How Bad Do You Want It?

Like the ads for the Source offer, “I want that” is something we’re each echoing daily. We see an ad for something or we see someone drive by in a cool car and think, I want that. We walk by someone’s fancy house or see them cruising their empire of a yard on a ride on lawnmower and think, I want that.

Whenever one of our children would parrot the Source’s phrase, “I want that”, I’d say, I’m interested in helping you get what you want. First, can you write me a 500 word essay on the meaning of the words want and need highlighting the differences between them. Surprisingly, I have yet to receive a written response, or verbal for that matter, from any of our children. It certainly did shut them up from pursuing their ask for a short period so I suppose the ask had some value.

Both want and need are pretty basic words. We think we know exactly what we and others mean when using them.

When our eldest was in Grade 1, he was enrolled in a Charter school in Alberta. Charter schools can be considered a hybrid between public and private education systems. Parents pay a little something for their children’s participation in a program, but considerably less than private schools. My wife and I wanted our child to have a solid, sound education focused on fundamental subjects. Or, so we thought. There are some restrictions on the curriculum offered. The school our eldest attended was part of a TLC program. TLC stands for Traditional Learning Center. Their focus from early grades forward is on core academic subjects. Good old fashioned, reading, writing, and arithmetic. There was little fluff and it was all business. Enrolling their only child, these parents were thrilled at the opportunity to expose their child to rigorous academics. The poor child had zero input and would not know what hit him. Turns out, Dad had even less of a clue.

Within days of school starting, our son was bringing homework home. The work wasn’t coloring sheets that he could be left on his own to complete. They certainly weren’t things he was eagerly pulling out of his backpack and setting to with his own initiative. We had to read through his planner, identify the required work, dig through a scattered knapsack, and then work with him to get things looked after. Most of the homework was math. It worked out to about 45 minutes to an hour daily. It was grade one, so I had a high degree of confidence in my ability to help out and get the answers correct. It wasn’t High School math I was pretending to understand. Basic addition and subtraction. At first, it seemed exactly like we wanted. The school was taking things seriously. We wanted to take things seriously. We were committed to doing our part to support our child’s development. Nonetheless, it was time consuming. We plodded through it day after day with dad grousing more than the child. The novelty of building our child’s brain wore off.

After a few months, parents had the opportunity to review their child’s progress and meet teachers. Off we dutifully went to visit. During the discussion, I asked the teacher if she considered the volume of math homework to be too much. Were it, perhaps, possible to reduce this burden? The teacher knowingly smiled and offered, “For each parent like you asking for less homework, we have at least two or three asking for more homework each day.” Stunned into silence, I sat defeated. I thought at first she must be joking. I like learning. We value education. We want to support our child’s teacher and we want to do our part to encourage hard work. But, seriously, an hour a day of just math homework was not even close to being enough for others. What I thought of as something we valued and was important to us, others had a completely different level of commitment to. I began to recognize two things in that moment.

First, there is a big difference between wanting something and needing something. Sure, we want things. We want a lot of things. Until we have to pay for it. Pay for it with resources of some kind. Money, time, effort. All of a sudden our interest dissipates. We think we want it, until we have to earn it. Those that are willing to do the work see the outcome as more of a need than a want. It is essential to their existence.

Second, we would need to find a different playing field for our children to play upon. Trying to compete with others that had a far greater interest, commitment, desire in that area was a recipe for failure. Our child wouldn’t stand a chance against those willing to work so much harder. We weren’t prepared to push our child to do even the minimum let alone multiples of this. When that school year came to an end, we picked up our child, went home, and enrolled in the good old public education system. Against armies of children investing additional hours a day on core academics our child didn’t stand a chance. Competing on raw processing power wasn’t going to be the path forward for our children. There are children from many families who are being catapulted forward on the hopes and dreams of their parents and grandparents in a way that those of us growing up comfortably aren’t. There’s a hunger that is being force fed upon some children led by a deep desperation to advance the next generation. There’s nothing about it that’s a want. It’s a necessity to these families.

I was reminded of a friend, a year ahead of me in school, who left our Province to attend high school in a neighboring one. It was a calculated family decision as they knew their son was going to become a dentist. In order to give him the best chance for success they opted to send him off to manage high school alone. They did so because the University that had a dental school in this province had a preference for graduates from its own province’s schools. At 14 or 15, my friend was put up in an apartment his family rented to attend a high school where he knew no one. He spent three years of high school living on his own with only the occasional visit from or to family. He then stayed there for undergraduate studies before being accepted into dental school. My friend wasn’t driving the decision. He didn’t walk out of the womb directly to dentistry. He hadn’t clamored to fix cavities since his early childhood. Performing root canals wasn’t in his biological roots. His parents had made this selection for him. They were an immigrant family that had sacrificed much to afford their children opportunities. They weren’t going to let their sacrifices be subject to the whims or choices of children or society. They knew each day they went to their jobs that the hard work they were putting themselves through was worth it based on the opportunity they would provide their children. It wasn’t just their son that was making sacrifices. The parents were giving up time with their child. They were incurring additional expenses. Their love was laced with desperation. The parents were motivated to move the family forward. The next generation would have things easier. The next generation would be established much higher up the social and financial hierarchies. The next generation would justify their blood, sweat, and tears. They picked a profession for their son which would be very well paid and offer some status. The son dutifully obliged. He’s not worse off now as an adult. He is a great husband and father in his own right. He seems content in his career. Different strokes for different folks. The parents chose. They determined the son’s destination. The son didn’t face any existential angst determining direction. This is a common path of many families still today.

It’s similar to what many smart kids in high school suggest as their direction when entering University. They enroll in a science program and offer that they are studying pre-med with aspirations of becoming doctors. They pursue this path because they did well in high school sciences and have been told that being a doctor is what hot shot, smart kids do. After a semester or two or more of University, their efforts intersect with reality. The science course load is intentionally created to pose challenges for students. It is intended to separate those who want something from those who need it. Organic Chemistry is the classic “weeder” course. It is just raw, brain busting information that is tough to grasp. Students universally struggle in this course. Many who encounter difficulty simply drop out. They drop out of the course and their dreams of becoming a doctor. These students learn firsthand the difference between wanting something and needing it. The others that suffer the same struggle and dig in, taking the course again after a poor mark by doubling down on diligent study, seeking study groups, hiring a tutor, or getting assistance from professor do so because their desire is much deeper than a want. Their path is a necessity. They don’t see the option of not moving forward. Sure, it’s hard. Sure, it may take longer, but I have to figure this out. It’s not a nice to have, it’s fundamentally who I am going to become.

Kai-Fu Lee is a Chinese immigrant to the US who has held senior, executive positions at several tech companies. In, AI Superpowers, Lee writes about Chinese culture resulting from their one child policy. He notes that this policy is now in its second generation meaning there are grandparents whom had one child now married and having their one child. In other words, four grand parents are emotionally invested in their two children who have had a single grand child for the four grandparents. There are six adults deeply interested in the one child’s development. Moreover, the grandparents are likely to have come from simple, humble beginnings with only memories of economic hardship and struggle. They only want for their offspring economic advancement. This disproportionate investment of adult energy into a single child coupled with economic desperation drives need. They don’t want the grandchild or child to succeed. They need it. Homework for these families isn’t a chore, it’s an opportunity. Work is fun. Achievement is everything. Contrast this level of desire with North American families that have grown up as part of the middle class for several generations. Grandparents likely have more than a few grand kids. They spread their emotional and financial investments amongst a number, not a single one. The kids, as their parents, have had comfortable lives with little struggle. They are free to explore and do what they want. Their level of commitment, drive, and desire can’t help but be less as there are just less adults behind driving their development.

The depth of our desire is a core differentiator in our development. We see this in sport at young ages. Some just seem to have a deeper seeded need to win, to achieve, to strive. Yes, there’s some biological wiring that may influence our individual levels of “hunger”. However, cultural (family) push as well as personal drive can be cultivated.

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Yet, do we consider the level of someone’s hunger/desire/want when hiring? Who do we choose if we’re given either a resume from a kid whose dad is part of the local chamber of commerce who went to a private school and now has a fancy university degree or one from a kid living on the wrong side of the tracks with just a high school education and a bare bones resume? The former has spent his life being told how great he is and how he can do and be anything he chooses. The other kid has received little positive reinforcement and has seen little but economic struggle. The latter, though, is desperate to break the cycle and is fueled with personal ambition. Which one of these two is more likely to be a hard worker? Will one be more “Willing to Work and Happy to Hurt?” (W2W H2H) Which one is more likely to act like a bulldog going after a bone when given a task? What if they have similar capability in terms of brain power? The University graduate has simply been afforded an opportunity the other wasn’t. Neither has real work experience. Who is going to be more loyal? Who is going to serve the team over themselves? Who is going to be willing to earn each step and be comfortable starting at the bottom? Where will each reside on our How Bad Do You Want it Meter? I think our answer to all of these questions would be the struggling, striver over the spoiled scholar. Yet, in reality we’re usually picking the winner of the resume war and not the hunger level.

By the way, guess what school my dentist friend sent his kids to. You guessed it, the charter one we had sent our son to, and he wasn’t asking for less homework for his sons.

“You’ve got to care. You start uncovering the layers of everything surrounding the game—the money, the hype, the stardom—and it comes down to this: How bad do you want it?” – Former NFL player, Carnell Lake.