Don’t Worry So Much About Where

Don’t Worry So Much About Where

Like the author of the article I am sharing below — and that I share every year around this time — I was not a perfect student in high school. I similarly credit my “failure” in high school, and rejection by my “dream” college, with leading me to a school that was the best place for me to develop into the student I had the ability to be but couldn’t be as a rebellious teen. Luckily, my parents let me lead in my college admissions process and that also meant accepting the “consequences” of my GPA. I can’t possibly think about where I would be today if it had happened any other way. I never would have learned, what I thought then was the hard way, about what really matters in creating a life (and finding work) with meaning, and becoming an energized and self-directed learner.

Anyway, William Stixrud is the co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, with Ned Johnson. Below is an old-ish article in Time that I will never stop posting. I hope you give it a read.

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When my daughter Jora was in high school, she went to a talk I gave on the adolescent brain, during which I pointed out that high school grades don’t predict success very well. On the way home, she said, “Great talk, Dad, but I bet you don’t really believe that bit about grades.” I assured her that I did. To prove it, I offered to pay her $100 if she got a ‘C’ on her next report card — in any subject.

We’ve all heard the familiar anxiety-inducing nostrums: That a screw-up in high school will follow you for the rest of your life. That if you don’t get into Harvard or Yale, you’ll never reach the c-suite. That the path to success is narrow and you’d better not take one false step. I have come to think of this unfounded belief system as what we psychologists call a “shared delusion.”

So why don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. I myself was a C+ student in high school who flunked out of graduate school. At one point I went for 20 weeks without turning in a single assignment. (I often tell the underachievers I see in my practice: “Top that!”) Long story short, I managed to do pretty well in life, and I credit my failure in graduate school with leading me to a career more in line with my skill set.

The problem with the stories we’re telling our kids is that they foster fear and competition. This false paradigm affects high-achieving kids, for whom a rigid view of the path to success creates unnecessary anxiety, and low-achieving kids, many of whom conclude at a young age that they will never be successful, and adopt a “why try at all?” attitude. Many of these young people engage in one of the most debilitating forms of self-talk, telling themselves either, “I have to, but I can’t,” or “I have to, but I hate it.”

Why do we encourage our children to embrace this delusional view of what it takes to be successful?

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college — that where you go makes very little difference later in life.

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.”

Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth — giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student — increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.

Children are much more energized when they envision a future that is in line with their own values than when they dutifully do whatever they believe they have to do to live up to their parents’ or teachers’ or college admissions boards’ expectations. We don’t inspire our kids through fear. We inspire them by helping them to focus on getting better at something, rather than being the best, and by encouraging them to immerse themselves in something they love.

So if you want your kids to succeed in life, don’t perpetuate a fear-based understanding of success. Start with the assumption that your children want their lives to work. Then tell them the truth: That we become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.

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College Admissions Truths

Great piece by Valerie Strauss in the Washingon Post the other day. Check it out here. From it, here are some truths about college admission, as offered by college admission deans, via “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together,”:

  • “College admission is NOT about finding the one ‘right’ college for you, but discovering the many — across multiple levels of selectivity — that will welcome you and challenge you to grow as a student and a person.” — Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management, Bucknell University
  • “Even directors of admission get rejected. As a high school senior, I was denied admission to my first choice college. Now, I am the director of admission at the university I attended. Point being: Things have a way of working themselves out. Just like the John Lennon quote, ‘Everything will be all right in the end; If it’s not all right, it’s not the end,’ you are going to have ups and downs and might have to deal with some stinging rejections. These are rejections of your application, not of you as a person. But these things happen with a purpose. There’s more than one ‘perfect school’ for you, and even if it doesn’t seem apparent at this very moment, eventually, things will be all right.” — Jeff Schiffman, director of admission, Tulane University
  • “Families hold significantly more power in their college search and student’s success than they typically imagine possible.” — Candace Boeninger, associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management and director of undergraduate admissions, Ohio University
  • “No one is entitled to enroll at the selective institution of their choice. Your hard work and ability increase your college options but not your ability to choose exactly where you will go. It is a process where you can do absolutely everything right and not get what you want. For some students (and parents), it’s the first time that happens.” — Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management, Santa Clara University
  • “Every institution has different resources and priorities, so every process will be different. Trying to boil it down to a one-size-fits-all will you leave you frustrated, and probably looking like a generic applicant.” — Santiago Ybarra, director of admission, Pitzer College
  • “We enjoy ADMITTING students. I am not a Dean of Denial and there is no Denial Committee. I am a Dean of Admission and lead an ADMISSION Committee. We look for reasons to admit students, as opposed to reasons to deny them.” — Kent Rinehart, dean of admission, Marist College
  • “Students do want to find great places that will help them be successful in the next phase of their educational journeys. Colleges do want to find students who will thrive on their campuses. We all get a bit blinded by side issues of selectivity, perceived prestige and fine distinctions of quality.” — Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment, Union College
  • “Selectivity has nothing to do with the quality of education.” — Heidi Simon, senior associate director of admission, University of Kansas
  • “We need to tell students: That their social and emotional well-being in a postsecondary education environment is as important as being ready for the rigors of the educational or classroom challenges. That they are not defined by an acceptance letter, T-shirt or bumper sticker. That wherever they go, they will be successful and happy and they will be supported.” — Jody Glassman, director of university admissions, Florida International University
  • “The vast majority of colleges admit more than half of their applicant pools. Their graduates go on to live happy, successful and fulfilling lives — even when they don’t attend the handful of highly selective colleges frequently cited in the media.” — Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management, executive director of admission, University of South Carolina
  • “Much of the admission decision rests on factors beyond the student’s control by the time the application is submitted.” — Heath Einstein, dean of admission, Texas Christian University
  • “The various rankings will do more harm — making you overlook a great school — than any good you might expect after a well-researched college search process.” — Andy Borst, director of admissions, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • “College admission offices strive to support and serve a diverse and talented array of prospective students while fulfilling institutional expectations and strategic priorities. It is in the hope of serving both student and institution that admission offices navigate the complexities, challenges and incongruent priorities of these two extremely important but often disparate masters. Finding mutually successful outcomes both has become the all-consuming, challenging and increasingly difficult work of admission professionals today.” — Mike Steidel, dean of admission, Carnegie Mellon University
  • “ ‘Fit’ works both ways — students and colleges should both be true to their identities and goals when making decisions about whom they should admit (colleges) and where they should enroll (students).” — Brian Troyer, dean of admissions, Marquette University
  • “Most public colleges and universities have a greater responsibility to in-state students because of the state funding that is received. Therefore, we charge a tuition premium for an out-of-state resident.” — Clark Brigger, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and executive director for undergraduate admissions, Pennsylvania State University
  • “You can only attend one institution, and applying to more than 20 means a lot of extra work on the back end, for the student/family, trying to determine the best fit. We understand that many students are in search of the best deal (gift aid) from a university, but you can also use our net-price calculators to obtain an idea of how much you might be eligible to receive.” — John Ambrose, interim executive director of admissions, Michigan State University
  • “There are three key steps — students decide where to apply; colleges make admission offers; and students have control again in the end when they decide where to enroll. And when one considers that students have significant ownership of their curriculum and the grades they earn, they actually have great influence on all three stages of the admission process.” — Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment, University of Denver
  • “Families should be more focused on the rooms they walk into every day, i.e. their kitchens, living rooms, classrooms, than admission committee rooms they’ll never enter. Admission decisions are not fair. They are neither a value judgment, an assessment of parenting acumen, or a prediction of future success.” — Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission, Georgia Institute of Technology

 

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