Everyone Should Learn to…


I know that’s what you were thinking. Ever since President Obama ignited (reignited?) the controversy over whether every child should learn how to program, the Interwebs have been abuzz with arguments for, and in many cases, against.

For example:

codeHere’s the thing:

I’m somewhat agnostic on the whole “everyone should learn to program” question. More like—I’m over it.

Yes, we as a society should invest more in technology education. Yes, we should teach girls computer skills. Yes, designers who know backend processes can make better decisions.

BUT it all feels depressingly familiar.

Perhaps it’s age, experience, or even (gasp!) wisdom, or maybe it’s my inherent cynicism that causes me to reject any notion that “Everyone should…do…such & such a thing…”

Book - The Rules

The Rules — Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right

From driving a stick shift to holding five-minute meetings to Total Quality Management (TQM), it seems the lists of things one needs to Hack Life just keep growing. Only the names have changed.

Perhaps it’s my feminist streak that makes me instantly recoil. This trend feels like a redux of “A Lady should always wear lipstick in public” or that stupid 90s book, “The Rules.”

Not that there aren’t life skills which I believe everyone should master, regardless of gender. My dad thought it important that his daughters know how to change a tire and clean a fish. Everyone should probably know how to boil an egg and cook at least one decent meal.

Heck, I’d go on to say that everyone should learn to:

  • Write and speak clearly
  • Drive (legally and gently)
  • Ride the bus or subway
  • Balance a checkbook
  • Swim
  • Build a fire
  • Use power tools
  • Swing dance
  • Drink scotch
  • Paint with watercolors
  • Take great photos
  • Speak French (or Chinese or language of your choice)
  • Appreciate David Bowie
  • Twerk.
You see where I’m going. What starts out with good intentions quickly devolves into a list of preferences. What seem like essential or core skills may turn out not to be. When was the last time you tried to loosen the lug nuts to change a tire? Can’t be done without machinery. Or clean a fish or shuck an oyster. I am quite happy to have the friendly folks at the Seafood Counter fillet my fish for me.

Moreover, there is the question of aptitude.

I have tried swing dancing. I took dance lessons as a child for ten years before realizing I had no actual talent. (This realization came during a disastrous dance recital performance of “A Chorus Line” number in which I danced in the curtains while my sister—who could dance—shined on center stage.) I was kicked out of marching band because I couldn’t play music and simultaneously march on the correct foot. And my French is atrocious. Ask my kids.

There may be a larger point to be made about the damage to a person’s self-esteem when pushed to learn skills for which there is little aptitude. Square peg, round hole and all that. Or the perpetual subliminal anxiety over never quite measuring up or being good enough. How many of us really will get to visit “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” or read the “Greatest 100 Books Everyone Should Read”?

I am sure those books provide great suggestions and act as guide posts. And I believe that as a society, it is important to identify critical skills and competencies for future success. And to invest in them. But…

Can we stop making rules for everyone?

Can we stop suggesting that there is only one path to success? Can we abandon this particular bandwagon?

Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art. Neil Gaiman

With a limited budget, I choose to travel to the places I’ve always wanted to visit—Niagra Falls, the Grand Canyon, Croatia, Paris. I will read what I damn well please. And maybe some Tolstoy. I encourage my children to study and practice both technical, practical skills as well as humanities and the arts.

To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it. Kurt Vonnegut

In the meantime, everyone should do what feeds your soul.