When we use the word, we’re generally describing satisfaction with a job or a lifestyle. A friend tells me: I’ve finally found my niche! And there’s a reason she sounds so happy about it. John Dewey said:
To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.
When ecologists talk about niches, they aren’t just talking about an animal’s habitat. They’re talking about its “job” in that habitat. This includes all of its activities, relationships, and effects on the environment. For example, the red fox below is a highly adaptable species that has hundreds of niches throughout the world, depending on its habitat and the other animals nearby.
No matter where the fox lives, it’s always going to have certain fixed traits: it will always be a fox. But the role it plays varies drastically depending on where it’s found (desert, forest, mountains, etc) and who else is around (predators, prey, humans). While the species never changes, the niches often do.
With exceptional kids, who don’t always thrive in conventional settings, we often spend a lot of time helping them figure out who they are. And this is a vital, vital task. But it’s only half the job.
When an adult is out of work, he will take the time to revise his resume, reflect on his last job, and maybe take stock of what skills he’s developed over time. He will consider himself carefully. But more than anything, he’ll stare at the job listings. He’ll put out feelers and requests. He’ll survey the territory.
Kids need to do what we do as adults -- they need to survey the territory. They need to explore the world of commerce, of culture, of service that is human society. They need to see what niches are available and find the one that lines up best for themselves.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to work with a talented team of educators, parents, and students to develop a program aimed at getting kids out into the community. They would think about what they were good at (their aptitudes) and what they enjoyed (their interests), and then we would all work together to identify careers at the intersection of the two. We would help them find their niche.
The students went on visits with artists and engineers, marketers and designers, veterinarians and tax assessors. They visited museums, laboratories, hotels, retail stores. They sat in on international conference calls and design meetings. They fixed watches and detailed cars. One boy beta tested video games. Another student practiced laser hair removal. Another got high marks in a statistics lab at the UT School of Business. The breadth of the students’ experiences was only limited by their interests and aptitudes. They were able to explore a dozen or more niches.
And this process of discovery is what my post is really all about. In evolutionary theory, a species has many thousands of years to adapt to its niche. In human society, we have about eight years (from high school graduation) before economic pressures become intense. If we’re lucky. A lot of us have no years, or very few.
But with these exceptional kids, the distance from here to the horizon seems exceedingly long. Many parents tell me that they’re worried their kid will stay at home forever. And some of these are the parents of gifted kids! They just can’t see imagine what the future will bring, and that uncertainty breeds a lot of fear.
So here’s the thing about the human social ecosystem -- society: there are thousands, millions of niches out there. Some are obvious and lend themselves to being systematized and standardized: nurses, doctors, teachers, CPAs. All of these and more have a full and rigorous standardized system and path to the career. Of course, within those job descriptions is a sea of possible lifestyles to match all of the lives they encompass.
Our challenge is help these kids find their niche, and we won’t do it by dwelling on their weaknesses. We have to help them find their aptitudes and their interests. We have to help them find their strengths, but we also have to find out where in society those strengths can be of service.
Ultimately, the process of the Career Connections program was wonderfully simple. First, a student would take a survey locating their top few “career clusters.” Then, having identified their top three potential “clusters”, they would make a master of list of careers they were interested in. We would always encourage them to look all “around” a career -- for example, medicine is not only doctors and nurses and home construction is not only architects and builders.
Now the real work began. We went to google maps and zoomed in to a range we were comfortable traveling (our habitat). Then we searched for “daycare” or “cosmetology” or “marketing” or whatever career cluster the student was exploring. And up came our prospective mentors on the search.
Using a script like this one: Call Scripts, the students would methodically go down the list until they set up their visits. The celebration in the classroom after one of the students confirmed a visit had the feel of a corporate sales office. Making the calls to arrange their visits became one of the most challenging, rewarding tasks of the program for many students. They worked together to create the script, encouraged one another to make the call, and supported each other when they encountered a rude person at the other end. (Yes, that happened occasionally. No, we didn’t die from it.) I tried to impress upon them a simple formula:
one “yes” is greater than a thousand “no’s”.
To prepare for the visit, students researched their mentor and the company. Some students liked to have a list of questions prepared in advance, while others preferred to let the conversation naturally.
On the day of the visit, students dressed professionally and were dropped off at their mentor’s office. They were responsible for finding the mentor and making appropriate introductions (no hand-holding here, they needed to forge their own relationships). They, along with their mentor, created the experience while they were there. Inevitably, they were positive.
Obviously there were a thousand little details to be ironed out, but that gives you the big picture of the program. Feel free to email me if you are interested in trying out something like this for your own child or classroom. Remember that, no matter what your child’s exceptionality, there is a nice in this world for her. You may need to help her create it, but there is a place and a job for everybody on this Earth.