Yin and yang

Museum Road Oxford

In some respects Isaac and Toby are very similar but in others they are polar opposites. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve made this observation but a recent trip to the museum again reminded of how differently they see the world and why the fact that they do is a good thing – for both of them.

I studied and then lived in Oxford, or was at least a weekly visitor to the city, for 12 years. And even since moving away 14 years ago – blimey, is it really that long? – it has remained our second home and we still go back four or five times a year. But until last week I’d never once been round the university’s Museum of Natural History.

Oxford University Museum of Natural HistoryIt’s an impressive place. Think of it as a mini version of London’s Natural History Museum and you’re in the ballpark. (It’s actually the older of the two, by 20 years.) The centrepiece is the dinosaur hall, where the collection is every bit as impressive as the one in London, but the wider range of natural exhibits is also excellent, as is the anthropological collection in its adjoining sister museum, the Pitt Rivers. (Although that could do with a more modern approach to curation, as the enormous collection is crammed into the available space more tightly than a tube train at rush hour.)

Anyhow, that’s an aside.

With Kara back at nursery, we took the boys to Oxford to do the kids’ Christmas trail, a 12-step hunt around some of the principal exhibits. The boys’ approach was totally different and representative of their personalities.

Isaac takes after Heather. Given a 12-step assignment to complete, he was 100% process-oriented. Locate item one, complete its associated task and move straight on to the next item. He was so focussed on the job in hand that he wanted nothing more than to plough through the museum as quickly as possible. What he looked at, he took in and remembered in detail, but 90% of the exhibits could have been empty for all he would have noticed.

On the other hand, Toby takes after me. He’s what I would call experience-oriented – he’s happy to step back and enjoy the big picture but when he finds something he’s interested in he zooms right in and immerses himself fully and with maximum intensity, until the next big thing catches his eye and engrosses him.

In short, Isaac is all about process, structure and getting the right things done in the right way as quickly as possible, whereas Toby doesn’t particularly care how (or when) he arrives at his destination as long as it’s something that fires his imagination and draws him in. Ultimately, they tend to arrive at the same place but their journeys there can be completely different.

Of course, in reality there’s an overlap. Isaac’s rational approach combines with Toby’s let’s-see-what-happens preference, as each pulls the other a little bit out of their own world and into each other’s. This is definitely a good thing: Isaac’s discipline keeps Toby from disappearing off on tangents, while Toby’s open-mindedness forces Isaac to consider options other than what’s explicitly in his plan. Each makes the other see the world through a different lens and so they view more of the world around them as a result.

Heather and I do the same for each other. She ensures I don’t lose sight of what needs to be done, while I’m more likely to try something a little off-piste just because it looks interesting. Or, at least, that’s my excuse for why, every time I’m sent out to Waitrose to buy some milk and a loaf of bread, I will inevitably return having spent £80 – and still forgotten the bread.

It’s interesting to observe how different the boys are in this respect. We’ve brought them up the same way with similar values and experiences, but I guess it’s one of those examples of nature taking precedence over nurture.

I’m glad they’ve turned out this way, though. Life would be dull for us if they were identical, and the boys’ field of vision would be narrower. Yin and yang: opposite but complementary.