Thriving Starts on the Inside

Peter BensonSeptember 14, 2018Competition and AchievementPerSpectives

I love watching shows like American Idol. It is not the competition or the judging that appeals to me. It’s the passion and joy I see when people are in the moment and expressing their gift.

Remember 19-year-old Joshua Allen, winner of last season’s So You Think You Can Dance? He captured the hearts of tens of millions of viewers that voted him their favorite. Of course, a big reason is that he can actually dance—he’s talented and versatile, especially in hip-hop style. But I think he touches us because, coming out of an environment of disadvantage, he knows his special gift and despite the odds, puts his gift into the world. Each of us wants that same passion in our life, that same internal fire that gives us purpose and hope.

I call this internal fire the human spark. A person’s spark is an interest or talent that unleashes one’s energy, providing moments of joy that come from expressing one’s true essence. A spark comes from inside of us. It is the thing about us that is by its very nature good, beautiful, and useful to the world.

The idea of spark is very much like the idea of spirit. The word spirit comes from Latin and means “my breath, put into the world with vigor and courage.” Your breath, your essence, your spark.

Each of us—young or old or in between—has a spark. Some of you have several. A big question in our lives is whether our spark is burning brightly or if it’s a barely visible ember at the risk of being snuffed out. Some people know this spark from an early age. I have a six-year-old grandson. On a quiet summer afternoon he uttered something that is hugely profound. In his words: “You know what? I am an artist. I don’t know if that will be my job someday, but I am an artist.” Think about the two words “I am.” For my grandson, the “I am” statement is artist. It is in his blood, in his bones. It is his breath. It is who he is and who he will be. This spark, hopefully, will inform everything he does in life. If the spark shines, he will be happy, engaged, and committed to life. If it gets snuffed out, life becomes a burden.

Most of us, however, discover our spark between the ages of 10 and 20. You know it when you feel it. That is, you know it when you are doing something that makes you feel whole, when time stands still, when just doing it or being it is its own reward. Being great at it or impressing people with it is not the point. Just knowing it, affirming it and putting it into play is the point.

My staff and I at Search Institute have surveyed over 4,000 eleven-to-eighteen-year-olds about this idea of spark. We discovered some amazing things. Every single youth we’ve talked to gets the idea of spark in a heartbeat. All youth care deeply to name their own spark. Two-thirds of youth can name their spark quickly and most of the remaining third can find it with some gentle probing.

We also learned something else. Most youth say no one has ever asked them to discuss their spark. You know what I am talking about. Adults easily see your exterior life—your clothes, hair, posture, body weight, skin—and judge you accordingly. We don’t slow down to see your inner spirit, your spark, your gift. There should be an awakening in the world around this idea: “And you shall know them by their sparks.” If we could make this idea real in our schools and communities, life would get richer for all of us.

My research has discovered more than 200 ways that young people describe their spark. Sparks range from making music and writing poetry to community service and peacemaking. In between there’s a love of archeology or learning languages or expressing leadership. In the United States, about half of all teens name a spark that’s about the creative life: art, music, dance, drama, or writing. The next most popular area of spark is playing a sport, like running or soccer. Interestingly, twice as many choose sparks in the creative category as those who choose athletics.

Youth, when talking about their spark, almost always use romantic language in describing it. They say things like, “I love it when I’m playing the piano,” or “I cherish the moments each day when I can help someone.” These are words of passion. And passion is a hallmark of spark.

While a spark always makes a contribution to our world, expressing it is not always pretty. Take the case of Leah Adler, who was a little concerned about her son, Steven’s, behavior. When he was eight, he cut off the head of one of his sister’s dolls and gave it to her on a bed of lettuce. Once, when his parents asked Steven to paint one bathroom wall, he painted everything in the bathroom—including the toilet and the mirror. Their struggle with Steven went on and on.

Then Steven joined the Boy Scouts. For some reason, Steven became fixated on the movie making Merit Badge, so his father bought him a Super-8 camera. When Steven made a full-length movie and convinced a nearby theater to show it, his mother put up the letters on the marquee and was relieved that Steven had finally found a hobby.

Then Steven said he needed his mother’s kitchen to shoot a scene for another movie. His mother agreed, bought 30 cans of cherries, and helped Steven cook them in a pressure cooker. Leah was thrilled that Steven was filming a movie about cooking, but Steven wasn’t interested in just cooking these cherries. He wanted to film exploding cherries. Leah said for years after that, she had to wipe off the cherry residue every time it oozed up from the wood in her cabinets.

Today, Leah is relieved that Steven is grown, but she also knows that a lot of this perplexing behavior has made her son who he is today. Most people now know about Leah’s son, the famous filmmaker Steven Spielberg, even if they’ve never actually met him.

So here’s the most important question in your life. What is your spark? Try to name it right now. Close your eyes and think about the moments when you feel joy and energy, when you feel really alive and connected and engaged. What are you doing or being? A spark can be a talent, an interest, or a quality like caring, empathy, or tolerance. You might find you actually have not just one, but two or three sparks. If you get stuck, ask a friend to help you define your spark. Friends know. Friends sometimes see things we don’t.

The sparks question is actually the first of what I call The Six Essential Questions. I wish that your parents and teachers would have this six-question conversation with you. And I wish you’d turn it around and ask the questions of them. They go like this:

1. What is your spark? I’m dying to know.

2. When and where do you express it?

3. Who knows your spark?

4. Who nourishes your spark?

5. What gets in your way?

6. How can I help?

It’s the conversation you and I hunger for. We want to be known in this way. We want to know our parents and friends in this way. Start the conversation. Your relationships will never be the same.

To lead a life rich in spark requires two things. The first is finding friends and adults who will be your spark champions. If they don’t come to you, then be courageous and go to them. Describe your spark to them and invite them to be on your spark team—which means providing encouragement for the spark, opening doors for its expression, or lending expertise to grow it. Secondly, find opportunities to express your spark. Maybe that’s in after school programs or in a faith community. If the opportunity does not exist, maybe you are the one who has to start something. If your spark is the saxophone, for example, start the saxophone spark club for fellow students and community adults who share your passion.

The biggest choice you will ever make in your life is whose voice you will listen to. Is it the one inside of you that tells you what your spark is and nudges you to put it into play? Or is it the voice of friends or adults who want to mold you into something else? A thriving life is never molded by forces outside of you. Thriving starts on the inside, with the knowledge and affirmation of your spark and the courage to put it into play. That’s how we fall in love with life. The spark is a seed waiting to find fertile soil and a chance to flower. Name it. Love it. Use it to light up our world.

Peter L. Benson, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Search Institute, and one of the world’s leading authorities on positive human development. He weaves together rigorous scholarship with a passionate commitment to understanding—and influencing—society to be more attentive to children and adolescents. Dr. Benson’s international reputation in human development emerged in the 1990s through his innovative, research-based framework of Developmental Assets, the most widely recognized approach to positive youth development in the United States and, increasingly, around the world. Dr. Benson continues to break new ground in the study of human development. Most recently, he has focused on conceptualizing a new understanding of “thriving.” He is also the principal investigator and co-director for Search Institute’s new Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Dr. Benson is the author or editor of fifteen books on child and adolescent development, including Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers (Jossey-Bass), All Kids Are Our Kids: What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents (Jossey-Bass), and The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence (Sage). His newest book, Vision: Awakening Your Potential to Create a Better World, was published in May, 2009, by Templeton Press. Dr. Benson is married to Tunie Munson-Benson, a nationally recognized expert in children’s literature and literacy. They have two children, Liv and Kai, and two grandsons, Ryder and Truman.