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Play, Passion, and Purpose (Revisited)

(While reading the fourth chapter of Adams Grant's Hidden Potential, called “Transforming the Daily Grind: Infusing Passion into Patience,” I couldn’t help but think about Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, provoking me to re-share this piece I wrote about Wagner’s book years ago. Creating Innovators was published in 2012, and Hidden Potential was published in 2023, showing the relevance, still today, of Wagner’s key points.)


One of the buzzwords associated with 21st century education is “innovation.” We need to be “innovative” in our teaching in order for our students to be innovators. Today’s world needs “innovators” in order to take us to the next level. Our students (and kids) need to learn how to be “innovative” in order to secure and thrive at the jobs of the future.

We’ve heard the word. We understand the need. But how can we, parents and educators who grew up during a different time cultivate innovation amongst the next generation?

Tony Wager wrote a book called, appropriately enough, Creating Innovators. Throughout the book, Wagner profiles different individuals he considers to be innovators in order to better understand what it was about their youth and education that led them to, in fact, be innovators. The individuals do not share a socio-economic background. They do not share an educational background. They were not all raised in the same area with similar family situations. What they do have in common, says Wagner, is that, regardless of their background, they were encouraged in play, passion, and purpose along the way.


Play is exactly what it sounds like. It is part of human nature and provides for intrinsic motivation, and it is an essential component to creating innovators. Montessori schools focus on learning through play, and it is no coincidence, says Wagner, that many of those thought of as the most innovative individuals are products of these Montessori schools. Play provides for opportunities to imagine, to problem-solve, and to innovate. Most of the individuals profiled in Wagner’s book had much opportunity to play. Their parents did not schedule their after school hours with piano lessons and ballet and soccer and various activities lasting until dark; instead, they offered their children the opportunity to play and to create their own worlds and find their passion.


Wagner says that in all of the interviews that he conducted for his book, “passion” was the most commonly used word. Passion is the intrinsic motivation which is necessary in order to dedicate the required time to master anything. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says that to achieve mastery, one must engage in 10,000 hours in any given area. 10,000 hours is almost five years of working eight hours a day for 52 weeks a year without a vacation or any sort of break. That is dedication that can only be motivated intrinsically. Most likely, one cannot be motivated to invest 10,000 hours just because that’s what he is supposed to do or that’s what is expected or that is what will give him a paycheck. In order to dedicate 10,000 hours so that one can be truly good at something and can really be an innovator in the field, passion is needed, and that passion often stems from a sense of purpose.


Although purpose can have many forms, the most common form is a desire to make a difference. Wagner profiles both STEM innovators (who want to make things that will change the world) who worked on projects like the iPhone and social innovators (who want to make change) who advocate for causes such as sea turtles. Regardless of the specific cause, each of these innovators has a desire to somehow impact the world and to make it a better place in some way, and that is what drives their innovation.

Additionally, beyond play, passion, and purpose, these innovators do have an additional commonality. Although these individuals did not all attend the same academic institutions, most of them, in recalling the most memorable or influential teacher or experience from their education, cite a collaborative interdisciplinary, hands-on project with real-world application. Through these projects, the innovators were able to use their sense of play, passion, and purpose to combine their knowledge and skills and actually innovate.

With play, passion, and purpose in mind, try these ideas

  • Provide unstructured free time for play - While kids might complain of boredom initially, down time breeds creativity, and the opportunity to play gives space for problem solving and imagination that cannot be replicated through a rigid schedule.

  • Encourage passion projects - If your kids express an interest in whales or Tesla or why leaves change color, give them the opportunity and equip them with the resources to explore. Check out books from the library, give them access to YouTube videos (with filters), set a time for them to talk to your friend (the scientist).

  • Create opportunities for purpose - No matter the age, it’s important that kids feel they have a purpose and can make a positive impact on the world around them. Identify problems around the house that they can help solve (the pots don’t all fit into the designated drawer, the hose is too short to reach all of the plants that need to be watered, there are too many unmatched socks in the laundry) and encourage them to find a solution. Yes, it may take more time than solving the problem yourself, but it gives your kids an authentic opportunity to innovate.

While not everyone is familiar with innovation and knows how to be innovative and instill innovation, we all know play, passion, and purpose...and by giving kids space for these important pieces, they’ll figure out the innovation piece on their own (and then teach those around them to be innovative!).

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