JOPLIN, Mo. —
Thirteen-year-old Aman Chishti has figured out keys to success that people twice her age struggle to unlock.
She's turned a passion into profit.
Aman joined the school paper in fourth grade and decided the next year that she wanted to improve her skills. Online, she researched ways to become a better writer. She checked out nearly a dozen books from the public library on how to improve her craft and make it marketable.
She discovered constant-content.com, a place where writers can submit articles for purchase or respond to requests for pieces, and used her father's PayPal account to receive payments.
She sold her first piece, "A practical guide to traveling on an airplane," for around $30.
"I didn't know how to price it ... I ended up under-pricing myself a lot," she said.
I asked her how her enterprise was going.
"I'm not ever writing on spec again," she said.
"Many of the assignments would fall through, and I didn't have a kill fee," she explained.
I was at least a couple decades older than her before I negotiated a kill fee. Or even knew what one was.
Aman, who lives in Ballwin, Mo., read a few more books about freelancing and decided she might have better luck pitching ideas directly to editors. She taught herself how to write cover letters and queries.
"I'm working on a story about how to deal with pre-wedding jitters," she said.
"You're 13. What do you know about pre-wedding jitters?" I asked her.
She looked at me.
"I interview people."
The future of journalism may not look so grim, after all. "I've been thinking about doing this when I grow up since I was in fifth grade," she said. In the meantime, she has won the school spelling bee every single year since fourth grade. She is saving her money to buy a better camera before she launches a lifestyle blog. She's publishing an anthology of poetry, which involves getting it copyrighted, finalizing cover art, soliciting writers and editing their pieces. She's also handling the promotion and marketing for the book, which she hopes to have ready for sale in a month.
Some level of ambition is innate. But like other personality traits, parents can play a role in nurturing or sabotaging a child's initiative. Aman's parents, who emigrated from Pakistan decades ago, said they noticed the fire in her belly when she was very young.
Aman is the eldest of three children and says her parents are supportive, but have never pushed her to pursue her entrepreneurial ambitions. They keep an eye on what she does online, but they let her do her thing.
"I don't know what to tell you about this," her father, Akbar Chishti, said. "We're glad she's motivated. ... I'm a little afraid of all the time she wants to spend on the Internet, because you have all kinds of people."
Initiative like Aman's doesn't always come naturally, even to people with 10 years on her. I've had parents of college graduates contact me and ask me to help their adult children navigate the industry. I'll tell them to pass along my phone number and email, but it's rare that they follow up and contact me themselves.
To encourage ambition, Tim Elmore, president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that offers leadership training and resources, suggests parents have their children specify one or two things at a time they really want to achieve.
"Narrowing focus can be especially challenging for kids with a go-getter spirit, so specific and identified goals are important. Once they identify a goal, help them create a plan to reach it," he said. Also, establish rewards that only come as they demonstrate progress. "This will help separate the idea of 'showing up to lessons each week' from 'putting out effort and practicing on their own time' -- the way goals are actually met and exceeded," he added.
Elmore says well-intentioned parents can end up undermining a child's ambition.
"I think this generation of kids, more than any before, are most susceptible to having their ambition undermined by truly caring, well-intentioned adults. We don't want to see our kids fail, so we think doing things for them will prevent that. But that sends an even more insidious message: 'You aren't capable of doing anything.'"
Aman doesn't bring up her age in her queries because she knows most editors wouldn't take her seriously. But if she needs to sign a contract, she'll have her parents do it and explain why.
"I prefer to let my writing skills speak for themselves," she said. The real-life experience has given her a wisdom beyond her 13 years.
"I learned that there's no way to start out perfect, and not even good, honestly," Aman said. And even though she's managed to make several hundred dollars from her writing projects so far, she's figured out that most writers aren't in it for the money.
"I've learned the only reason you should write is because you love to write."
She has set her sights on writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month this November.
And she's already heard from her mother a refrain that generations of Asian American children have heard prior.
"I told her I want her to write like a hobby, not a profession," Unsa Chishti said.
"I'd like her to be a doctor."
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.