When "Achievement" is Toxic: My Thoughts on the (most recent) Gunn High School Suicide, and Raising Resilient Children
The Palo Alto Unified School District is reeling after yet another student suicide. This tragedy has triggered conversations about academic pressure and mental health in this ruthlessly high-achieving area.
Suicide and mental health are incredibly complex issues. But let's be honest: the culture at Gunn and many surrounding schools is toxic. During my work as a college counselor and life coach, I heard some pretty depressing stories that were in no way reminiscent of my high school experience.
"Everyone cries when grades come out -- even the boys," one student told me. "The lucky ones cry because they're relieved. But usually we cry because we didn't do well enough."
"I was never interested in the robotics club, but someone told my mom it was important to get into the UC's, so I've been in it for four years," related another.
"I don't like to go into too many details about my extracurriculars when I talk to my parents," a third student confided, "because I'm afraid they would say, 'This is how you spend your time after school?' and make me quit."
In the wake of this most recent suicide, I also learned that Gunn students have a tradition of writing the name of their college on their graduation caps. Not only is this extremely tacky... but it's also sort of sick. Perhaps one of the most visual representations of what's wrong with the "achievement" culture.
Because why take this opportunity to celebrate your progress, friendships, memories and experiences, when we could just have a "What college did you get into?" pissing contest?
I say this in no way to criticize my students or their parents -- they were only doing what they thought was necessary for a good future. But for most students, the key to a good future is a healthy and enriching present. As I wrote in Good Schools Don't Turn Kids Into Zombies, the most successful young adults I know are not the ones who got straight As. They're the ones who were given space, encouragement and resources to develop their own intrinsic interests -- whether through entering egg drop competitions or playing basketball or building sets for the school play. They are now running their own companies (one of my friends is even developing a flying car!) -- or at the very least, making enough money and loving their lives.
And at the end of the day, isn't that what really matters?
In this blog post, I will show you two ways to make sure you raise happy, resilient (and, ultimately, successful) children. I also hope to convince you that straight A's, perfect SATs and top colleges aren't the only path to success -- and, indeed, that the skills required to get straight A's are largely useless in the modern professional world.
To raise happy and resilient kids, start by doing the following:
1. Let them fail.
You read that correctly. Sometimes, when we're determined to get our kid into the best college, we insulate them from any kind of failure, ever.
"Oh, you got a B on the math test? I'll talk to your teacher about it -- if she won't give you a re-take, I'll get her fired!"
"Oh, you forgot your violin and are going to get an F for the day in music? Here, let me just leave work, drive home, get your violin, drive it to your school, leave it at the principal's office for you, and then drive back to work to finish my workday -- because if you get an F for the day in music, you'll never get into Princeton!"
"I don't think you got to play enough in the game today -- I'll talk to your coach to make sure you get more time next game."
When you're willing to drop everything in your life -- whether a social, professional, personal or spousal commitment -- to insulate them from small failures and minor consequences, two very bad things happen:
1. You send a powerful social signal that failure is not acceptable. Ever. You send the message that this one high school quiz is more important than your job, your clients, your relationships -- your anything! Failure is the end of the world. It won't matter if you say to your child, "I love you for who you are, regardless of your grades," if your actions scream otherwise.
2. You rob them of the chance to develop coping skills. You rob them the chance to ask themselves, "What did I do wrong? What can I do differently next time?" You rob them of the realization, "Wow. I really didn't give that my best effort, and it showed. Maybe I should prepare more or differently next time." You rob them of the chance to feel a little bit of anger, a little bit of hurt, even a little bit of shame -- and then learn how to deal with these complicated and painful emotions. So, now, how are they supposed to deal with a major hurt, such as not getting into their first-choice school, having their heart broken or getting cut from JV their senior year (or, God forbid, a serious injury or illness)?
When you insulate your child from failure, you aren't building a perfect resume. You're building weakness and dependence. So instead of always stepping in, always running interference and sending the terrible message that failure=death... just step back. Let them handle it their own way. Obviously, if something major happens, you're going to need to take a bigger role. But as long as it's something minor, your job is simply to support.
And, if necessary, follow up with a conversation that shows them that they are fine, you are fine, and everything will be okay. Help them further develop coping skills by asking questions like:
"In your own words, tell me what happened."
"Why do you think this happened?"
"Can you think of anything you could do differently next time?"
"It sounds like you're handling this fine on your own, but is there anything I can do to help?"
Even if you are angry or disappointed, try to remain neutral during this discussion. To make sure they feel understood and validated, repeat what they said back to them. Literally say, "I heard you say that _____, and so you _____. Is that correct?"
2. Let them explore.
I read this awesome book once. It was called A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel H. Pink. I highly recommend that you buy the book and read the entire thing, but if you need the TL;DR (that's Internet for "too long; didn't read"), it's this:
Once upon a time, America was "discovered." There was land everywhere, and people who could farm well had stable jobs and could make a good living. It was the beginning of the Agricultural Age.
Then, the steam engine happened. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and, in turn, the Industrial Age. People with strong hands, good hand-eye coordination and tireless work ethic were successful in this economy.
But then! The Information Age happened. Universities began churning out "knowledge workers," like doctors, accountants and lawyers. People who could memorize huge amounts of information were rewarded in this economy -- hence the fact that over half of America's top graduates do the same six jobs after graduation... even though, I regret to inform you, the Information Age is over.
Yet again, the world has changed. We are more connected -- to both technology and the rest of the globe -- than ever. We can outsource knowledge and factory work with the click of a mouse. We can automate machines and computers to do much of the labor, memorization and thinking that was previously only achievable by humans. According to venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, 80% of what doctors do can now be done better by machines. That obviously includes many cognitive tasks, like diagnosis and prescribing medications. If all your child can do is memorize information and regurgitate it in tests and papers... they aren't going to be very valuable in the Conceptual Age.
So. What skills will make your child valuable in the job market? Anything that can't be done better by a computer or cheaper overseas. According to Pink, this boils down to six essential skills:
At the time of writing, none of these skills are really being "taught" in school. But! The good news is, your child can develop these skills on their own by having the freedom (and encouragement) to explore their interests, and develop an understanding of the needs of their community in a way that only humans can.
Need some examples? Here are a couple of students who became millionaires by the time they were 25:
Jermain Griggs (hearandplay.com) is worth $5 million -- and it all started with his love of music. He started a website to help people learn to play music by ear, rather than reading sheet music. His passion shone through -- and, after a lot of work, was making millions of dollars doing something that started out as an intrinsic interest.
(Also worth noting: Jermain went to UC Irvine. Not Harvard. Not Stanford. Because where you go to school doesn't matter if you've had all the creativity squashed out of you.)
Susan Gregg-Koger (modcloth.com) is worth $15 million -- because she had an interest in vintage fashion. Rather than focusing on straight A's, she devoted much of her time in college to selling clothes online. Now her full-time gig, she provides clothing, shoes, wedding dresses, accessories and household items to customers around the world. Check it out:
I'm really glad her parents never told her that she should spend less time on thrifting and more time on studying for the SATs or the MCATs. Because then this amazing store would not exist, and Susan would be slaving away passionlessly behind a desk (or, just as likely, competing with hundreds of other applicants for the same $35,000/year job) somewhere.
Emerson Spartz (GivesMeHope, OMG-Facts, MuggleNet) loved Harry Potter. At age 12, he launched www.the-best-harrypotter-links.homestead.com -- and his parents gave him the space to work on it when other kids were busy with school or homework. It evolved into MuggleNet, which evolved into an expertise in HTML, which evolved into an innate understanding of virality and, eventually, a multi-million dollar company.
I'm not saying school shouldn't matter. It does! It's a great way to learn how to work hard towards a goal. It's a great way to develop self-control and self-discipline. It's a great way to explore a wide range of topics, from history to math to shop. It's a place where kids can build an identity, coping skills, social skills and empathy -- if we let them. And it's a time when kids can learn how to fail, how to take a risk, with only minor consequences.
But based on the conversations I've heard about Gunn lately, this is not what high school is about right now. As a parent, you can't single-handedly change the culture. But you can start with the advice and examples in this post to help your child develop resilience and begin to explore things that give their life meaning -- whether that's vintage fashion, toilets... or something completely different.
If you enjoyed this post and want more recommended reading, I suggest:
How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid For Success, by former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims
The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, by psychiatrist Madeline Levine
Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies or "Fat Envelopes,"
by psychiatrist Madeline Levine
In addition to:
APs Make You Look Complacent, NOT Curious (especially if you go to a school like PALY or Gunn)
Going to Stanford Doesn't Mean You'll Get a Stanford Education - And Going to a State School Doesn't Mean You Won't
4 Reasons a Tutor is the WORST Thing You Can Do For Your Child
High-Achieving Teens Feel Empty. Therapy Doesn't Help, But This Might
Thoughts or suggestions? Please share in the comments!
2/2/2015 11:36:00 am
Agree. Dovetails nicely with piece published Saturday in Palo Alto Weekly. Loved the examples of successful people who did NOT take AP classes. My oldest daughter is Cal graduate and PhD, now Physics professor at MIT and one of the world's leading young particle physicists-- took NO AP classes in high school. The toxic hyper-competitive culture at Gunn needs to change-- even if many students and parents complain.
2/3/2015 07:18:24 am
That's awesome -- especially considering the tragic shortage of female science professors at top institutions! It sounds like she's forged quite a path for herself :)
2/3/2015 03:30:11 am
Loved this, and am copying over an excerpt of a comment I left on a different post re: the examples in this post.
2/3/2015 06:14:41 am
While I agree with your principle of failing often and exploring more, I believe that the blame on parents is unwarranted. There are deeper causes for such suicide tragedies.
2/3/2015 07:09:23 am
"Blame" is too strong a word. I think parents do what they do because they want the best for their child -- there are just a lot of misperceptions about what that means.
2/3/2015 07:14:35 am
Oh. I guess the last part of my post got cut off. Here it is:
2/3/2015 09:13:41 am
I think your point about start ups not necessarily being founded by people from elite schools is a good one. I also thought I'd add to this. My father was a senior executive at a fortune 500 technology company. During his long tenure at the company, he told me that the one school where he had to fire the most MBAs from was Harvard. He said they were strong on academic knowledge of business but not practical knowledge, and that they also often felt better than all their peers because of the university they went to and therefor didn't work well with others on the team because they considered themselves better than other. My father himself went to a small liberal arts school for undergrad and did his graduate work at a mid range public school in the midwest. Yet he rose to the top ranks of the company. Likewise he told me about another senior executive that didn't even have a 4 year degree, rather started as a technician with an associates degree and still rose to the top levels of the company.
2/3/2015 09:19:06 am
So true -- thanks for sharing! I have an amazingly wise mentor who once told me, "Your Stanford diploma will only get you so far, Eva. When you're right out of school and there's not a lot on your resume, people will go, 'Wow, you went to Stanford! That's great!' But a few years out of school, people are going to start to say, 'Yeah, you went to Stanford five years ago... but what have you done since?'"
2/3/2015 12:27:23 pm
Great piece and thanks for the shout-out Eva!
2/6/2015 05:54:33 am
Thanks, Dean Julie! I'm so excited for your book to come out, you don't even know.
2/4/2015 03:28:18 pm
2/6/2015 07:36:17 am
Thanks for your feedback - though I can assure you, I wasn't exaggerating any of this. The quotes I used in the beginning of the article were pretty much verbatim (I have a great memory for that sort of thing). Is it possible my students were exaggerating? Sure. But they seemed pretty darn authentic when they were sharing their stories with me.
2/4/2015 04:06:04 pm
I am disappointed that all the success stories you cited seemed to stress the wealth these people created - all 3 mentioned the word "million" to back up this notion of success. Is that the real measure of success that we want to reinforce to parents? Seems to me you could have cited a kid who became the best second grade teacher ever as a success story too, even if they never became a millionaire...
2/4/2015 04:28:56 pm
Fair enough. The point of including those three examples was showing that kids with seemingly "useless" interests like fashion or Harry Potter can become extremely successful by fostering those skills. No one should ever say, "I'm afraid to tell my parents too much about my extracurriculars," because you never know what hobbies or interests can become valuable -- either by providing the child with money, happiness, or a good learning experience. But I also thought examples of internet millionaires might be the kinds of examples parents who pressure their kids would appreciate.
3/19/2015 02:03:00 pm
I think this is still missing the point though, if you keep talking about what income these kids could make. Is that all life is about, how much money you'll earn, and whether it's a "decent" amount or not? Yes, it's good to encourage kids to pursue things that interest them, but not because they can make a buck from them. (Sometimes that's what can ruin your interest in them, turning them into a way of making money.)
5/1/2015 05:49:07 am
The point isn't about how much money they'll make. The point is that a lot of parents and students alike worry about how they're going to make a living as an adult. Parents pressure their kids into spending time on activities that will "guarantee" a good income -- which is why more than half of America's top grads will do the same six things after graduation (law school, med school, grad school, finance, consulting and teach for america), even though people in these fields often feel discontent and passionless.
4/27/2017 04:37:13 am
" Is that all life is about, how much money you'll earn, and whether it's a "decent" amount or not?"
4/27/2017 04:35:19 am
let's get real..money is not everything, it's the ONLY thing, especially in USA culture
8/10/2015 01:50:06 am
Unfortunately teen cluster suicide is an incredibly complex issue. It's is not so simple as saying don't worry you can still succeed even if you didn't get into Harvard. No one takes their life because of such a silly reason, even here, in SV.
8/10/2015 02:44:54 am
Yes, the issue is incredibly complex. And though I try to provide examples, here, of people succeeding by following different paths than the AP-GPA-SAT, the focus of the article is that we, at the earliest age possible, need to embrace failure as both an unavoidable part of life... and an important learning opportunity.
1/6/2016 01:28:50 pm
Well post and achievement is toxic a good topic and i appreciate you because its give us good information how to student should live thanks for sharing .
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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