published Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Kennedy: Can two roads lead to the same destination?

All things considered, would you rather be charming or driven?

In a perfect world you'd want to be both, I guess. But suppose you could pick only one. Which trait do most associate with success in today's world?

Would you pick drive (which we'll define as a one-two punch of competitiveness and perseverance) or charm (which loosely translates to likeability, magnetism)?

I don't have the answer, but I've got a living lab experiment going on under my roof.

My youngest son, 7, has always had a full tank of charm. Even when he was a toddler, strangers would walk over and rub his head at Bi-Lo. He makes a good first impression. "He's so dang cute," people would say.

Blue eyes, sandy blond hair and dimples don't hurt, but his charm is more than skin deep. He's also deferential (he says, "I'm sorry" constantly) and affectionate (he uses the phrase "I love you" like a searchlight).

He runs through the house, feet barely touching the floor, to jump into my arms when I get home at night. Positive energy radiates through his personal space.

Meanwhile, he is clearly noncompetitive. Case in point: I picked him up at a recent Cub Scout den meeting. The boys were trying to earn a belt loop for sports participation. Each Scout was given a ping pong ball and a drinking straw. The idea was to blow your ball from one end of a basketball court to the other.

My 7-year-old struggled. He could never quite grasp the concept that his breath had to push the ball, and so he blew straight down, freezing the ball in place. He finished last, or nearly so, twice. Yet he was completely untroubled. Far from a weakling -- he's actually pretty fast and coordinated for his age -- winning a ping pong ball-blowing contest was simply unimportant to him. He was just having a blast spending time with his friends, and they seem drawn to his indifference. He gets tons of play date invitations and seems to rarely have conflict with anyone.

My 12-year-old son, on the other hand, would have either won that Cub Scout ball-blowing race or fainted from hyperventilation. He has excelled in every sport he has ever played. He pushes himself to the point of exhaustion. I've seen him run out of his shoes at a cross country meet, nearly concuss himself by repeatedly heading a rock-hard soccer ball, catch a baseball game in 106-degree heat, score 19 of his team's 21 points in a basketball game and earn a shutout as a lacrosse goalie.

I asked him the other day which was more important to him, winning or the simple joy of playing.

"Well, I like both," he said. "But I like winning more." In other words, winning trumps all.

When you see this kind of unbridled drive in a child, your first instinct might be to counsel it out of him. The world has enough stress without manufacturing more. But it also becomes clear if you're around kids a lot that this Type A competitiveness is not in high supply. Meanwhile, most of the successful adults I know have it in abundance.

So back to our question: Which is better, drive or charm? My brain has been grinding on this question for days. The fact that I can't manufacture a clear opinion is an answer in itself, I suppose. Vanilla is not inherently better than chocolate; no matter how hard you think about it. So, too, drive is not better nor worse than charm. Both are useful character traits that can be leveraged into happy, successful lives.

What's more, if these two young men -- my sons -- are to be lifetime allies after I die, they will need to tap one another's strengths.

In my mind's eye I can see the older boy exhorting his little brother to "never quit"; and I can see my younger son consoling his big brother when the victories he requires for fuel allude him, as they surely will at points in his life.

There are times when I wonder if boys so different will grow up to be good friends, but I am beginning to see how they will someday snap together like pieces in the big puzzle of life.

As I get older, such random flashes of insight illuminate a divine plan.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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