happy, but it should also make the world a better place in some way.

You aren’t just learning for you. You are learning, I hope, so you have something to offer the world, something to contribute. Learning makes you valuable.

In short, I want you to work, to learn, so that you’ll find a career you will love someday– one that enables you to make the world a better place. One where you look forward to going to work every day. Your life shouldn’t be divided into the misery of work that you put up with so you can enjoy yourself when you’re not working. I want you to understand that school, in addition to teaching you knowledge and skills, can be a training ground for learning to love work, to see work as fun. I want you to understand that learning isn’t just for getting a job someday. At a very basic level, learning should be fun.

I want you to understand that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Mr. Finkle