Commentary on a Parental Advice Column

Ted Gioia:

I approve of their choices in both cases. But the key thing is: My approval is irrelevant. I don’t give my sons unsolicited advice on courses, majors, or careers. I’ve encouraged them to think for themselves and construct their own life plan. “Every career decision has pros and cons,” I tell them. “You have to live with the consequences, so the responsibility for the decision needs to rest on your own shoulders.”

I’ve seen all around us the negative results of parents giving their children too much advice and heavy-handed guidance. Many of youngsters in our neighborhood, even very talented ones, are burnt out long before they go off to college. Even worse, they feel only half-hearted commitment to their education and future vocation, because they never get to make these choices. You always work harder in pursuing your own agenda, not someone else’s. (By the way, that’s why democracies almost always defeat tyrannies in war—you fight harder when your own freedom is at stake, not just the glory of the dictator.) If your own parents deprive you of agency and self-determination when you’re making key life decisions, you might never recover.

I recently read a fascinating article entitled “How to Work Hard” by Paul Graham. I highly recommend it. Yet I’m not even sure why I read it—because, after all, what could be simpler than the rules for working hard? You put your nose to the grindstone, your feet to the fire, or whatever metaphor you prefer, and just get things done. But Graham makes a brilliant point in this essay.