In a letter to his son, Einstein wrote: “Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. . . .”
Einstein is not simply offering his son the secret to mastering a new skill. We all know that to get really good at something you have to first enjoy doing it; you don’t need Einstein to tell you that. Rather, he seems to be advising his son on a much deeper truth about life, that taking the time to find out what you really love and pursuing it wholeheartedly is essential to the art of living well. Einstein does not say, “this is how I got to be so good at what I do”. He says, “I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal”. Happiness is the ability to lose yourself in your work, the way that children are able to lose themselves in play.
Children at the Macomber Center often “forget about the noon meal”. There is a sense of urgency to their pursuits that is not common in other educational settings. The children here spend their time playing in streams, throwing frisbees, writing computer programs, filming movies, studying biology and a thousand other things. It doesn’t look much like school. But for most of our history kids didn’t go to school. Childhood was about playing with other kids and observing and imitating the adults around them. Above all, childhood is about finding something meaningful to give yourself to, something that will keep your curiosity and interest alive.
Having been fortunate enough myself to have had the free time as a child to cultivate my own interests, it is easy for me to accept this idea. Einstein’s message of following one’s own desires and not letting yourself get distracted by what others assign to you, appeals to me on an immediate, experiential level. But for those who are not as easily convinced, consider the reverse; the perils of a life without anything to pour yourself into. When we fail to discover those things that give us direction and purpose, we can spend our lives in a kind of limbo. It’s like being a bit unhinged, free floating through the world, unable to ground our attention. This is why people become so susceptible to all the empty promises for happiness, always being offered in some new form in our hyper-consumerist culture. If we miss the opportunity for meaningful work, we end up looking for pleasure and satisfaction in all the wrong places.