“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

1 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. David said,

    March 2, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    I think that to some extent, we all still run into this every now and then, just not as overtly, or with such “high stakes.” Many grad students at least initially rely on their advisor to guide them in the choice of good research questions. And when we complete a research project, sometimes, there is a long list of interesting questions we are ready to pursue, but sometimes, we need significant active thought to identify the next set of questions.

    I think that one additional factor, beyond the ones you already listed, is “Where can I make a unique contribution?” This definitely is true in research – I may right now be really interested in playing around with some shallow NNs, but just because it is interesting does not mean I will be able to contribute something worthwhile to the world.

    Back in high school, we could do an optional research project, with a 15-page (or so) written report. I was very interested in – and eventually did a report on – Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem. But I agonized for a long time what the point of such a report would be if I couldn’t actually say anything original in my report that others hadn’t already said before me. One of my smartest classmates (I might just say “my smartest classmate”), who is now a professor of philosophy, was one of the few top students who didn’t do a report, and I think that her reasoning was at least in part that she didn’t see anything novel she could contribute, and she didn’t want to go through the charade of doing a “research project” that didn’t involve generating new knowledge.

    I’m sure that at this level of cognitive processing, this is not necessarily a universal concern. But at some more intrinsic level, I think that most of us older folks (over 12, say) have an association between being interested or invested in something and being good at it. I think that this frequently keeps us from exploring new avenues, because it’s a significant startup effort to meet the standards we set for ourselves, or we believe the world sets for us. Younger kids often do not feel this self consciousness or hesitation.

    Incidentally, I do recall an article by Scott Adams, in which he rails against the advice “Do the things you’re passionate about, and you will succeed.” His point is that the causality often goes the other way – you become passionate about things once you’re successful at them, rather than you’re successful because you were passionate initially. Success feels good, and you tend to pursue more the things in which you had initial success.

  2. Umaa said,

    March 2, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I think some people are from families or cultures where there are narrow pathways for what’s acceptable or what success is. I liked David’s point about equating what you’re interested in and what you excel at. In many cases, school is a competitive sport more so than a place of discovery. In my case, I suffered from the pressure to be interested in certain subjects and also simultaneously finding everything interesting. It wasn’t until I finally left college and wasn’t receiving a grade, that I was actually able to have an honest discussion with myself about what I was truly interested in. It was liberating to learn outside of the school setting.

  3. Joe Basalt said,

    March 24, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    This reminds me of when a kid was asked what kind of sandwich he would like. He can have any type he wants for free. He asked for salami with butter between two pieces of plain white bread. That was his schema for the perfect sandwich because his past sandwich experiences was limited. Are you sure that’s what you want? Yes. He got his salami slice sandwich exactly as he described and was satisfied until he saw that his friend’s fancy BLT and thought that looked more delicious.

    Second grade kids’ experiences are limited, some more than others. Youth is the time for them to experience the possibilities and to cultivate interests. Many may not know the possibilities. To refine understanding of why kids googled “what should I be interested in?”, the teacher could have allowed these kids to choose from multiple given options where they were asked if they knew what that option was.

    Some kids might not have learned yet from experience how people respond to such a general question. They might have not yet categorized for themselves the different types of interests, including the types of answers expected in that scenario. The teacher could give examples of what other kids have done that, for those who need it, provides a template for a way to proceed.

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