Thought Experiment

Edwin Hubble, of the eponymous telescope, is showing the Einsteins around the facility. Mt. Palomar is an impressive place: the largest telescope on the planet, a hundred physicists, unlimited funding, the best of the best. Hubble says, “here is where we push back the frontiers of human knowledge. We are furthering the progress of science. We are unveiling the secrets of the universe, pushing back what is known about the creation of the cosmos.”

Mrs. Einstein stifles a yawn. “How nice for you,” she says unimpressed. “My husband does all that on the back of a used envelope.”*

Indeed, Einstein was said to do his “thought experiments” (gedanken) anywhere. A man falling at a constant acceleration in a windowless elevator—Einstein postulated—would be unable to determine his position in space-time nor whether or not he had any overdue library books.

I agree with Ellen Goodman** who wondered how to behave in a plummeting elevator. What are the societal niceties? Would her chances of survival be increased if she were to jump up an instant before the crash? What if she were wearing heels? Only her physicist knows for sure. And I am no physicist. I am, however, supposed to have some insights into parenting. So here is a thought question from my realm:

What do you want for your child? Are you maximizing the likelihood that she will develop the skills requisite to achieve your vision? Specifically, if you say that your daughter’s happiness is your primary concern, why are you beating her to death about her grade in pre-calculus? Even more granular, do you hope your daughter will grow up to be an orthopedic surgeon or a carpenter’s assistant?

Before proclaiming that your ego has nothing to do with your preferred career choice and suggesting that the doctor will have the economic means to be happier than the worker, let me up the ante. What if the physician is stressed, working 70 hours a week, emotionally unavailable, addicted to amphetamines, and habitually unpleasant to be in the same room with? (Many surgeons are none of those things—this is still a thought experiment.) What if the woman earning $18 an hour is content, coaching Little League, having dinner with her family, enveloped by trusted friends, loving her life?

If you still prefer having a daughter who is a doctor, you needn’t read more. Go poke your sleeping daughter with a chemistry book. If you’re serious about giving your child a shot at fulfillment in the operating room or the job site, you may wish to consider where you are placing your chips. Emphasizing achievement over motivation and passion is a recipe for misery. Concern for the future requires focus in the present. A child encumbered with endless AP classes falling asleep fully clothed with the lights blaring at 1:00 am does not emerge as a relaxed adult after residency. “The beatings will continue until moral improves” inspires neither galley slaves nor students. Children learn what they live. Misery now begets misery later.

The preceding does not suggest that children be allowed or—gasp!—encouraged to ignore their responsibilities in favor of debauchery, sloth, violent video games, and poor diet. Children NEED limits, structure, and guidance. Their protestations to the contrary, they actually WANT to be embraced by consistent, sensible rules. Insisting that they PERFORM to some external standard, to the contrary, shoves them another step down the road to nowhere. Kids are more likely to choose an academic path if given the choice to do do.

When Einstein lacked the mathematical background to use non-Euclidean geometry to quantify his idea of space curved by gravity, he reached out to Marcel Grossman. The two old friends from school spent a few highly-motivated years studying Reifman geometry. Then Einstein published his thoughts on general relativity. And redefined our species’ fundamental understanding of our place in the cosmos. Nobody forced Einstein to come up with the seminal idea in the history of civilization.

Can you imagine if Einstein‘s mother had forced him to be a carpenter’s assistant or an orthopedic surgeon for that matter? The most stinging repartee in the universe—“Oh, my husband does that on the back of a used envelope”—might never have been uttered.

I’ll take a motivated happy physicist, carpenter’s assistant, or underemployed poet over a miserable surgeon any time. I’m investing my influence helping my child be content with who she is.


* Timothy Ferris tells the story better and more accurately in Coming of Age in the Milky Way

** A Failure of Faith in Man-Made Things, reprinted in the first edition of Harry Bauld's On Writing the College Application Essay

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