Exposure: The Building Blocks of Our Life

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Have you ever thought about what you have been exposed to in your life? Family, school, friends, jobs, current events, changes in technology, relationships, and everything else that shapes who we are. Even in one family, siblings would have a completely unique experience despite growing up in the same household.

We are the totality of everything that we have ever been exposed to, which makes us as unique as our fingerprints. We can never exactly duplicate someone’s life.

It’s interesting to study the background of famous people.

Albert Einstein’s father was an engineer who had a company that manufactured electrical equipment based on direct current.

Pablo Picasso’s father was a painter and his mother was an artist.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mother took her to the library frequently as a child and encouraged her to get an education.

Beethoven’s grandfather was a renowned musician.

Maya Angelou had a family friend who introduced her to literature, and that helped her begin to speak after being mute for 5 years following sexual abuse as a child.

After Jean-Paul Sartre’s father passed away, he had a grandfather in his life who was a German and math teacher. That grandfather exposed him to classical literature.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, and Teresa Shimogawa all grew up reading Nancy Drew. 🙂

A few days ago at an educational summit for my school district regarding students becoming “future ready,” the concept of exposure was brought up, and how important it is for children.

I mulled over the concept over the weekend.

Exposing students to opportunities for innovation, internships, developing character, building skills in communication, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration–all of this is important in preparing students to be college and career ready beyond their secondary education.

Kids are more likely to become inventors when they grow up in cities with other inventors. The fact that this correlation exists makes it imperative for public schools to pay attention, because we may be the only source of exposure for a child who didn’t grow up with inventors as parents.

While it is possible for a person like Picasso to stumble into the world of art, it certainly wasn’t a coincidence that the renowned artist grew up with artists. He had that exposure. They taught him technique. They bought him supplies and created space for him to practice. They talked about art in their home. It was a part of their environment.

Not everyone gets that kind of in-depth exposure, or even any exposure at all. In our public schools, we teach students who have never gone to a museum, whose parents and grandparents have never left the continent, and students who don’t have anyone in their family with a college degree. We teach students who might rarely even see their parents because the parents are working multiple jobs and just trying to survive. We teach students who grow up with a lot of negative and damaging exposure, who have more bad influences than good, and coming to school is the safest part of their day.

In public schools, our job is to level the playing field. We have a responsibility to expose students to not only math and history and English and science and the other content areas that we’re supposed to cover, but also expose our students to the soft skills they need to be college and career ready.

We have to expose our students to music and dance and culinary and foreign language and give them opportunities to do civic action projects and write poetry and learn how to give a TED talk and engage in activities that may not show up on a standardized test, but are so important to how they develop as human beings. This exposure will have a lasting impact not just on their brains, but more importantly on their souls.

We are planting seeds. We don’t know which ones will germinate. We have no idea if the seeds will become beautiful fruit-bearing plants at all; all we know is that we planted seeds and gave them the opportunity to grow into something more by providing the most ideal growing conditions that we could control in the time that we had with them.

I think about my own exposure. My mom took us to the library every week. I was in Girl Scouts. I took honors and A.P. classes and participated in Mock Trial in high school. My mother was an immigrant with family overseas. My father showed us hard work by working two jobs throughout much of my childhood. I had a grandmother who showed her love through cooking and cleaning, who washed paper plates because she remembered when times were so hard they had to catch birds for food. We watched the news regularly in my home and got the newspaper daily. My mom took me to Israel and Egypt when I was 17 years old, causing a life-long case of wanderlust. I might have never really known much about what a union was if it weren’t for my colleague at my new school who told me and the other new guy that there was a rally on the street at 3PM and she would see us there. As the new person, I didn’t think I had a choice. So I showed up. Then later, I married a guy who would pull me in even deeper, exposing me to more politics, Buddhism, finance, health, philosophy, and more. I worked for people who exposed me to new things. I went to college and took classes that shaped my thinking. I traveled. I traveled with people and I traveled alone. I met family abroad. I had students and teachers and neighbors and friends and enemies and success and failure–all of this exposure to people, places, and experiences are what I carry inside of me like an imprint on my DNA.

There’s a lot of stuff that I wasn’t exposed to. I was the first college graduate in my household. I didn’t take half of the classes that my kids currently take.

My first grade teacher did a project where we picked a coloring book page and had to write a story about it. I chose a picture of a doll wearing a bonnet and wrote “The Doll That Nobody Wanted.” My very first fiction story. The teacher laminated the cover and we had proper little books. I must have gone to elementary school during a wave of creative writing, because we did it again in other grades, and I cherished the books I got to make. Even though I loved writing, I didn’t have anyone around to tell me how to become a writer. I’m 36 years old and still trying to figure it out. Five years ago, right after I had my second child, I decided to get books on how to write fiction. I had no idea why I didn’t think of it sooner, but there I was, reading books while nursing the baby and trying to keep a toddler happy. Then I started going to Starbucks on Saturdays at 6AM before the kids woke up. After my husband passed away, I hired a sitter and tried to go 2-3 times a week. This year, I hired a writing coach. I also signed up for a writing retreat. Who knew you could find someone to give you insider information? I was amazed, as if I stumbled upon the world’s best kept secret. The point of all of this is that I had exposure as a young child–not much, but enough to know that writing was something I had to do–and those crumbs of exposure set me on a long path of figuring out how to make it happen. Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, is a successful writer. I sure wish I had Stephen King as a dad. I certainly wouldn’t have spent the last five years bungling around trying to figure “this” out. But five years of bungling is better than a lifetime of never doing it. I’m so thankful to have the ability to bungle thanks to early exposure to creative writing.

I think about my own children and my parenting philosophy of exposing them to as much as I can. I am attempting to impart as much wisdom and knowledge to them as I can during their childhood. For food, you have to expose your child to something over a dozen times before determining whether or not they truly don’t like it. I didn’t want my children to be picky eaters like I was, so thankfully they developed an adventurous palate. It helped that they grew up with a Vietnamese babysitter who stuffed them with Vietnamese food that I wouldn’t even touch. More exposure! Kids in the United States are generally known for being picky eaters, but when you look at a child’s menu in a restaurant you can easily guess why: mac n cheese, chicken nuggets, pizza. If that’s what you repeatedly expose your child to, that’s what they are going to eat.

Yesterday I drove one kid to Japanese school and then took the little one to swim. Meanwhile, I packed the middle child’s color pencils and coloring books because she thinks she is an artist and I want to encourage her interests (in addition to paying for her weekly art class). That’s just a tiny slice of our crazy schedule. Our life includes more swim lessons, Cub Scouts, tennis lessons, dharma school, coding, chess club, Mad Science, dance, music class, trips to the library, vacations abroad, museums, books, books, more books. I want to raise resilient children, so we talk about everything from nutrition and exercise to death to politics to our feelings. I don’t sugarcoat life. I want my children exposed to the real world so they will develop coping skills to increase their ability to survive and thrive.

The beautiful thing about exposure is that the more we are exposed to ideas, knowledge, and experiences, the more we begin to seek out exposure on our own. It is part of what makes a life-long learner. It is what distinguishes a curious person from a non-curious person. When you are curious, you want to to know more. You want to talk to people. You want to try new things. You are open to taking risks.

Here’s the thing about life: we can’t successfully operate long-term in silos. We often create and do work independently, but we are most effective, creative, and successful when we collaborate and network with others.

You should read Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He writes about how creativity is fueled by getting ideas from other people. We start off by imitating others. Kleon writes about how the Beatles started as a cover band. You emulate people you admire, and then eventually you are able to evolve your own unique style. That evolution is fueled by other people’s ideas. We grow and learn and love and inspire and connect–this is what helps us flourish. Kleon writes that you “don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” This is powerful. But to “see like your heroes,” you have to get that exposure. Inspiration. Creative fuel. It is magic to be around other people who have an energy and spirit that fosters new ideas. I love learning from other people.

We often criticize people (especially younger generations) for staring at their phones too much, but what we don’t talk about is how magnificent the internet has been for connection and getting exposed to people and ideas. If we use the internet as the valuable tool that it is, we can connect in ways that were previously impossible. Look at how the teenagers have used social media to create a nationwide movement after the school mass shooting in Florida. I have found so many inspiring people online. Even having the ability to find information is wild when you think about our lives before mainstream internet. It’s not the internet that makes us anti-social or isolated. The internet is a tool, just like a telephone or a cell phone or even old school snail mail have all always been just tools. We humans are responsible for the connection.

Connection is power. Connecting with others gives us exposure. It is the source of knowledge, ideas, empathy, understanding, innovation, love, and it is what moves humanity.

Exposure works both ways. We can expose ourselves to negative people and experiences that drag us down, or we can experience the kind that aligns with our purpose and goals.

If you are a parent or work with children, I challenge you to reflect on what the children are being exposed to, particularly during the time that you are with them, of which you have more control.

If you are an adult, I challenge you to be more intentional about what you are exposed to. The beauty of adulthood is having more control over our lives. Whether you are 18 years old or 35 or 55 or 95–you have choice. Will you go through life like driftwood, or will you be in control of your own sails?

Most importantly, no matter who you are, don’t stop learning. Don’t stop connecting. Don’t stop being curious. Don’t forget about the value of what we are exposed to, every single day, because we carry it inside of us, and it is all a part of our individual story.

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