What Do You Want?

“You don’t have to be smart to go to Acton. You have to want to be smart.”
– Matteo, an Acton Academy middle school Eagle

Though merely two sentences within a long, heated Socratic discussion, Matteo’s words were flashes of gold. Everyone agreed with them. With clarity and ease, he’d pointed us to the essence of why Acton exists in a way I had never pondered.

It is about wanting. It is about desire.

Desire is longing for something not yet attained and includes a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is the fuel for curiosity – the most powerful intrinsic motivator.

But I wasn’t satisfied with my analysis of Matteo’s words. Was he really talking about just the desire to be smart?

I decided to pursue his idea further. I asked a small group of Eagles to help me out:

Why do you want to be smart?

So I can feel confident in the world.
So I can understand how things work.
So I can make hard decisions and tough choices.
So I can do the right thing.
So I can do something important with my life.
So I can solve problems that aren’t being solved yet.
So I can find my calling.

Their wanting to be smart was not about having an academic credential. It was not about pleasing parents and teachers.

These young people desire doing intelligent work that matters for this big, wonderful world.

Shakespeare wrote: “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

Acton Academy exists for the “doing” not just the “knowing.” Ultimately, there will be joy even if the journey includes suffering and sacrifice because the learning and work are purposeful. They are driven by the heart – where desire and character reside.

As a parent, this shifts my stance on talking with my sons about their work at school. My natural tendency at the end of the week is to ask them: How many points did you earn? How many Eagle Bucks do you have?

These extrinsic, academic questions are easy and okay. But, frankly, they miss the target.

There is a much more important question: What do you want?

I often forget to consider the desire in their hearts. When I focus merely on the external evidence of their daily learning, I snuff out the force that will drive them for the rest of their lives: the desire that lies in their hearts to do work that matters.

These young people exude profound confidence and inner freedom because they carry a mindset of growth. They know they can learn absolutely anything if they work at it. There is no slumped-over pessimism that comes from the burden of being labeled “smart” or “not smart.”

It’s as if they are already saying, “Open wide your doors, world. We are excited to meet you.”

Thank you, Matteo.