Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nature, Nurture And Fostering Greatness

There was an interesting story in yesterday's New York Times probing the connection between natural talent and superior achievement. How much are we inherently born with, how much is a product of our environment and what are the other factors that create a word class athlete, musician, artist or scholar?

The conclusion, or at least much of the current thought, credits determination, persistence and a commitment to at least 10 years of serious and regimented practice as the driving factors in rare and notable success, above and beyond God-given gifts and abilities. Malcolm Gladwell hit on the same point in his recent book Outliers.

It's one of the things we think about as parents, especially as the girls get older and more focused on the various activities they pursue. How much to push, how much expressed or demonstrated interest merits professional or structured guidance, and when to just let things run their course. Like everyone else, we believe our children are extraordinary people, and we want to make sure we're giving them the tools, training and support, on a whole host of levels, to achieve everything they want in life. We are absolutely and consistently striving to create and foster an environment of "you can do anything," as opposed to "what makes you think you can do that?"

And it's been interesting to observe their talents, natural abilities and interests evolve in sometimes unexpected directions.

On paper, Madison should have been an excellent soccer player. Lean and fast, with good coordination, she played for three or four years and never really moved beyond being the kid who followed the pack and was content to never really dig in or drive the ball. She progressively lost interest and ultimately said she didn't want to play anymore, a decision we accepted.

Around that same time, she tried lacrosse, loved it and has continued to dedicate herself to that game and develop as a player. She takes pride in it and looks forward to it in a way that never kicked in with soccer. She asks to go outside and play catch or drill, appreciates her games and any opportunity to get out there on the field. She's always been extremely verbal and intrigued by words and what they mean - writing stories and reading. As an offshoot of this, or maybe because of it, she loves acting has already done a number of local plays. She relishes rehearsals and small moments that would seem intolerable to most, spending hours working on her lines, or just watching others run theirs, anything to just be around it.

Ava excels at soccer in a way Madison never did. Understands the game, fights for the ball, leads the pack and scores goals. She recently joined Madison with a minor part in one of those local plays and enjoyed it, but her real thing is music - which seems fortunate to us because she has a beautiful voice and an uncanny knack, at 7, for coming up with lyrics out of thin air and then wandering around singing them. She rattles them off stream-of-consciousness, me sitting at the computer keyboard trying to capture the lines through my own amazement. The other night she built a song off this concept: "I fell in love with the Moon in the Moonlight."

She can't play the guitar yet but still carries her miniature acoustic all over the house, strumming along to her songs, when she's not sitting in front of our electric keyboard. Clearly there's an interest, bubbling up from some source of natural talent, and the question as a parent is how to foster it without killing it, how to provide enough encouragement and formal training without turning it into work or tedium, snuffing out the flame just as it starts to take hold and move down the wick.

Ava has lately been wanting to know how people get famous, how people wind up on Nickelodeon and on records and when she can start. We don't have great answers to these questions, because the last thing we want to message at this point is how enormously hard it is, how long the odds are, how much you have to give up along the way and how rare it is for that kind of lightning to strike. Our answers revolve around staying interested, staying at it and continuing to do the things you love and want to pursue and the rest will take care of itself. As noted above, we like to live in the land of "you can do anything," and we're committed to that approach - for confidence building and self esteem if nothing else.

The piece in the Times, and Gladwell's book, make me think that we're on the right track. If you are willing to work at it and be persistent and really put the time in, maybe doing extraordinary things is less a function of the crap shoot and breeding than many of us were brought up to believe. Rare, to be sure, but a path that can be followed by those willing to really commit themselves to something. And, as a parent, that seems better than having to credit genetics and lucky lottery tickets as the overriding factors in extraordinary success.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

iPad, Therefore I (Almost) Am

I hadn't really planned on buying an iPad, and I certainly hadn't planned on adding to the millions of words that have already been written about this revolutionary product. But I got one on Saturday - because as an unabashed Apple fanboy I ultimately realized that is what's required - and I've spent the last few days playing around with it and thinking about it and have come to some early conclusions that seemed worthy of a post.

First off, it's an amazing device. Aesthetically beautiful, typical minimalist Apple design (some people are saying it's too heavy, it feels solid to me) and able to do incredible - OK, fine, magical things for what it is. At the same time, it comes up slightly short of where it needs to be to really occupy the space Steve Jobs seemed to be gazing at in the Reality Distortion Field of announcement day.

I thought typing would be the biggest drawback or required adjustment, but it's not. The iPad is actually decent to type on, especially in landscape mode. I'm writing this post on it, home row and all, because anything short of that would feel like cheating - even though the process would be faster and easier on my laptop, and I had to run to our iMac to embed the screen shot above. It's good and functional for e-mail, Web surfing is fun and tangible, given the large touchscreen. Watching movies or TV shows is great, as expected, a huge upgrade over the smaller displays of the iPhone or iPod touch, and the early applications developed or optimized for the device are stunning - The Weather Channel, Bloomberg and Flight Control HD to name a few. Photos are gorgeous and the "digital picture frame" mode was a nice surprise. I never went down the Kindle road, but the book reader looks cool and interesting - with color illustrations! Good battery life. In short, it's an extremely capable piece of technology, in a beautiful box.

When he first unveiled it, Jobs talked about creating a new category, and that's certainly possible, but the iPad occupies a slightly odd and difficult space (as evidenced by the dearth of tablet success stories) that this first incarnation hasn't quite cracked. Consider the iPhone as a point of reference. Everyone carries a cell phone today, it's part of modern living. The genius of the iPhone was that it also did all these other things you never would have thought possible, based on its size and your previous expectations in that space. Legitimate Web access, music, video, e-mail, a universe of amazing applications. You carried it with you and couldn't believe how much more you got, how much additional and unexpected capability you had along for the ride in that tiny package.

The iPhone gets you further than you ever thought you could go on a cell phone. For those looking for real computing power and functionality, the desktop (or notebook) gets you all the way there. The iPad, or I should say this generation of the iPad, does neither. I love it, and yet find myself looking for reasons/opportunities to use it. At this point it's another 1.5 pounds in my messenger bag, and everything else is still in the bag. I'm not ditching the connectivity of the cell phone, and to really feel like I'm not going to get caught short on the ability to do something, I need the laptop.

The girls watched a movie on the way to my parents' house on Easter Sunday and it was tremendous, so much better than that old portable DVD player we used to lug around, and far superior to staring down at the screens of their respective iPods. The iPad elevates that experience. So as a media player, kick around an application or two, play a game, surf the Web or check in on e-mail, it's amazing. If that's what you are looking for, and the definition of what you need, it's already here.

But if you really want to replace your laptop computer, even if only for light use, there are some enhancements needed. I have some business travel coming up in a few weeks, and as much as I would love to make it an iPhone/iPad only trip, I already know I'm going to need to lug along my MacBook Pro as well. Here are some iPad features that would have made for a considerably lighter excursion:

1. A front-facing camera. This is a miss that seems almost inexcusable, given what Apple's accomplished on the much smaller iPhone and on all of their other computers. I don't necessarily see people running around snapping two-handed photos on their iPads, but enabling video chat alone (even if only in WiFi mode) would be a major step in allowing people to "connect" with others on this device. We recently joined the Skype revolution in our house and enjoy video chats with friends and relatives. I'm definitely looking forward to using it to feel closer to the family when I'm away. Not on the iPad.

2. The ability to run multiple applications. Here's another one that just feels like it should be a given. But then again it feels that way on the iPhone, too. If people are really going to commit to a device of this type they are going to need to be able to do more than one thing at a time. The iPhone sort of gets a pass because the phone is the default background app - it's always there, waiting and available and active, and you can also do all this other stuff. The iPad only lets you do all this other stuff. One. Function. At. A. Time.

3. More robust document management. I'm just starting to play around with the Pages application, and was actually pleasantly surprised to see the Word/PDF integration - via incoming and outgoing e-mails - but every time I try to import a previously-created Word document into Pages I get a "Document Import Warning" pop-up, typically related to fonts or formats, which doesn't really instill confidence when doing mission critical and collaborative work. Again, is this an issue for a large video player with Web access? No. Is it an issue for a device that could be considered a laptop/netbook replacement? You bet. Being able to import documents to the "desktop" screen and see them there as icons, or in one folder, to open and edit and save or send would be a major enhancement.

I thought celebrated VC Fred Wilson posted a good (if slightly negative) take on the iPad earlier today, and I agree with much of what he said. At this point, I'm glad I have it, I'm amazed by the things it can do, and I'm looking forward to seeing the applications developers will devise for this new and - in many ways - much more capable platform.

But my MacBook is still coming on the road with me, along with my cherished iPhone, as much as I would love for it to be otherwise. If I had to guess, I would bet the iPad actually winds up coming out of the bag - relatively soon - and becomes the thing that's hanging around the den or bedroom, there at the ready to do a little morning or late-night Web or book reading, send an e-mail or two and check the weather. Chalk it up to being what it is and make sure it's in the car and loaded with age-appropriate movies for the girls when we're starting off on a long drive.

"Are we there yet?"

No, Steve, not yet. But close.