Teaching this Idea

Alan Cohen

The idea that we are born with an innate genius (from the Latin gen- inborn nature) originated in tribal cultures long ago and resurfaced with the Greeks, Romans and other peoples throughout history.

The basic idea is that each of us is born with a unique genius or gift that we must discover in the process of our life and then give it away to the world. Myths about this differ as to details, but tell the same story:

We arrive here with a unique genius that we have somehow forgotten (stepping into the river of forgetfulness, the birth trauma). We must then discover our gift and give it away. Such giving keeps it vital and renews it each time it is shared. The gift is usually activated when it is seen. Doing this was historically the task of elders, but today inner genius can usually best be seen by teachers. If teachers consciously look for the gift in each of their students the results can be surprising.

Those who realize that everyone has a gift to share, can no longer marginalize others. Doing so precludes being able to receive their gifts. This learning can stop bullying, teasing and elitism in the classroom. Such a powerful idea, if introduced properly and repeated at appropriate times leads to a classroom ecology that engenders mutual respect. A strong subtext is that students grow into seeing that the various skills taught in school can help them to polish and better give themselves to others.

Michael Meade, mythologist, author and teacher has published the best work on this idea. Links to his writings can be seen here.

Cargo with Third Graders

John FS Williams

3rd grader: "What happens if you can't find your cargo?"

Me: "Well...old school? You get a taste of it, a hint of it when you're young - if not, you don't get to be old. Understand? ( gasp and wide eyed attentiveness) You each and all already have wondrous gifts: it's a set thing. It's how it is. Nice thing about school, friends, coaches, community is other folks can notice your gifts and if you're lucky point them out to you.  They come in all manner of ways. Some of you are good at listening. Some are skilled at sports or art or math or science or language. Some if you are good at being funny and clever. Some of you are very kind. Some of you are quiet deep thinkers. Some of you have that thing where you walk in a room and smile and nod at people and the whole room feels better. You know who I mean? " 

(I luck out in that they start looking and pointing at one another nodding like wise old people.)

I then asked everyone to tell me one thing they are good at. Many had more than one.

3rd grader: "How do you know when to give your cargo away?"

Me: "That is a great question! Asking great questions is one if your gifts, isn't it?" (Classroom nods, teacher affirms. Kids face beams. I think Alan calls this the blessing from the teacher. ) "I think part of what you learn - through trial and error and good friends and family and wonderful mistakes and accidental victories is when to share your gifts. You don't throw your gold away carelessly and you don't hoard it. It's part of that whole growing up thing and I'm still learning it. Today, I'm giving Cargo away here. What's my gift?" ( they are kind and say funny, great speaker, cares about kids, etc.). "One if my gifts is public speaking, and training. Today, I'm giving it away because my club and I, we love you guys and want you to know how awesome you are. Tomorrow, I get paid very well training cops for two hours. In one situation I give it away; in another it helps me feed my family. Make sense? Those are my answers, yours may be different."

3rd grader: "How much Cargo do you get? Do some people get more than others? How do you know what to do with it when you find it?"

Me: "You guys are awesome. I think you get the Cargo the world needs you to carry. While people carry different things and different amounts, they are each and all vital. If you don't deliver your Cargo? me, my family, you him her - we all are diminished. The world is less. The world needs you- not someone else; you. My friend Greg Kimura says it best "the whole world depends on this". How do you know what to do with it when you find it? - that's what this whole learning and life thing is about. For myself, I know when I'm doing this right, I feel right. Today here with you? This is right where I'm supposed to be. I trust you to figure it out when it's time and I think the set up is only you can figure it out and really know. And I'm leaving this poster here with you as a reminder: you already have gold. You already have great valued cargo. Go search, go find it, have no doubt: it's there. It's okay if you have no idea what I'm talking about; it's there, go find it and when you're ready, share it. The writer Oscar Wilde said "Be yourself! Everyone else is taken." We need. World needs. You."

John FS Williams, M.Ed. in Community Counseling has worked with socio-economic, culturally and racially diverse populations of at-risk youth since the time when that “at-risk” label applied to him as a teen and professionally for over 20 years. John has worked as a Police Social Services Crisis Worker, a Youth and Family Specialist, Prevention Specialist, Manager of Community Prevention Programs, and for the past 14 years as a Director of Youth Services, Oak Park and River Forest Townships. His has the knack of engaging people from a variety of backgrounds, beliefs, and agendas and moving them to form and sustain powerful effect

Ideas for Teaching Cargo

Alan Cohen

As a middle school teacher I used Greg’s Cargo poem for years. Here are some ideas that worked for me. If you find some new ways to use the poem, please let us know and we’ll post them on this site:

You must first familiarize yourself with the Cargo idea- that everyone has a unique gift they must discover and share. The gift may be easily recognizable such as musical or artistic ability. It may also be more subtle. Some people exude kindness or encouragement. Some have a way with plants or with fixing things. There are an almost unlimited number of unique gifts.

One very rarely sees their own gift. It must be seen by someone else and told to them. Parents are not usually credible in doing this. They are either too effusive or too withholding. In our culture teachers are the natural ones to see gifts and inform the students of this. Other students will begin looking for gifts in their peers and reinforce the idea.

The idea of cargo is an ancient tribal principle. Plato later wrote about the idea. It was emerged every now and then throughout history, but in our own culture seems buried once again. Michael Meade’s brilliant explanation can be found here.

I told my students about Cargo at the beginning of the school year to set the scene. I referred back to it whenever a chance arose. Literature, films, and poems all provide opportunities to see how the ‘gift’ or ‘inner genius’ idea play into these.

I used the story of The Spirit in the Bottle to stimulate discussion about gifts. Click here for the story and here for a video of the story.

I would sometimes assign book reports in which the student was directed to trace how a character(s) found and used their gift. Or how the gift was seen and activated by another.

Once a student has an idea of what their gift is, they will want to work on skills that will help develop and give the gift more gracefully. The inevitable question, “Why do we have to do this stuff. When will I ever need it?” fades if the students see that skills are necessary to compliment their gifts.

James Hillman’s book The Soul’s Code is a great resource for in depth discussion of Cargo. It goes into deeper aspects of the idea, as in telling how one’s gift emerges from one’s woundedness.