Knowing my children learn more from my example than from anything I say, I’ve been moved to serious reflection about what I’m teaching them about the Internet. The Internet is both amazing and terrible. It is both an equalizer and a tranquilizer. So I’ve asked myself these questions:

What are my personal usage patterns on the Internet, and would I be comfortable if my children could follow my cyber tracks?

Are my usage patterns fueling or draining my ambition?

Do I use the Internet to accelerate learning and discovery?

Am I teaching my children that the Internet is both protector and predator?

Do my children have the required self-discipline to avoid wasteful and destructive Internet behavior?

Am I vigilant and attentive in helping them develop that discipline while they’re young and vulnerable?

My wife and I took our children on a trip to the Midwest this summer. We visited historic sites in Missouri and Illinois and learned about four great Americans — Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Mark Twain and Joseph Smith.

The more we learned, the more we saw a pattern in the lives of these four men. All four were deprived of chances for education as their families were thrust into economic hardship.

Truman had more opportunity than the other three. He managed to graduate from high school but was called home to the family farm to help his deeply indebted father. Lincoln had less than a year’s worth of schooling and hired out to help his father who had suffered a total economic reversal in Kentucky. Twain didn’t make it past grammar school and was apprenticed to a printer at age 11 after his father died suddenly. And Joseph Smith had but a few weeks of backwoods schooling, suffered grinding poverty in his youth, and hired out as unskilled labor after his father met financial ruin in Vermont.

But in all four cases, sweet fruit grew out of bitter experience. Despite limited opportunity — or perhaps because of it — there emerged in these men a hunger and drive to improve themselves and make a mark.

For them, hard work was the great equalizer. All four demonstrated a pattern of aggressive, self-directed learning. They had little time for leisure and limited access to learning resources. And yet in spite of severe constraints, each soared to towering heights of contribution.

Now the Internet has become a second great equalizer. The barriers to entry that have stood so resolutely for millennia are being removed. With the Internet, you can learn anything you want, any time you want, any place you want.

We will yet see astonishing scientific, musical, artistic and literary talent emerge in unlikely places because the Internet largely neutralizes the limitations of geography and poverty. Already, children are learning to play musical instruments, speak foreign languages and solve complex math problems through Internet-based instruction. We are witnessing only the beginning of the transformational power of this second great equalizer.

All you need is motivation. And there lies the problem. We have entered a time of unprecedented opportunity for human improvement when the challenge is no longer time and access, but desire and discipline.

The Internet has also become the great tranquilizer. What is all of the gaming, gossiping and gambling doing for us? As a planet we spend 3 billion hours a week playing games on the Internet. Just the other day, an online poker company sold for more than $3 billion. And pornography is always just a click away.

1 comment on this story

Mark Twain said, “For a tranquil pleasure excursion, there was nothing equal to a raft.” Sometimes I wish it were 1850 and we lived in Hannibal, Missouri, on the western banks of the Mississippi. But that’s just not our day.

Timothy R. Clark is founder of TRClark & Company, a leadership development organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and recently released a new book, “The Employee Engagement Mindset” from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.