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Developing Minds

USC College’s Frank Manis discusses the progression of his life’s work and true passion.

Developing Minds

“How does it happen when you figure out what your life’s work is going to be? What are the roots to that? How do you make those choices?”

Frank Manis, professor of psychology in USC College, posed these questions to his listeners during October’s “What Matters to Me and Why” program sponsored by the USC Office of Religious Life. In the relaxed atmosphere of the Ground Zero Coffee House, faculty, staff and students gathered for their monthly dose of wisdom from the student-selected speaker.

“There really is a short answer to this question and you could be out of here in three minutes,” Manis said. “But I don’t think it would be as interesting to you as some of the other things I have to say.”

For his talk, Manis traced the progression of his own development, pinpointing moments that profoundly shaped his course in life.

“I will be a developmental psychologist reflecting on his own development,” he said. “I’ve decided to go back and think about the moment — if it was a moment — that led me to do my life’s work.”

Manis began college intent on studying chemistry. It was a natural fit, satisfying both his curious mind and his love of science that crystallized in ninth grade under the instruction of his general science teacher who happened to hold a doctorate in geology. His choice was also a form of rebellion against his parents who raised him with a rich understanding of the arts and humanities.

“I absorbed it and I love it to this day, but I went through a teenage rebellion and I thought, ‘No, I’m going to be different from my parents, I’m going to be a scientist,’” Manis said. “I loved knowing more than they did about something.”

While Manis’ love of science was developing, he and his father would have debates that pitted science against the humanities. One afternoon near their backyard pool, they were discussing the existence of free will. Manis argued that if you know everything about a person’s life and chemical makeup, you can accurately predict his or her actions at a given moment. His father argued for the existence of free will, which would make predictions virtually impossible.

As Manis continued to make his case, his father leapt into the pool.

“You get his point, right?” Manis said to the laughing audience. “He popped to the surface and said, ‘I bet you couldn’t have predicted that I’d do that at that moment in time.’” Looking back, Manis identifies this as a key moment when his interest in psychology began to show through.

“I was a psychologist already at that point, I just didn’t know it,” Manis said. “I think that’s the way development works. It’s working underground, subconsciously in a sense, and you don’t realize that it is going on.”

Manis’ decision to study child psychology was solidified during his junior year of college when his then girlfriend, now wife of 32 years, suggested he try taking a class with her. He had taken classes from all departments ranging from sociology to economics to history. None of them fit quite right.

“So I signed up for child psychology and I sat next to her in class.” Manis said. “I fell in love with child development. It could have had something to do with the person sitting next to me because I was in love with her too.”

At that moment, Manis’ path became more defined, but as he moved forward, he found that chance occurrences, acting on a hunch and striking out in a bold new direction played an essential role in the construction of his life as a professor at USC.

“I found something through this circuitous process that I really love doing,” Manis said. 

Manis hoped to impart a bit of advice to students in the crowd who might be struggling under the weighty prospect of choosing a career.

“Find something you’re really passionate about,” he said. “Wait for opportunities like chance events; be open to new experiences; be willing to throw the Hail Mary pass; take a gamble; try something new.”

In addition to leaving his listeners with sound advice and thoughtful stories, Manis also gave his short answer to the afternoon’s central question.

“What matters to me most, hands down, no question is my family.”

Those interested in attending future “What Matters to Me and Why” lectures should visit usc.edu/programs/religious_life/whatmatters. Upcoming speakers include USC athletic director Mike Garrett on Nov. 5, and Wayne Glass of international relations on Dec. 3.