The Book Brigade talks to Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard.
Posted April 18, 2019
A high perch in Silicon Valley enables a keen observer to survey the damage being done to young people by pushing them to “achieve” early on only one very narrow metric of success. We’re robbing kids of curiosity, the power of discovery, and the. Instruments of their own happiness.
Let’s start with the subtitle, The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement. Why do you think the world is obsessed with early achievement?
You can put economic fear at the top of the list. For the last 30 years, the most lucrative careers and entrepreneurial opportunities have been in software and high finance—think Google and Goldman Sachs. How do these rich companies screen for young talent? Elite school admissions and high-test scores.
Parents fear their kids won’t succeed in life if they fall off the fast track to success. The billions spent on private tutoring, SAT and ACT prep course, and college admissions counseling attest to this worry.
And is it the whole world that is so obsessed? Or just certain parts of it, such as most of the technologically advanced parts of the world?
The U.S. is the leader of the pack. More than 90 percent of the drugs prescribed to treat ADHD are in the U.S. It’s almost as if we’ve turned a Harvard rejection into a clinical disease. But a former minister of education in Singapore said he’s worried about the same phenomenon. And I heard the same story when I was lecturing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
How did we get to this point?
The trend has been building for 30 years, which correlates with the rise of technology companies and investment firms. As mentioned, these two industries screen for high test scores and elite college admissions.
What does science, including the developmental literature, tell us about the nature and trajectory of achievement/success?
A 2015 study led by Laura Germine of Harvard and Joshua Hartshorne of MIT, in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital, revealed that our brains continue to evolve throughout our lives, assuming we stay healthy and engaged. Some capabilities peak in our 20s, such as working memory and rapid processing speed. Other cognitive capabilities improve throughout middle age, such as empathy and certain kinds of pattern recognition. There is a reason why most effective managers and CEOs are in their 30s and above. Finally, our vocabulary and what you might call wisdom, peak in our 60s and later.
Does it matter that we lose tolerance for the natural course of development?
Absolutely. The rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among teens and young adults is nothing short of a public health crisis. The pressure for early achievement is contributing to this crisis. The belief that college is always the best option for every teen has contributed to the $1.5 trillion student debt, with an 11.5 percent default rate.
The push for early achievement certainly isn’t coming from kids themselves. Where is it coming from?
Let me first say that some kids are natural early achievers, and that’s a good thing. The fallacy is believing that every kid will prosper if pushed for early achievement. The push has come from parents – professionally educated parents who worry that their own kids won’t do better, or even as well, as they did. Now, are these parents really worried about their kids, or are they worried about their own loss of status if they can’t brag about their kids at cocktail parties? It is pushed by those ubiquitous college rankings, which value colleges that reject most applications. As in, Stanford is elite because it admits only 3% of applicants.
And why? Why at this moment in history? And what is it that parents want for their children?
I return to the economy today, and what it rewards. The greatest financial opportunities are in two fields—technology and software, and high-end investing. The companies and firms in these fields compete hard for the “best and brightest.” By that, they mean superstar young adults with the test scores, grades, and elite diplomas that mark them as young superstars.
What kinds of things do they do to push for early achievement/success?
Most parents are well-intended, but too many have bought into the current madness that pushing their kids on the conveyor belt of early achievement will produce the best outcomes for the kids. And so rather than simply loving their kids, spending time with them, listening to them, celebrating both their triumphs and failures, they outsource their roles as parents to high-performance professional coaches and tutors. Where I live in Silicon Valley, parents talk casually of spending $50,000 for tutors over the four years of a high school career. These are not rich parents, either.
Why is this bad for kids?
Because kids are deprived of the most valuable opportunities for youth – curiosity, and experimentation. One tutor in suburban Los Angeles recommends to parents that their high schoolers “not be allowed to see daylight for two years” as, instead, they should sit like robots doing rote learning one kind or another. This is criminal, in my mind. What kind of good outcome does that produce?
I suspect that parents are pushing their kids early for success because they perceive something fundamental has shifted in the socioeconomic landscape in a highly dynamic world. To what degree do you think they have the right perception but the wrong response?
Just as you say, parents are perceiving correctly and responding wrongly. The economy is very competitive today. Even amidst economic growth, the rewards flow disproportionately into fields like technology, software, and high-end financial services. The average is not acceptable in any career. Above average is no longer enough. Only excellence is a safe harbor. But here is the crucial mistake. Rather than putting kids on a path of discovery where they can discover their own inner excellence and motivation, we put them on a conveyor belt that measures excellence in narrow ways—excellence in taking standardized tests and advanced placement courses. That’s sad and misguided. The world is not an SAT test.
What are some of the consequences?
Among teens, rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Among young adults, higher rates of burnout at work. Among employers, a sense that too many young adults are brittle uncoachable. It’s no wonder. We’ve robbed their youth. We’ve turned them into performance robots.
What are the real foundations for achievement and success?
In my book, I offer a definition of blooming. I suggested that our optimal chances of blooming occur on a path of discovery at the intersection of our native gifts and deepest passions. This is a process of discovery. The surest sign that we’re on the right path, moving in the right direction, is that we feel pulled, not pushed. Pulled toward a wonderful destiny.
What is your metric of success?
For me, it’s the feeling of fulfillment. It’s the sense that all my talents and motivations have been put to good use in the service of some higher purpose.
Not everyone catches fire at the same time. What gets people “lit” with a drive for involvement that may lead to “success”?
Conceptually, it’s finding that intersection of your native gifts and deepest passions. Tactically, it’s learning how to plant yourself in the right environment, with the right friends and colleagues and mentors to help you grow. It’s learning how to welcome, not hide from, your self-doubt.
If you had one bit of advice to offer, what would it be and for whom?
Trust that you have a supreme destiny. If you sense society’s crazy early achievement conveyor belt is not taking you there, jump off the conveyor belt. Get on a path of discovery. Become an explorer. Follow your curiosity. Welcome self-doubt as a guide to help you. Never stand still.
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