The other day my six year old son shared a major revelation in his life. He turned to my wife and told her, “I came to the realization that I most likely won’t be a professional ninja when I grow up.”
My wife was chuckling when she relayed this story to me but this is no laughing matter. At six years old was my son already putting limits on his dreams? I decided that I needed to investigate this mystery and see if, in doing so, I could unravel some universal truth that was applicable to all of our future career decisions.
I began by turning this statement over and over in my mind. What did such a statement say about my son? About my parenting? Did he lack work ethic and was giving up simply because he had yet to perfect his nunchaku skills? Was his thinking an indictment on all youth of the digital revolution who have been spoon-fed technology-centric instant gratification since the crib? Was I stifling his creativity and ability to soar (silently from rooftop to rooftop)?
Like I said, I needed to understand more. I decided I needed my son to answer two fundamental questions, as his answers would dictate my parenting response.
The first question was: why did he not think he could be a ninja?
This is an important question that we often have to ask ourselves. I know first-hand how easy it is to put limitations on yourself. More often than not these are self-imposed. Doubt is normal. Truly wanting something and going for it can be paralyzing. If I give it my all and fail, I may never recover. It is safer not to try. I can rationalize not trying by thinking I’m not good enough or not lucky enough or don’t have the right connections. That mentality is a dream killer. If you don’t think you can do it, then you never will. It is that simple.
Where it gets more complex is when you think you can. Just because you do, doesn’t mean you will. Or at least in the way you originally thought. There are a lot of factors that can limit your ability to achieve a goal. For example, the fact that Wikipedia refers to ninjas in the past tense leads me to believe that there may not be any professional ninjas any more. This article seems to be further proof. If my son really set his heart on becoming a ninja, how could he if the profession doesn’t even exist?
Parenting, mentoring and coaching is hard because knowing when to encourage someone and when to “get real” isn’t easy. No one wants to crush someone’s dream. But, at times, it can be even more damaging to let someone keep running if you know they’re headed straight for a cliff. Then again can you learn to fly if you never fall?
If my constant question asking and flight cliches are driving you crazy it’s because this stuff is maddening. We all want to do what is best for our children but you can’t A/B test (wait, do parents A/B test decisions between children?). It’s a fine line but I think answering my next question helps in knowing which direction to take.
Why did he want to be a ninja?
Another important question.
There is the possibility that he felt honor bound to defend our family against a rival neighbor (I’m thinking the Flahertys, as I still haven’t gotten my ladder back, John!) and in doing so felt the need to harness the dark arts of espionage and subterfuge to get the job done.
But perhaps he didn’t really want to be a covert assassin at all but instead just really liked wearing tights and a mask. Perhaps a career in the WWE or ballet would appease that same desire. We often fixate on a goal without ever dissecting the elements of what makes that goal worth obtaining. For example, a person may say, “I want to be a veterinarian.” But what they mean to say is “I want to work with animals.” It is a subtle but massive distinction. One is finite and achievement of that goal is pass or fail. The other allows flexibility and gives more levers to pull to enable success.
And human beings are truly gifted at succeeding. Our ability to reimagine what a career is and how we choose to spend the days of our lives is inspiring and jaw dropping.
Take Richard Tyler Blevins as an example.
Maybe as a kid he wanted to become a ninja when he grew up. Maybe his dad said that’ll be really hard to do but damn it son I believe you can if you put your mind to it and go into with your eyes wide open.
As I wrote this blog, I Googled “ninja.” All of the entries on the first page that returned were not about stealthy martial artists. They were about Richard Tyler Blevins, a professional video gamer known by his online alias “ninja”. Through natural talent, hard work and vision, Blevins has literally redefined what it means to be a ninja.
There are no limits, I will tell my son. Now, if I can just find him. Damn, ninja.
Update: I asked my son why he wanted to be a ninja. He said he liked sneaking around the house and not being seen. He said it would be cool to ring the doorbell and disappear. Congratulations, I’m raising a future doorbell ditcher!