Deep engagement: the solution to education, dating, blogging and everything else

Digging up dinosaurs is not my first choice of what to do in my life. What I’d choose would look a lot less picturesque: locked in a room with wine and bagels and my computer churning out blog posts that my editor says are perfect and pure genius. But we’re not doing that. We’re in the badlands.

The dinosaur guide tells us tidbits like the teams from Harvard and Yale are digging in soil that gets used for cat litter. But they can’t dig today because it rained and all the material expanded. The parents don’t hear anything about the cat litter. The parents stop listening at “Harvard and Yale” and ask, “What’s your background?” Which really means, “Please, how can I get my kid into Harvard or Yale? I’m going to die if I have to go on dinosaur digs and my kid doesn’t get in.”

I’m spending most of my time thinking about how I can get good pictures for my blog – and whether I should include the pictures of any of the kids. I think probably not, because every single kid on the expedition had autism.

A digression in conversation: “Did you notice that kid has autism?”

“Yes, but I don’t think his mother knows.”

“Of course his mother doesn’t know. If she did, she would try to make him stop talking.”

So I’m not including pictures of the other kids so I am safe to dis them and their parents. But I’m excited that my son sees the situation so clearly.

I’m also excited about how I’m going to have great juicy blog posts with beautiful pictures, and then I get thankful that my kids have such interesting passions.  What could be better than cello and paleontology?

But then I realized every single passion is interesting because people who are engaged and driven and looking deeply into anything are interesting. There’s a blog about low-budget renovating – Manhattan Nest – that’s interesting because he’s a fanatic. He never stops. Another one of my favorite sites to go on is Brand Bucket because the founder is a complete nut about finding a new logo and brand name in every letter combination she can find.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got great pictures of my kid’s passions, because passion and engagement are delightful to watch and enticing to read about. The opposite is just deadness. Like when people who walk around in the world, doing a little of everything and not going deep on anything. That looks like you’re covered in a veneer. Nothing really shines through – you seem dead on the surface.

So many times people ask me how they can get more traffic to their blog or what they can do to differentiate themselves or how can they be more attractive to the opposite sex. The answer to all of those questions is the same: be more engaged. Care more, and more openly, about what you love.


27 replies
  1. Eric
    Eric says:

    It sucks because I think a lot of people asking those questions (how do I get more blog traffic, be more attractive, etc.) won’t let themselves be more engaged as you recommend. They’ve been brought up in this “conveyor belt” society where the people around them; parents, teachers, students shut them down when they start to become “obsessive” about something. Like its a bad trait to be passionate and its safer to stick with the status quo. So we struggle. We try and figure things out like increasing blog traffic but have no real solutions because we’re not really ready to go all out. We keep waiting for someone else to tell us it can’t be done or shouldn’t be done. Which is exactly why I love your blog so much. It has definitely pushed me to reconsider how I will educate my children. I want them to be leaders who can actively be engaged no matter what outsiders tell them. Not followers waiting in the ranks for orders.

  2. neversummer
    neversummer says:

    “people who are engaged and driven and looking deeply into anything are interesting”
    Are you sure? You should see the way peoples eyes glaze over when my mom and I start discussing horse color genetics. I wish people would find us interesting because we are fascinated.
    I like the general idea behind the theory atleast.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. I think there is a really big difference between being engaged and interested, and boring people with topics they are not interested in.

      My brother has PhD is chemistry. No one has any idea what he does – it’s totally obscure research to normal people. But he is interesting because he’s really involved and engaged in his work, so that type of thinking, curiosity, being-checked-in shows up in all discussion with him.

      And he never talks to people about his research.


      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        Some moms never stop talking to people about their kids. I have a friend who just cannot stop talking about how cute and smart her son is. That gets boring, and annoying, don’t you think?

        I love painting! I can talk nonstop about it, what I feel and think about art. But I try to stay away from talking about my own art, because I’m afraid that I’d come across as “salesy”.

      • Leonie
        Leonie says:

        I think it goes back to the idea of being engaged. When people are engaged and very involved in something, the challenge then becomes taking a step back and explain it in a way that someone without your background can understand.

        I did this a lot in my last job where I had to translate industry specific research to an outside audience. Oftentimes it takes some probing to find a way to get past the jargon and conceptualize something that has been only been looked at by experts in the field. When done well even the most obscure chemistry experiments can become a beautiful story.

        A good example of this is the Jeffry Skoll (a billionaire) and his movie company. Instead of founding another nonprofit to educate the public about pandemics he founded a movie production company. They specialize in financially viable films that promote social causes. Telling the story through a hollywood means reaching a worldwide audience. I like the for profit aspect of his company because they have to find a way to make a story about germs interesting – which they did. It was a pretty good movie.

  3. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    What you say about caring deeply and openly, and caring so much that you become a “nut” and “frantic” reminds me of Chris Brogan’s “freaks will inherit the world” statement.
    I love such extreme love for our passion!

    By the way, how can you tell the other kid has Asperger’s while even the mom doesn’t know? What are the symptoms? Thanks, Penelope.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think that when you’ve spent your life being kind of an odd duck you quickly identify others very similar to you. It could be as simple as some very obvious symptoms or behavioral traits. Or sometimes it’s just about the aura.

      Sometimes it’s really easy to tell what people are like. But since I’ve been doing that all my life I just don’t talk about it. When I come across another person that is very similar to me I just find a quick match and level of comfort with that person. It’s not a zig zag fit. It’s a mirror image fit.

      It doesn’t happen often. And sometimes we don’t mirror each other in all aspects but just in a few. But you just know when you see those people.

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      That’s because indecision can quickly become stuck. And stuck for long periods of time can lead to depression.

      • Trudy
        Trudy says:


        And the decisions that I am making instead are to eat more, sit more, work harder at what I don’t love.

        It seems, as we get older, every decision is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  4. Tina Brown
    Tina Brown says:

    My daughter spends at least two hours everyday doing origami while listening to NPR. Then she plays harp. This is her schedule, not mine. She knows more about world events than any person I know. There is origami all over the house. She is studying the patterns of Bach’s music. She is eleven.
    My son studies the sports pages everyday. He knows the teams, uniform colors (home, away and alternate) and records of all the NFL teams and most college teams for the last three years. He is working on having the same knowledge base for the MLB and MiLB. He is currently learning how to fiddle. He is eight.
    I’m telling you this because I’m proud. I’m proud of my children. I’m proud of myself for having courage to not put them in school.
    Thanks for your posts. On the days that I am not feeling brave, you help.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really appreciate hearing what your kids’ days are like. They sound like heaven to me. My kids’ days are in a similar vein, but sometimes I get nervous that my kids are doing nothing. It gives me more confidence when I can see it from the outside — seen from the outside, giving kids this kind of freedom seems like a blessing.


  5. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    I am curious: why every kid in the expedition has Aspergers? Do you have any theory?

    Please continue to tell us about Yefet’s journey. I am really interested on how he is doing.

    I am an INTJ; I relate to why he is not passionate about violin. And why he likes science so much. And why he doesn´t want to quit violin altogether.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I do, actually, have a theory about this: The trip is really hard-core paleontology for young kids. Most young kids want to run around and play. They are not memorizing paleontology facts. They don’t want to spend their days in a museum-like setting. So the trip already self-selects for intellectuals.

      But then there is the overachiever aspect. So it’s very smart parents who are enthralled with their kids’ abilities to memorize science stuff. And it’s parents who think their kid is so smart that they need to start being an intellectual overachiever right now, while they are young.

      All these factors point to that the parents have Aspergers so they are undervaluing social skill development and the kids have Aspergers so they are looking like extremely high performers as kids, when we overvalue memorization.

      This is not hard fact. It’s just my intuition.

      That said, if you have a kid with an Apergers diagnosis, you can see it from a mile away. Parents become experts in whatever problem their kid has — Down’s, cancer, ADHD, etc.

      You know how when you’re pregnant you end up seeing pregnant women all around you? The same thing with parents of kids with Aspergers – they can see it all around them.


  6. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I think that for every person, adult or child, who is pursuing a passion with crazy intensity, unrelenting focus, there is someone else in his or her life who has quietly been working to remove obstacles and clear a path to allow that person the freedom and time to pursue the passion. It’s a big part of why we homeschool, to free our girls to pursue their passions.

  7. ac
    ac says:

    there is alot of really profound truth in the statement about deep engagement. I feel like my Ne function went into overdrive. Solution to a relationship? deep engagement. Solution to your career? deep engagement. Solution to recovery? Deep engagement. Want to know if he’s into you? Is he avoiding deep engagement or pursuing it. Want to know if your relationship will work? Are you avoiding or pursuing deep engagement. Want to know if you are going to recover, get healthy, get your career, be happy? Deep engagement, deep engagement, deep engagement. Want to know if you are heading to trouble in an area? Avoidance of deep engagement. Side note- hallmark of avoidant attachment – an avoidance of deep engagement. Take it one step further, ask yourself– where am i deeply engaged? Where am i / what am i avoiding? Bet it corresponds to the very areas where you are experiencing success or frustration. For some reason, this just became a total lightbulb moment. Thank you Penelope!

    • Sarah K.
      Sarah K. says:

      The sad thing is that although I know what it means, my penchant for wordplay can’t help but visualize “deep engagement” as two people with hands enclasped, one of them with a sparkling diamond ring on their finger.
      But, to take this metaphor all the way, so many people are taught to just do whatever it takes to get the big diamond, aren’t they? No one tells them that in order to really succeed there has to be a passion, a love beyond the sparkly stuff, the money, the prestige and the trappings of what some people call success.

  8. mh
    mh says:

    Penelope, it so good to have you write about traveling to fulfill your children’s weird passions.

    Travel is one of the reasons we homeschool. When the one child was absolutely obsesed with Custer’s Last Stand, zap — road trip to Montana. The fact that we can go off-season, hit the National Parks when all the other families are in school, and interact with adults who have similar interests and passions makes it all the better.

    So interested in the paleontology aspect. I would think dinosaurs would be a natural thing for Asperger’s kids.

    But what do I know? I’m an INTJ parent, and it seems normal for everybody around me to be odd. Child wants to memorize the intricacies of Civil War battle dress uniforms? Okey-dokey. Child wants to learn to knit? Fine. Impossible miniature creations built to scale? Yep. Please leave me a little room in the kitchen for meal prep. How do you differentiate between charmingly odd and Asperger’s?

  9. Abby
    Abby says:

    I wonder how detachment and cool are related. My kids are currently interested in cool. They want to breeze through everything effortlessly. It seems incredibly uncool to them and their friends to admit being deeply engaged. When I look around me in Los Angeles I’m not sure this is just a teenage pursuit. Beautiful people model hipster culture on every corner and it seems like leisure is good business. So why work so hard? I am struggling as a homeschool parent to find a new language to use with my kids now that all my old words like “motivation” and “passion” are laughable. It was easier, honestly, letting go of standard curriculum for me because I hoped they would find specific, geeky, authentic pursuits. I am struggling with where they are currently engaged — the pursuit of pleasure and hipster nonchalance.

  10. Lainie Liberti
    Lainie Liberti says:

    Passion! Yes.. the problem really stems from the perpetual dulling down of our sensations when we are children. Schools do that. Most of us were not encouraged, supported or “facilitated” to peruse our passions, let alone develop them in any meaningful way. I think homeschooling (unschooling) solves that problem and there can be a new breed of highly engaged people in our midst.

    I am an unschooling parent, and through the process of supporting my son in his very natural exploration of passions and interests, I’ve had the privilege of discovering my own! Wow, this is where excitement comes from, where commitment is developed and engagement stems. Yes!!!

  11. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    well i guess its good you didnt includepictures with your ableist aspergers joke
    that makes it ok.

    never reading you again

    what a bully.

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