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Expose Your Children To Awe To Help Them Make Wise Choices

Teach them the importance of purpose, not just paychecks.

01/06/2017 8:51 AM IST | Updated 01/06/2017 4:27 PM IST
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Full Disclosure: I don't have children so I have no idea what pressures parents face when it comes to advising their children on choosing their career paths.

However, I have been a professor for a couple of decades and I have interacted with a lot of confused kids. And plenty of confused and anxious parents. Especially when I am in India during the early part of the year each year, the kids' trauma in grade 11 and 12 is palpable. Multiple exams, seemingly numerous options and yet no clear choices. Parents and their high expectations only add to the frustrations of kids instead of being a calming influence to help them make a wise choice. Then there are coaching classes that take up all their free time from as early as grade 8 or 9 leave the kids exhausted, sleepless and thoroughly confused. Research has shown that a lot of youngsters feel like their life has no purpose. Many kids are either very low on empathy and high on narcissism or depressed. Getting rich is the big goal, but there's little clarity about what it takes to get there.

Research shows that when we experience awe, our perspective broadens. This is a crucial foundation for finding our purpose.

This discussion can go in many directions—the role of social media, cell phones, education, teachers, parents, the pace of modern life, etc. But I think there is one intrinsic feeling we are capable of that can help these seemingly multi-faceted issues. It is awe. Much of the exciting research on awe and its potential role in our lives has been pointed out by Berkeley's "Science of a Meaningful Life" initiative. And has been noted by now, we have become an awe-deprived society. Awe is often associated with goosebumps. Animals feel goosebumps when they are threatened but humans can feel goosebumps when they face something that is stunningly vast in beauty or size or devastation. It is akin to a great spiritual experience that evokes autonomic nervous system responses (the sympathetic fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic rest-and-nest response.

The feeling of awe, even if momentary, is found to transform the sense of self to create a feeling of larger connectedness and lead to greater generosity and sharing. Studies have shown that the sense of awe is more prevalent in some societies than others, and may thus be influenced by the drudgery of daily life or a general sense of positivity or negativity in everyday life. Clearly, losing our ability to feel awe can only lead to a downward spiral towards a lack of social connectedness.

So, how is this related to career choices and the parental role in it? The sense of awe has a great role in learning and finding a purpose in life. Astronauts, for example, have reported a spiritual experience emanating out of the awe of watching the vastness of the planet or space from up above. It is inevitably associated with a feeling of oneness with nature. But even simple activities like time spent outdoors watching nature mindfully, gazing at the night sky or tall trees in a forest, a waterfall, childbirth, and so on can inspire a sense of awe that bring on a larger feeling of connectedness, purpose, generosity and patience.

The education and career choices of children will benefit when they are aware of the most fundamental and awesome questions facing humanity, rather than just focusing on the most expeditious path to a paycheck.

The sense of purpose that arises out of the sense of awe leads to wise choices. Children in their teenage years are unaware of the numerous possibilities in life. Career choices in India tend to be dominated by rushing through a college education to a quick job with a good paycheck. But we would be wise to teach our children that life is a marathon and not a sprint. Finding a purpose and pacing ourselves for the marathon will lead to a more balanced and peaceful life and will lead to bigger and better things in life in the long run. And it will keep them closely connected to their parents and family throughout life.

The education and career choices of children will benefit when they are aware of the most fundamental and awesome questions facing humanity, rather than just focusing on the most expeditious path to a paycheck.

My own list of grand challenges includes the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the way the brain functions. Basic sciences may lead to solutions to these grand challenges. But parents in India are generally reluctant to encourage their children to pursue such grand challenges or basic sciences because they consider these to be uncertain in terms of a career path or employment opportunities. Not all kids need to be pressured to taken on the grand challenges anyway. But there are numerous little things that offer plenty in the way of a goosebumpy career.

Nature, art, music, science and technology offer us career choices that were not even imaginable even a decade ago and are totally awesome.

The world has evolved in a way that there is no distinction between basic or applied sciences and natural or social sciences. An engineer can become a climate scientist, or an entrepreneur solving climate change with green technology, or an environmental lawyer. A medical doctor can work on the impact of climate on human health. An economist may become a political leader who drives sustainable development. Big data expertise will lead to discoveries in genetics and origin of life. Social and political scientists may lead the way in making the hard decisions on the ethical use of science and technology for world peace and environmentally friendly economic growth. Artists and musicians may well be the stewards of the environment while astronauts will be carrying our art and music to Mars and beyond the solar system. Kids will be writing apps to serve weather and climate data, or agricultural information, or building robots and driverless cars, and so on. There is going to be nothing but awe— if only we could pay attention. Boredom is nothing but a lack of attention.

Nature, art, music, science and technology offer us career choices that were not even imaginable even a decade ago and are totally awesome. Research shows that when we experience awe, our perspective broadens. This is a crucial foundation for finding our purpose. As William Damon posits in his book The Path to Purpose, this sense of connection is necessary for youngsters to maintain their motivation and inspiration even when they face challenges. In Damon's words:

"This is how all young people should feel about life when they are starting out. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm, and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them."

Pride, instant gratification and amusement are easily accessible to all now. But we owe it to the future generations to bring back that sense of awe and purpose.

Perhaps parents feel overwhelmed by the burden of ensuring a safe future for their offspring. But parents themselves need to be able to experience moments of awe. It is only then that they can seek out awesome experiences for their children. So much time is spent on social networks and WhatsApp groups forwarding trivial jokes and videos. But it is well known now that social groups that find ways to experience awe are more cohesive and cooperate better and are more patient in trying circumstances. Pride, instant gratification and amusement are easily accessible to all now. But we owe it to the future generations to bring back that sense of awe and thus a sense of purpose.

I would be remiss if I don't admit that luck often plays a great role in life and success. But as the old saying goes, fortune favours the brave. My own philosophy is that brave are those who try. And it is awesome to try without worrying about succeeding. Which brings us right back to our oldest guiding principle:

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन। (You have the right to work, but not to the fruits of it.)

The true awesomeness is in trying and not feeling entitled to the outcome.

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