When we are born, the world is a strange, fantastic place. Because our surroundings are bursting with a hodgepodge of colors, sounds, textures, and people, we subconsciously set out to make sense of things—to create a mental order from sensory soup. In a sense, we are acting as scientists, making hypotheses about how things might work and immediately testing them.
Through this process, we can discover what the world is like and what it means to be a part of it. Every experience has the potential to teach cause and effect—to unveil another branch in the tree of practical knowledge. Ideally, this natural process exposes us to varied ideas, people, and ways of life. Through the power of individual curiosity, our world expands.
This expansion, if left unchecked, leads us to topics, hobbies, and vocations that we find more fascinating than others. Because our time is limited, we begin to focus our energy in these areas, practicing, researching, and reading about whatever we care a whole lot about. Whether it’s carving wooden spatulas, planning parties, building robots, skateboarding, or knitting toboggans for all the neighbors, we develop mastery over time.
Usually there are some other people doing what were into, and our social and professional networks begin to form around our hobbies. We have specialized. With the exception of a few fields, there is no reason to pause before turning our passion into a livelihood. This entire process is a natural one, and it’s been going on since the beginning. The genuine support and availability of family and mentors, of course, is a prerequisite, but no structure beyond this is necessary for intellectual flourishing.
From my personal experience, and from conversations with hundreds of teenagers, in fact, it seems that the structure of school is highly destructive to this process of vocational discovery. Simply by occupying the bulk of a child’s time and energy with the forced mastery of predefined topics, educational systems stunt the organic broadening & narrowing of one’s interests that leads to a life of fulfilling work. This leaves young adults to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “What do I want to be when I grow up?” with very little information. It postpones serious discovery of the world and broadening of interests until after formal schooling, which in turn postpones the specialization and narrowing of vocational focus until somewhat later.