Three Longs & Three Shorts

Kids Don’t Need to Stay ‘On Track’ to Succeed

Whilst most of us at Marcellus have self-selected ourselves to get off the beaten track, many of us are as worried as any other parent as to what our kids will do when they grow up and how will they stay happy and become “successful”. In this piece, Madeline Levine, a psychologist from California tells us that “When parents portray success as a linear progression of SAT scores, acceptance to selective colleges, and high-powered internships, they set kids up for disappointment.”
Ms Levine kicks off the piece describing a ten year old boy who, whilst sitting in her office, tells her what he wants to do in life: “With no hesitation, he perks up and exclaims, “I want to run a start-up.” He doesn’t even know what a start-up is, but he does know, in exacting detail, the trajectory he will need to take to become wildly successful in running one. Not yet finished with middle school, he has charted the next 15 years of his life: He plans on applying to the most competitive high school in town, hoping that this will increase his odds of going to Stanford. He knows he will have to serve time as an intern, preferably at Google. He is intent on being a “winner.”
My young patient’s parents, teachers, and community are all likely to encourage this way of thinking, but they are only making his future chances of being successful less likely.”
Ms Levine then goes on to explain why successful people’s lives rarely take linear trajectories: “I’ve spent more than 15 years traveling the country talking to large audiences about the intersection of child development, psychology, and education. At the start of my presentation, I pull up two PowerPoint slides: One is simply a straight line on a 45-­degree angle. The other is a squiggly line with multiple ups and downs that trends in an upward direction. With the image on-screen, I ask the audience to raise their hands in response to one of these two questions: “How many of you who consider yourself successful have followed the straight path? How many have followed the squiggly path?” I have asked more than 100,000 people these questions. Whatever the composition of my audience—techies from Silicon Valley, cops and teachers from middle­-class neighborhoods, the highest levels of management from some of America’s biggest companies—the proportion of “straight arrows” and “curious wanderers” is always the same. Straight arrows make up, at most, 10 per­cent of the people who consider themselves successful. The remaining 90 percent are folks who have taken risks, failed, changed course, recovered, often failed again, but ultimately found their stride.”
She goes on to elaborate why parental determination of their kids’ life trajectories can be particularly damaging: “Even if parents ascended a relatively smooth track from school to career success, it’s misguided to assume that what worked for them will be right for their kids, too. (See: the parents who push their kids to apply to their alma mater, for instance.) Encouraging children to follow a linear path makes them cautious and competitive, when what they are most likely to need are curiosity, a willingness to take risks, and a talent for collaboration.”
Ms Levine goes on to question the conventional definition of success and argues in favour of a broader view of what constitutes success: “What exactly constitutes success is, of course, open to a world of meaning. Financial independence is one way to measure success, a sense of doing meaningful and fulfilling work is another, and raising a healthy family and contributing to one’s community yet another. Sometimes these varying definitions converge; sometimes they don’t. One of the patterns that I see regularly among people who consider themselves successful is real passion about the work they do: the kind of passion that makes them work harder than others, welcome mistakes and even failures as learning opportunities, and feel that what they do has impact. While money may be inherited, real success always has to be earned.
If a linear progression tightly tied to grades, SAT scores, admittance to selective colleges, and high-­powered internships for well-­known companies were in fact the path taken by most successful people, we still would have to weigh its value against healthy child development, but at least we would have some evidence that our kids would one day benefit from all of the aggressive preparation, coaching, and tutoring. However, reality—that is, real people following real trajectories—suggests that this particular template is only modestly accurate. More often, a meandering and unexpected path is what leads to success.”