27 July 2008

Unwrapping Gifts

I just finished Peter Block's fabulous new book Community: The Structure of Belonging, which provoked the following.

I know a lot of young adults. Where I see possibility, they seem to see confusion. Where I see reason for excitement, they seem to see reason for fear. Where I see the irrelevant, they seem to see something that demands attention.

Block writes,

"In our attraction to problems, deficiencies, disabilities, and needs, the missing community conversation is about gifts. The only cultural practices that focus on gifts are retirement parties and funerals. We only express gratitude for your gifts when you are on your way out or gone. If we really want to know what gifts others see in us, we have to wait for our own eulogy, and even then, as the story goes, we will miss it by a few days.

"In community building, rather than focusing on our deficiencies and weaknesses, which will most likely not go away, we gain more leverage when we focus on the gifts we bring and seek ways to capitalize on them. Instead of problematizing people and work, the conversation that searches for the mystery of our gifts brings the greatest change and results.
"The focus on gifts confronts people with their essential core, that which has the most potential to make the difference and change lives for good. ... our life work is to bring our gifts into the world."
"I am not what I am not able to do. I am what I am able to do - my gifts and capacities."

And what he writes makes me wonder about this problem young adults face. For the whole of their education, they've had their attention drawn to the red ink, to what is wrong or missing. This is not necessarily bad. Up to a particular point in life, it is worth pointing out that one lacks mathematical ability or spelling or compositional skills. The brain is plastic and feedback about what more needs to be learned or what is being done incorrectly is necessary for learning.

But at some point - about the time that students are transitioning into adulthood - what is weak or missing is likely to stay that way. Now it is time to focus on one's gifts, something that we are both unrehearsed at and might even find intimidating.

Block, again, writes,

"[Negative feedback] is often packaged in the name of learning and growth.
"Don't buy the packaging. The longing for feedback that we can 'work on' is really a defense against the terrible burden of acknowledging our gifts and getting about the work of living them, which we can call 'fulfilling our destiny' - language so demanding and imposing, no wonder I would rather keep swimming in the morass of my needs and incompleteness."

Or, as Tim Allen puts it,
"It’s daunting how many possibilities there are in life for everyone of us. But rather than face that I might be a failure or success – I think both of them are terrifying – people find diversions.”

At the point at which children become adults, they have to make a transition. Instead of focusing on filling in what is missing, they now have to build on what is present. Rather than turn a C into a B, they have to turn an A into a unique contribution, something that defies easy grading. Sadly, all their experience up to that point is on ameliorating weaknesses, not enhancing strengths.

I wonder how we would change this? It seems to me that this ought to be the central question of university education, but I could be wrong.


K-Kix said...

YES to:
- "Eulogizing" the alive and kicking
- getting rid of the red ink
- using our gifts to the max
I MUST say the last one over and over to myself, like some sort of mantra.
I realize, I've been keeping them (my gifts) locked away lately...now to find that key

Ron Davison said...

One of the things I've come to believe is that if you are really heading in a direction that fully realizes your potential, it is a lifetime work. How could it be your potential if you could do it easily and, say, within a month?
Thanks for swinging by R World.

slouching mom said...


but i am a pessimist. watching my husband's undergraduate students and how they interact with him, i do not see students believing they have no gifts.

i see them believing they have TOO MANY gifts. they do not respond well to correction. they are stubborn, and full of excuses. they act entitled, as if by virtue of the fact that their parents have paid for them to enroll in the class, they ought to have an 'A.' Just for showing up, mind you, not for doing any work.

I'm sorry to sound so negative; I do agree with the logic behind your argument.

It's just that I don't see the first part happening these days -- the correction that would need to precede the discovery of gifts.

Ron Davison said...

Thank you for that. I wonder if the problem might be that students are not brought out into the world and expected to perform there. It is not about showing up in the classroom, it is about showing up in the real world (to quote my wife). In the real world, these students will inevitably be humbled. Try to reduce homelessness? Develop a product? Enact legislation? Simply get the attention of fellow citizens? Attempt these things and you will be humbled and you will realize what a big job you have before you to develop your gifts.

bobber said...

so I am probably a little out of my league here but... I was thinking while reading the post/responses that rather then choose a subject or major based on talents or 'gifts', I think my generation is choosing their emphasis on the basis of pressure(most likely from the parents, interests or practicality.

So with that thought in mind, i agree with the fact that the red ink is kind of a downer because just because you score poorly in an area shouldn't limit your interest. Ex: I love life science, mostly nature study. however, to be successful in this area of acedemics, you should be prepared to memorize, memorize memorize.... Not really my forte. So should I stop pursuing? Nope. I read books on my spare time. I dont need to have a degree to be interested. I might not be professional and i might not derive my means of living from that field but I can still make decisions based upon my knowlage and maybe even pass on some of that information. This can be my level of contribution in the field of life science. This isn't a gift and its not limiting myself. Its most likely just adding stability. I think I could safely say thats enhancing strengths.

Kale Roseen said...

Ron - Keep in mind that this comment is coming from someone who still has a lot to learn...

The most obvious thing that comes to mind for me to comment on is this: You said that "at the point at which children become adults, they have to make a transition". So I wonder when exactly this point is. I sure haven't figured it out. I definitely see the potential in this concept. I've often wished I could commit myself fully to just one thing so I could be an expert in that area instead of a sort of "jack of all trades". And why not let that one area be something that I am gifted in?

So your question at the end is a great one. How would we implement this into our society and institutions of education, especially when young people are basically being exposed to more and more options everyday. Interesting...