When I was 11 I loved designing web pages and playing Sim City. Adults in my life didn’t recognize these skills as valuable, so neither did I. Actually, I began to feel guilty for using my computer so much. In high school I stopped making web pages altogether to focus on sports. It wasn’t until college, when strapped to pay my tuition, that I picked it back up and started making sites for small businesses. I graduated and teamed up with a few others I knew with these skills and moved to New York City to work on the Internet for a living. Three years later, in 2007, we sold our company, Vimeo, to a larger, publicly traded one. That passion I first developed quietly by myself, that went unnoticed by my parents and teachers, proved to be extraordinarily valuable to the economy just ten years later and the focus of many ambitious people today.
Childhood passions that seem like fads, sometimes even totally unproductive, could be mediums for experiencing the virtuous cycle of curiosity: discovering, trying, failing and growing.
It’s difficult to predict which skills will be valuable in the future, and even more challenging to see the connection between our children’s interests and these skills. Nothing illustrates this better than Minecraft, a popular game that might be best described as virtual LEGOs. Calling it a game belies the transformation it has sparked: An entire generation is learning how to create 3D models using a computer. It makes me wonder what sort of jobs, entertainment or art will be possible now. Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet. I bet today’s kids will eventually explore outcomes and create businesses only made possible by the influence of Minecraft in their lives.
At least one business will have been inspired by the so-called game. In 2011, I co-founded DIY, the online community I wish I had when I was young. Our members discover new skills and try challenges in order to learn them. They keep a portfolio and share pictures and videos of their progress, and by doing so they attract other makers who share their interests and offer feedback. The skills we promote range from classics likes Chemistry and Writing, to creativity like Illustration and Special Effects, to adventure like Cartography and Sailing, to emerging technology like Web Development and Rapid Prototyping. We create most of our skill curriculum in collaboration with our members. Recently the community decided to make Roleplayer an official skill; It’s a fascinating passion that involves collaboratively authoring stories in real time.
Most recently, we created JAM to give kids access to online courses to help kids learn what they love – and for some kids to help them learn what it is they love! We do this by connecting kids with some of the world’s most creative mentors around subjects that are emerging in the world and likely to be more important when they’re older.
My objective with this wide-ranging set of skills, and involving the community so closely in their development, is to give kids the chance to practice whatever makes them passionate now and feel encouraged — even if they’re obsessed with making stuff exclusively with duct tape. It’s crucial that kids learn how to be passionate for the rest of their lives. To start, they must first learn what it feels like to be simultaneously challenged and confident. It’s my instinct that we should not try to introduce these experiences through skills we value as much as look for opportunities to develop them, as well as creativity and literacy, in the skills they already love.
Why take any chances and build your dream house with blueprints alone? The Minecraft kid could easily make a realistic 3D model of one for you to walk through before you build. That’s why JAM treats Minecraft as a tool, not a game, and encourages our members to use it to pursue art, architecture and community-building.
Whether it’s Minecraft or duct tape wallets, the childhood passions that seem like fads, sometimes even totally unproductive, can alternatively be seen as mediums for experiencing the virtuous cycle of curiosity: discovering, trying, failing and growing. We’ve created a way for kids to explore hundreds of skills and to understand the ways in which they can be creative through them. Often, the skills are unconventional, and almost always the results are surprising. I don’t think it’s important that kids use the skills they learn on JAM for the rest of their lives. What’s important is that kids develop the muscle to be fearless learners so that they are never stuck with the skills they have. Only this will prepare them for a world where change is accelerating and depending on a single skill to provide a lifetime career is becoming impossible.
A version of this article was first published by edSurge on May 26, 2015.