What Teens Learn by Overcoming Challenges

Success is measured by the obstacles young people overcome.

Posted Jun 26, 2011

Today's research in adolescent development validates a statement made over 100 years ago by the great African American educator, Booker T. Washington.  He said, "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed."

We now know that learning to overcome challenges during adolescence develops initiative, an important characteristic of how we successfully pursue goals.

Initiative: A Misunderstood Ability

As a researcher, I have spent a number of years studying how adolescents engage with meaningful goals.  Often, I am surprised by the common misperceptions people have of what it means to possess initiative.  Some believe children are born with an initiative gene or that the word simply implies motivation. Others confuse it with achievement. For example, if a child gets an A grade or accepted to a prestigious college, then people think they must have initiative.  It is one of those fuzzy words, raising notions of everything from whether children volunteer to do the dishes to whether they succeed at soccer.

While initiative is understandably complex, many years of research helps us appreciate its importance and why some young people have more of it than others.  Simply stated, initiative is the ability to propel life forward in purposeful directions.  It involves both inner motivation and outward means to accomplish long-term goals.

Initiative is developed in adolescence, through mastery experiences and through supportive relationships that teenagers form with adults.  These experiences and relationships account for more than 75% of life success - more than IQ and genes combined.

Since initiative can be used to accomplish good or evil, it is important to note that positive initiative develops when children are instilled with values like kindness, compassion, and empathy for others.  When teenagers integrate these values into their identities, they are more likely to take initiative in ways that benefit themselves, society, and their future employers.

Experiences that Teach Initiative

Initiative is learned when teenagers participate in certain kinds of activities, over time.  How initiative is fostered in youth is at the core of my book, Tomorrow's Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. I studied the lives of initiative-infused young people—teens who were actively committed to a civic cause. My research supported other studies that have identified three important aspects of learning that help young people successfully engage with goals.

First, adolescents must choose projects or activities because it gives them internal rewards.  For example, internal rewards include creativity, dignity, autonomy, or making a difference in other people's lives.  Initiative is not developed through external rewards, like grades, winning, awards, or money. Grades can get students into good colleges but they cannot develop initiative!  Classrooms and homework are not places where initiative is traditionally developed because student choice is limited. But many teachers have devised ways to provide teenagers with more autonomy in how they pursue their studies.  Service-learning is one example that provides adolescents with choice and internal rewards, combined with a focus on academic learning. Other choices of activities are outside of school, including sports, music, and other pursuits that feed the soul.

Second, as young people participate in activities of their own choosing, it is important that they take place in environments that contain rules, challenges, and complexities that are inherent in the real world.  For example, teenagers must face intellectual, interpersonal, and intrapersonal challenges.  Away from the influence of protective parents, they must have opportunities to think critically about themselves and the world, learn to get along with peers and adults, and reflect on their progress.  They may be judged by others and given feedback that prompts an adjustment to strategies or behavior.  These are important, valuable experiences that help adolescents learn to propel themselves forward.

Lastly, adolescents must learn to sustain activities over time, despite the challenges.  Rather than doing a lot of different things, it is more helpful to focus on a few for longer periods of time.  This teaches perseverance and provides greater opportunity for a variety of challenges.  Often, the greatest learning comes from the most difficult circumstances.  Knowing that they can overcome obstacles, learn from struggle, and benefit from mistakes sets a foundation for future success.

Encourage Teens to Challenge Themselves

Adults need not be helpless observers as adolescents traverse the road to young adulthood.  Knowing the types of experiences that foster initiative is the first step to helping teenagers get the experiences they need to become successful adults.  When adults guide adolescents toward initiative-building activities, teens learn to believe in themselves and their abilities to achieve meaningful goals.

Additional information on how parents and educators foster initiative through praise and mentoring can be found in the article Route to Happiness: Fostering Initiative in Children and Adolecents.


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Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Hekmer, J. M. (1996). Exploring optimal personality development:  A longitudinal study of adolescents. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education

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©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.