Although I’ve spent many years giving talks for teachers and parents, I’m frequently asked to address students as well. In some ways, it’s a serious challenge; those students who have short attention spans tend to be impatient with people who don’t speak to their most pressing concerns. Despite the risks, I enjoy these assemblies- especially if I can catch that elusive attention by challenging the assumptions most kids carry.
Along these lines, since a great many readers work with youth as well, I thought you might be interested in what I find to be a great conversation starter: five illusions of youth. These are not all new ideas for me, but here I’ve organized them to serve as a template in your own meaningful dialogues with young people. Those who have followed my writing over the past few years know that discussing meaning and purpose with young people is a primary focus of my work. It really pleases me to engage in dialogue directly with students, and to have a chance to field their reactions. You may find it rewarding as well.
Please note: the following list of ideas is as relevant to students in public school as private. For those in cities as those in more rural areas. For students determined to transcend status, as those concerned with maintaining socioeconomic class. (I know it’s popular to emphasize “education for jobs” among economically disadvantaged kids, but that is a cruel form of myopia. That idea misses the essential truth that everyone needs a life grounded by something more than a paycheck. And to make the argument for our most pragmatic readers, consider that graduates who do develop a vocation and life guided by deeper principles are more likely to work with the intensity and seriousness that garner a healthy income!)
The Point of Going to School is to Get Good Grades
This fallacy is so deeply embedded in popular conceptions of the purpose of school, and the value of education, that most of us take it in stride. Let’s be clear, most of us believe good grades are the best predictor of longer-term economic success – and that outcome is what we mean by valuing a good education. It seems foolish to dispute the economic benefits of education – they are real. But to identify good grades as the point of school is shortsighted. Imagine how preposterous it would be to reduce your experience as a family member, community member, employer or employee to a single letter grade.
In the 21st century, where growing up and going to school are almost one and the same, surely school is most important as a place of personal development. There are too many critical experiences in the course of the school day to write them off as incidental to the pursuit of good grades.
If we only focus on developing people who can be self-supporting and productive, we risk creating a generation of consumers who lack the skill and insight needed to be good citizens – people capable of full participation in civic life. Given the challenges this generation will inherit, does that seem sufficient to you? Speaking of students in the US – where the focus is on STEM – only 1 in 5 eighth grade students is proficient in civics and history. Robert Pondisco, former teacher and founder of CitizenshipFirst writes, “we send kids to school not just to become employees and entrepreneurs, but citizens capable of wise and effective self-government in our democracy.”
I agree that the elements of becoming a citizen are incredibly interesting to most students. For example, my conversations with students from elementary school through high school suggest that their favorite topics are those of social and political relevance – big issues that they view as significant for the community at large. At present, for the great majority, those discussions are relegated to a few sporadic conversations in social studies class. This is frustrating to educators and students alike.
While there are some students who have the intellectual resources to be accomplished in a great many areas, other students find it difficult to balance the demands of performing at a high level on tests, while at the same time immersing themselves in matters of broader social concern. I strongly advocate making sufficient space for discussion of the latter. It is the soul of student interest, and the foundation of citizenship. In my view, this is one of the most important models of leadership a school can pursue.
You are in a High Stakes Competition Against Everyone Else
The self-consciousness and feelings of inadequacy that affect many adults are also a constant concern for young people. Often, they understand life as a kind of competition between themselves and peers, and this perception has been heightened by a scarcity of openings at the best universities, and then valued internships or jobs. This is particularly harmful for students whose preoccupation with competition is already magnified by an incessant focus on sports.
I’m concerned with the emotional effects of competition and the broad cognitive distortions that an unhealthy obsession with competition and winning, leads to.This sort of preoccupation with comparison obfuscates the most important competition, which is with oneself. The real challenge of youth is learning to overcome whatever inertia, self-doubt, and limitations one experiences as an individual. A young person who learns to overcome adverse thoughts, feelings and negative social influences is a strong person. Certainly I’m not suggesting that athletes who learn to overcome adversity on the field of play do not also become strong people – I believe they do! But in the larger scheme of things this accomplishment is subordinate to the importance of confronting the limitations inherent in one’s personal perceptions.
There is an element of depth psychology attached to this particular illusion. Specifically, competition with others has the effect of orienting one’s attention externally. In contrast, a sense of being in competition with oneself requires a more internal focus, and that focus is inherently more reflective, encouraging different types of critical thinking. We need young people to do more of this type of thinking, and we need adults who are able to facilitate this type of reflection, to be working directly with young people.
Unfortunately, it’ difficult to move students’ thinking forward with an occasional assembly or an inspirational poster. What is needed is an ongoing commitment to orient students toward personal challenges, and to help them work through a plan for addressing them. This requires more individualized instruction, because in order to facilitate this process you must know those students as individuals first.
On an intuitive level, the great majority of students already know that their primary “adversary” is themselves. We should help them to face that reality with courage and determination. It begins with an honest appraisal – something the average adolescent has never experienced. Why? -Because we associate that process with emotional vulnerability and a degree of suffering, and we are always so fearful of damaging a young person’s self-esteem. Yet honesty is more helpful than hurtful. It grounds us in reality, and sets the stage for a workmanlike effort toward improving or changing whatever we want to. It brings people closer, and makes advice more credible.
Games Are More Fun and Interesting Than Work
For most young people, this is an outrageous idea. How could work ever be more fun and interesting than games? Yet there is no question that work outperforms games by a mile – when it is personally meaningful work that speaks to the spirit and identity of a person. We fall prey to the illusion that games are more fun and interesting than work when we limit our thinking about “work” to homework, repetitive work, or chores.
In other writings, I have explained the critical differences between labor and work, with the latter involving a degree of creativity, autonomy, and identity that labor does not typically afford. I agree that chores are a necessity of life, but chores are not sufficient as a complete model of what work can be. In most cases, chores do not extend a person’s skill set. They do not garner special respect, and don’t lead to admiration or a sense of individual accomplishment.
More purposeful work enhances one’s identity, and elevates the emotional and psychological satisfaction of being useful. Those who have read the essay “Purposeful Work” in my newest book are aware of the many urgent psychological dimensions of this social and developmental imperative. A young person who reaches her or his mid-twenties without an opportunity to do purposeful work is at a great disadvantage in the transition to adulthood. Such a person may have solid educational credentials, and may even have a bona fide job. But in my view, these alone do not signify maturity or success.
I don’t question the merits of having fun. But fun is a fuzzy concept. There are different levels and kinds of fun. Everyone is concerned about the amount of time kids devote to electronics, but moralizing about that problem doesn’t amount to much. The only real and sustainable solution is to provide viable alternatives. This means activities in which kids gain respect by doing interesting, useful things of relevance to the larger community.
Much is written recently about the social benefits of newer games. To me, these explanations seem like convenient rationalizations. The sad truth is that games are the consolation prize for having little else to do that is truly interesting and challenging. Would Harry Potter find electronic games more interesting than the work of saving others from doom? I don’t think so. This is a case where we should help life to imitate art.
Vocation is an Arbitrary Choice
Another illusion pertaining to purpose is that one’s vocation is an open-ended, no-strings-attached choice. I’ve learned that some young people imagine the process of finding a vocation as though there were a buffet of options from which they can freely pick; as though one’s choice has only to reflect what looks appealing at that moment.
While vocation involves a degree of choice, vocation is ultimately a matter of calling – that’s what vocation means! As a psychologist, I’ve spent many hours talking with adults whose greatest happiness, or unhappiness, stems directly from the work they do. Many have never had an opportunity to do work (broadly defined) that they feel they were meant to do.
It’s interesting that by the time someone reaches age thirty, they are usually convinced they were destined for some type of purpose. By this time, one’s happiness tilts on whether there is congruity between the life one is leading and a person’s core values and interests. Yet only ten to fifteen years earlier, the relevance of this idea may have little play. Instead, a person in late teens or early twenties is more fixated on a somewhat simple notion of freedom – the idea that “I can do anything I want to do.” We Americans are quick to defend such freedom. I only wish we didn’t succumb to the notion that one’s life purpose is picked the same way someone selects a new pair of shoes.
Clinging to the freedom or right to choose one’s path may be emotionally reassuring, but it doesn’t necessarily help to shape a more authentic life. And let’s not be fooled that the big decisions don’t get made until late adolescence or early adulthood. By middle school, most kids are locking into strong ideas about their identity, abilities, and long-term social status. If you aren’t having conversations about vocation by this point, you’re relegating the task to your child’s peers.
Attention is All in Your Head
We should all be aware of popular myths about attention, and the consequences they have for our thinking and intervention. The number one myth is the idea that attention lives in one’s head. Such a conception fails to address that attention is a social phenomenon that exists in the spaces between us more than it does within us. I know this is a provocative idea, and that it goes against the medicalization implicit in modern life. But we have been stalled for decades on this idea that attention is a matter of personal responsibility – an idea that is so outdated that it’s no longer practical or useful. I am grateful for all the benefits that medicine offers modern life. In some cases, psychiatric medications are invaluable, and I don’t hesitate to make a referral when I believe a person might benefit. That reality notwithstanding, there is no question that our most primary understanding of where attention lives must be in the social spaces between people, or people and activities. Specifically, when we become focused on a shared point of interest, our attention becomes rock solid.
When young people begin to understand this idea, it’s a path toward recognizing how important it is to build a life around activities that have personal relevance. I’ve evaluated many kids who believe they have a chronic attention deficit disorder, because they have seldom if ever had a chance to work at a task they find deeply stimulating.
And as always, the tone we apply in relating to kids makes all the difference in the world as to how they respond. For nearly a decade I have been modeling that tone in my talks, and more recently in videos (see below). Vocal tone, and the way it establishes a social orbit, is a powerful antidote to distraction. It should be thought of as an option of first resort.
Thank you for your review of these Five Illusions, and for considering how they might affect important people in your own life and work. It’s difficult to cover every aspect of these phenomena in a single newsletter. As mentioned earlier, I am highly committed to addressing these topics with young people. That said, I do have a presentation on The Five Illusions that I present for faculty and parents, as well.
As my workshops have evolved, what has emerged as a particularly effective model is partnering with parent associations within schools and school districts. If you are part of such a group and are interested in a multidimensional visit, involving interaction with each group of the school community, I encourage you to contact me about possibilities. Again, this is a somewhat new model for me. In the past, I’ve been focused on presenting for teachers. I certainly have as much interest in those discussions as ever, but find that it’s extremely important to integrate the conversation with parents, and of course the students themselves. As always, I am deeply appreciative of the readers of this newsletter, for your frequent comments, and for the opportunity to connect around such important topics. It’s a privilege – thank you!
The Children’s Arts Guild
The Children’s Arts Guild of New York is a charitable organization that seeks to develop boys’ social and emotional development, and I am pleased to be a part of their volunteer board. If you aren’t familiar with the organization, I suggest that you explore their website – they are doing fantastic work, and are always seeking to connect with kindred spirits.
Recently, the Grace Church School in New York hosted a reception for the Children’s Arts Guild, where I spoke about the “Keys to Boys Communication, Connection & Purpose.” Here’s the video:
Reading Groups for On Purpose Before Twenty
Is your book club or parent group (PTA/PTO) reading my newest book, On Purpose Before Twenty? Four Corners Press can coordinate an hour-long Skype session with me to discuss the book. If your group is interested, please contact Four Corners Press for further details. There is no fee, but groups must have purchased at least 12 books, and will be scheduled on a first-come, first served basis, subject to availability.
Copyright Adam Cox, 2013