Inspire

Hedgehogs, Flow, and 10,000 hours: Helping young people find their path

Feb 02, 2016 by Mark Greenlaw, VP, FIRST


As parents and educators, we often have the opportunity to speak with the young people in our lives about their future. We may start with the question “so what do you want to do when you grow up?” which typically elicits responses ranging from a blank stare to a confident pronouncement “play shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.”

When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. I could never have imagined the job I’m doing now, or for that matter, any of the jobs I did upon entering the workforce after college. And, candidly, even at age 53, I never stop asking myself “what do I want to do when I grow up?” I’ve made four major career changes in my life, and probably will make one or two more before calling it quits. I’ve become pretty adept at finding my own path, and have developed the following advice I share whenever a young person opens the door and asks my opinion on what career they should pursue. 

Hedgehog Concept

First, I’m a big fan of the Hedgehog Concept, made popular in Jim Collins’ business book, Good to Great. In Good to Great, Collins introduces the Hedgehog Concept as a means for businesses to determine where they should focus. But Collins also shared a personal version of the Hedgehog Concept which is a tool to help individuals determine where they should focus their careers. He puts forth the notion that when trying to find what we want to do in life, we should look at the intersection of What you love to do, What you do best (or at least do very well), and what gives you a good return on your time – in other words, what will people pay you to do.  

The Hedgehog concept states that we will be most fulfilled in life if we find the thing at that intersection of these three circles. (I’ve written in the past about a similar idea). While this is a simple concept, the challenging part is figuring out how to do this. How can you help a young person begin this journey?

Try Many, Many Things

The first step is trying many, many things. Doing so will help uncover the answer to the first circle in the personal Hedgehog, which is identifying what one loves to do. In my experience, although some young people may have a strong sense of what they like to do, many do not. As parents and educators, one of the most important things we can do is expose young people to a wide range of activities, ideally in a hands-on, project-based learning environment. Encourage them to invent things, make things, build things, create art, music, or write stories. Never has there been a time in history where it is so easy for young people to tackle interesting, meaningful, and enjoyable projects. This can be attributed to the wealth of information available on the internet, in addition to what is referred to as the Democratization of Technology. In the past, products were typically designed by engineers and scientists, working in the multi-million-dollar labs, and manufactured in sophisticated plants. That is no longer true – amazing technology is readily available, at a low cost, to all of us. Young people all over the world are creating cool things with incredible technology – right in their homes or schools. 

Today, any one of us can design, build and sell our own creations, due to the democratization of technology. For example, young people can:

  • Self-publish their own books using sites like Amazon’s CreateSpace or Ingram Content Group’s Lightening Source.
  • Download free or low-cost computer-aided design (CAD) software, design their own 3D objects, and print them on a low-cost 3D printer. Once they are happy with their designs, they can have them manufactured by companies such as Ponoko or Shapeways, and many others.
  • Go to websites like Sparkfun, Adafruit, or Maker Shed and buy low cost, open source electronics, like the Arduino pictured above, and make their own electronic gadgets or Internet of Things (IoT) projects
  • Visit a local shop or Makerspace to gain access to low cost laser cutters and CNC (computer numerical control) routers, and make all kinds of cool things from wood, plastic, metal, and other materials.
  • Use open source software, such as MIT’s App Inventor, and program apps or games on increasingly powerful Android mobile devices. (App Inventor, along with Java, is one of the programming environments supported in our new FIRST Tech Challenge robotics program.)
  • Find videos on YouTube, Code.org, Khan Academy, Instructables, or Make Magazine to learn how to do just about anything.

Best of all, once they start to create things, they may find that other people like what they are creating. This builds confidence. It may also lead to an interest in entrepreneurship, selling what they make while still in school, providing more valuable learning opportunities.

Flow

As young people do more and more things, they will start to find some things they enjoy doing more than others. You will start to see some patterns – ask them the following questions: what do you look forward to? What makes you want to get up in the morning? What activities keep you up late at night? What do you look forward to on your way home from school?

Help them find what is called “Flow”. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity (source: Wikipedia). In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. It was named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee), who was formerly the head of the Psychology department at the University of Chicago. See his TED Talk here.

People are happiest when they are in a state of Flow. The idea of Flow is identical to the feeling of being “in the zone” or “in the groove”. Musicians, artists, dancers, and athletes often experience Flow when practicing or performing, as do scientists, programmers, and engineers when immersed in a challenging problem.

You will know if you’ve found Flow if you get so immersed in an activity that hours pass by, perhaps causing you to miss a meal or some other thing you were supposed to do. I experienced flow recently when I built my own bicycle frame. The photos below show me welding (left) and one of the frames I built (right). 

I took a frame-building class at a local Makerspace, and I loved it. I learned to weld, use a metal lathe, and many other pieces of equipment. We used trigonometry and CAD software to design the frame to fit my body’s dimensions. I got so immersed in building the frame that I would find myself welding or filing the frame’s joints for hours and hours, and would work all day on a Saturday, straight through lunch and often into the evening, completely losing track of time. When you experience this kind of immersion, you know you’ve found at least one thing you like to do. Keep doing more things, and find more of them.

Helping a young person find what they love, finding Flow, is extremely important, since it not only provides enjoyment, but may lead to them doing the activity for many hours. Then they start to get really good at it, which is the key to the second circle in the Hedgehog Concept: finding what you do best.

What you do best and 10,000 hours

You may have heard about the “10,000 hour rule.” Malcolm Gladwell introduced this concept to the masses in his best-selling book “Outliers”. Subsequently, rap artist Macklemore made the term known to a younger audience in his song “10,000 hours.” Gladwell writes that the key to success in any discipline, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing that discipline for a total of around 10,000 hours. To put that in perspective, 10,000 hours equates to doing something 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 5 years, or 2 hours a day for nearly 20 years. 

So you find something you love to do, and you start to do it a lot. And you start getting better and better at it. In his song, Macklemore wrote “the greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats are great because they paint a lot.” Few people are born with natural skills – most of us have to work hard and demonstrate grit and perseverance to get good as something. If you love something, you will tend to do it a lot, and become great at it.

Making a Living (getting out of Mom and Dad’s basement)

But what about the third circle – what advice can we give to young people about finding an enriching career that will allow them to make a decent living? I advise them not to focus on this – but to have faith that a good career and appropriate financial reward will come naturally. The things they build, the things they create, are evidence of their skills and competencies. Employers will see their creative abilities and will want them to work for them. Or, for the more entrepreneurial-spirited, they will see the opportunity to use their creative talents to launch their own business or social venture.  Many FIRST alumni have taken this path.

The important thing is that they keep a record of the things they create. Encourage them to preserve them, document them, post them on Instagram or Facebook, or better yet, create a digital portfolio using simple blog tools such as Tumblr or Wordpress. Give them this advice: Whether it is a song you compose, a piece of art you create, some code you write, or a robot you build, keep a record of it. Learn to tell others the story of what you create.

Colleges want to accept students who can do things. Employers want to hire people who can do things. The things they make and create are evidence of their skills and abilities.

In fact, what they make or create can help them get into college. In 2013, MIT Admissions introduced a new maker portfolio supplement as an optional part of their application. The application provides a way for students to submit information about hands-on projects, such as coding a computer program, rebuilding a car, or designing an entire costume for a play or performance. The purpose is to see how students learn, create, and problem-solve in an unstructured environment. Dawn Wendell, then assistant director of admissions said: “We love it when students pursue their passions outside of class, and making [things] is a fantastic example of that.” 

Additionally, being involved in programs like FIRST, or doing similar programs, can help you with paying for college. In fact, in the coming academic school year, colleges will be making available more than $25 million in college scholarships to students who are FIRST Alumni.

Summary

Help the young people in your lives find things they really love to do. Encourage them to try many things – build things, make things, get involved in programs like FIRST. All the while, make them cognizant of what it means to experience Flow, where they may find they are happiest. Next, help them get really good at what they do. Encourage them to put in the hard work – 10,000 hours if needed, to master their passion. And as they create things, encourage them keep a record of them, building their digital portfolio. The final step, turning this into a career, will come naturally, particularly if they can show and tell others the story of what they create.
 

Mark Greenlaw is vice president of strategy and impact for FIRST. Read Mark's bio.


If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at inspire@firstinspires.org and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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