If that’s not the version of success we want for our kids, why do we keep pushing for it?

Courtesy of New York Times Op-Ed

Courtesy of New York Times

Attended a great talk by Dr. Madeline Levine as part of the Common Ground lecture series on January 30th.  Her August 2012 op-ed piece “Raising Successful Children” is apparently the most emailed piece in history of New York Times.  My favorite quote from that two-pager is: “In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

In 2008, when she wrote Price of Privilege she was gaining clarity on the solutions, now she feels she’s starting to make progress on some of the solutions which are reflected in last year’s Teach Your Children Well.  Levine was a teacher in the Bronx, prior to starting a psychology practice in Marin county, just north of San Francisco over 25 years ago, where many an affluent child can be found.  She’s also a mother of three, and sees motherhood as one of her superpowers (more on that later), so she knows children well.

She’s a wonderful presenter, very comfortable in front of a crowd, with only a flip chart “to keep her on track”, and many amusing anecdotes.  Great dinner company, I’m sure. When she presents to crowds like the five hundred or so presumably affluent, well-intentioned parents in Silicon Valley jammed into that lecture theatre at 9am on a Wednesday morning, she likes to ask what is your  goal for your kids?

a) to know themselves well, to have passion for their vocation, something to contribute, to be resilient, to have zest for life, a loving family, etc, or 

b) to follow the linear “classic” definition of success: private schools, Ivy league undergrad, Harvard MBA, Goldman Sachs banker 

Perhaps because the answer is obviously not “b” in this context, typically only 2-4% of the audience admit to “b”.  So if that’s true, why do we keep demanding it of our children?

In the end, success with children is not the outcome of today or tomorrow.  It’s a lifetime.  10 years out, the success rate of those that went to Yale vs. those that didn’t is indistinguishable. Yet, with all of the day-to-day blocking and tackling, it’s very easy to forget the long term view.   She provides an example of one of her own children, who she transferred from public to private school, despite the contrary advice of experts, and yet with no apparent negative consequences in the long term.

Adults have a very well-kept secret from their kids – you only have to be good at a few things to succeed.  When you look at yourself, and ask what are your superpowers, you probably excel at a handful, are good at some, and poor at the rest.  A Gallup poll of executives revealed the same thing – of around thirty management capabilities, each executive only excelled at 3 to 5 things.  The conclusion is the greatest rewards come from focusing on strengths, both for you and your children.  As she says, kids don’t know this.  Rather than trying to raise a kid that excels at everything, let them find what they are good at, and let the other stuff go.  You probably don’t get straight A’s in your life, so why should your kids be expected to get straight A’s at everything too?

The challenge with the narrow linear definition of success is it creates huge pressure for kids to meet this straight-A’s trajectory and with that pressure comes a host of side effects from stomach aches to stress to depression.  As Levine says, “in reality, most of your kids are really quite average.  That’s basic statistics, the bell curve… If two people with an IQ of 140 marry, the likely result is not additive, its more likely to regress to the mean.”

For her, if someone is described as “smart”, she now likes to ask “in what way?”.  She subscribes to Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence : analytical, creative and practical, and says she ended up with a kid of each type.  When the first one come along, with straight-A’s analytical intelligence she patted herself on the back, and thought how good she was at parenting.  Then the second turned up with creative intelligence.  “Creativity is like a river, if just flows, and you can’t stop it.” It took a while for him to find his way, but he did.  The third child apparently had fantastic hands-on skills and amazing emotional intelligence. (A critical overlying capability for all of us, in my opinion).

The challenge is the school system rewards such a narrow definition of academic success.  For kids not gifted with analytical intelligence, the challenge is how to help them develop confidence and high self-worth in a system that doesn’t value what they offer.

Clearly each child is different, and you have to match the school to the child.  Imposing your own wishes on the children doesn’t do anybody any favors either.  In another great quip: “at 16, kids have enough to worry about without worrying abut what the parents want”  Apparently the most common request she gets from kids she sees in her psychology practice is “please help my mother to find a hobby [other than me]”.   She’s not a fan of weekend sports spectating, as she feels it makes adulthood look boring.  Parents should “keep in mind your own needs. Kids need to know its not all about them. Your home is your child’s first community.”

She acknowledges why many of us default to the linear success path in evaluating our kids and others: “we are anxious because the world is tough, and we don’t want our kids living at home after college, playing video games, and hitting the bong.”  Somewhat surprisingly, Levine said that in terms of content and skills American kids are as good as any other.  “In terms of everything else they stink … Kids have a sense of entitlement, a lack of grit, a lack of collaboration, and are so accustomed to external support and evaluation that they can’t evaluate themselves.”

The other reason, she suggests, is the lack of honesty in the “latte line” – all the other parents are hiding problems and saying everything is great rather than having an honest dialogue. In Levine’s view, the two most important developmental tasks for school-age kids are:

  1. exploration
  2. developing friendships

Her solution for over- parenting in a nut shell is: “don’t do what your child can already do, or almost do”.  For example, “if your ten year old forgets a school project – do you bring it in for them? [Answer:] It depends! A succession of successful failures is really good for kids. They have to solve problems for themselves and learn how to cope and manage unhappy things.  This isn’t always the rule, it depends, you have to have each others back. So if its super important, bring it in.  If not, don’t. Every kid in America knows how not to load the dishwasher – “mum, I have an important test tomorrow “.  Yet it’s more important they spend 5 minutes on a family obligation than an extra 5 minutes studying for a test.”

A few other tips from a most thought provoking and entertaining lecture:

  • “Kids say nobody listens to me – you have to listen, really listen.”  In other words, put down that smart phone, get down on their level and listen
  • Don’t over schedule kids – they need space to construct a sense of self – playtime, downtime, and family time are critical
  • Young adolescents love to argue. It may be easier to deal with if you remember it’s really just to practice abstract thinking skills.

Have you read any of her books?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Success = Luck + 10,000 Hours

Blatantly obvious when you put it like that. No doubt there are some examples of success with only one, but one of Gladwell’s objectives is finding how to help more people be successful with more certainty.

Luck is hard to generate, but understanding how culture affects aptitude is not (in other words you don’t get to choose where you were born or how you were brought up, but you can understand the unique strengths that set of circumstances will bring).

In Outliers, Gladwell does a brilliant job of breaking down the American obsession with the myth of the self-made man. I can’t decide if I’m thrilled or not with this conclusion.

On the glass half-empty side, if you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time and it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to be successful, why bother? Accept your fate.

On the other hand, from the optimist’s viewpoint, what could you excel at given your background and what you love doing. This is an extremely insightful way to review your life. It’s remarkable how seemingly small events can add up to powerful determinants of future success. For  Bill Gates, Gladwell recounts how it was being at a school which had one of the first  computers in the world that allowed online processing enabling him to rack up 10,000 hours while still in his teens.  For the Beatles, their extensive live stage time in Germany is also cited as a key driver of success.  The biggest determinant of which kids makes it to the elite in classical music?  Practice time.  If you’ve got kids, now is a good time to think about whether you’re helping them to really practice the things they love.

BTW, the book is very entertaining, because Gladwell is such a great storyteller. I recently had the misfortune of picking up The Town the Food Saved which could have been full of wonderful stories about country characters and how they turned a dead mining town into a thriving local food community. Instead it was an extremely dull history where you got all you needed to know from the jacket – artisanal, local food is good for the planet, profits, and the local community. At least reading something like this makes you realize how good authors like Gladwell are.

If you look back at your life, you’ll discover unique twists and turns that have set you up for success in a number of areas. Why do some people lose that trail, while others keep the passion alive? Is it parental intervention, the influence of peers, just wanting to fit in, or chasing a pot of gold? Discovering what helps people stay on track would be a great companion to this book.  For me, retrospection revealed product and process design, reviewing, cooking, and trail running as opportunities.  What would it help you to see in your own life?