Tell Me Your Challenges
Today, especially in the wealthier parts of the world, we hear stories of success. And ‘success’ is more often than not a list of the prizes: money, expensive cars, homes in some of the most expensive zip codes, entrée into top tier universities, and business cards inscribed with lofty titles like CEO, CFO, CTO, and VP. In short, there appears to be a one sided focus on the pleasant end state of success. But there is also another aspect of real accomplishment that is vitally important for our oral and written histories that receives limited attention in our perfection focused society. Our kids need a better understanding of what it takes to achieve meaningful, personal success.
I am talking about the lead up to success, where one faces down challenges that initially make that prize on the other side seem impossible; the mountains, the brick walls, the arrows, the wounds, the head winds, …
Without challenges, there can be no success. Success is the overcoming of challenges to achieve some desired end state. The end state (a school diploma, a race won, a mountain climbed, a job offer received, …) is not the success, it is simply the end state of struggle and persistence. Achieving (or receiving) some reward without the need for work or some kind of challenge is meaningless and results in no personal growth.
I have gotten into the habit of asking people to tell me about their challenges. I want to know what people have had to overcome to get to where they are now. I want to know what forces and stressors have shaped them as human beings, because to be sure, it is our hardships that mold and build our strength and capabilities.
It is amazing to me how few people make a habit of looking back on the things that have formed them. They either want to forget those challenges or they are uncomfortable talking about anything but the end state. When I ask people to describe their challenges, many of them look at me like I have a lobster growing out of my ear.
I don’t get it.
When I do find someone who is willing talk about things they have had to endure and overcome, it is often paired with stories of Helen Keller style disabilities or tales of Calcutta slum poverty. There is still a place for stories like that. Those stories should be told and there should be more of them out there to inspire us. But what about all the cases in-between the extremes? There should be more stories of people facing down odds of any kind. As a society we seem to have taken the approach that if you achieve anything, the challenges you encounter are of little interest unless those challenges make for a blockbuster movie and you achieve historical greatness.
Of course it goes without saying that we, for the most part, shy away from talking about things like mental illness, even though it is well documented that almost 1 in 5 Americans suffer from some sort of depression, anxiety, or other clinically defined mental illness over the course of any given year. That is a giant set of challenges (individual, familial, and societal). And there are many Americans with dark skin who, because of that very pigmentation, have a steeper hill to climb financially and a myriad of other ways. There are countless other challenges that people face everyday. It it clear to me that everyone has some form of challenge. (If you have no challenges, you could probably do more.)
As a society we tend to prefer to let people think that our natural gifts are primarily responsible for success (however that is defined.)
Perhaps people worry that they will appear to be complaining or whining. But, really, I tend to feel that as long as one is coming from a place of honesty and a desire to contribute, there is little risk of this. Whiners are pretty obviously self centered and easy to pick out. We’ve all been there, on both sides.
In not telling our stories of hardship, we deny our youth the chance to learn resilience directly from the people they look to for examples. Resilience is instead just insisted on. As in, “You need to be more resilient.” Or “Here, read this ‘Grit’ book and see how important it is to persevere.” And my personal favorite, “Let’s spend a ton of money to have consultants come in and advise us on how to develop a ‘program’ to increase resilience.”
There is a glaring problem with these and other approaches.
Kids can’t magically think themselves into a position of strength because they hear a word. And reading a book of cutting edge research on grit is as unlikely to lead to perseverance. Finally, unless the ‘programs’ are truly designed to increase resilience as opposed to simply decrease stress and provide skills for managing stress, they won’t increase anything other than the ability to manage stress. Managing stress is not the same as resilience. One can “manage” stress by avoiding stressful situations. This does not lead to success in overcoming inevitable life challenges.
Much of what our children learn in the way of attitudes comes from observing the example of adults around them and emulating what they see. I think that if adults talk to kids about their current and past challenges and discuss how they managed or might manage to overcome those challenges, then this will give our children a foothold that may enable them to engage with the world from a position of personal strength. At the least, I believe it will instantiate in their minds the possibility of persevering and overcoming challenges.
I think of this as one answer to the lack of perseverance in our children because we did this in early human history, before the invention of writing, over 5200 years ago. For 100,000 years the spoken word worked just fine for humans as the primary means to pass on ideas, life lessons, techniques, general knowledge, and shared history. This is the simplest and cheapest way to instill in our kids a sense that one must face life head on and plug away through challenges to achieve meaningful success and a real sense of accomplishment.
There is a coddling of our children that must change. This has become part of the western mindset, one that maintains that the best thing we can do for our children is shield and shelter them from every possible difficulty and frustration. Perhaps the last forty years of unprecedented economic expansion and wealth generation has contributed to this coddling. Because we can, we place our children in bubbles of protection from every possible frustration. This is ultimately a disservice to the children we are trying to ‘protect’.
It has to change, somehow.
We have to take a step back and let our kids fail and, as adults who care, not panic when they do. The instinct of the typical helicopter parent, when faced with a child who has encountered frustration or hardship of any kind, is to swoop in, kiss boo-boos, speak words of concern and soothing, and the fix the hurt as much as possible. But, really, it makes more sense to act strong and supportive for our children, without behaving as though hardship is something foreign to be avoided at all costs.
In terms of telling middle schoolers and high schoolers about life challenges, I have found that they appreciate openness, honesty, and a little vulnerability on the part of adults. When faced with a true story of hardship and triumph over challenges, teens respond with positive interest. Many of them articulate quite clearly that they like being spoken to plainly about things that are real. Teachers tell me that teens recognize bullshit from a mile away.
I have been speaking to high schoolers about my personal difficulties through life and how I ultimately conquered those challenges. In these talks I don’t hold anything back. I tell them about my failures and fears as a teen, then as a college student, and finally, as a working adult. I speak about the ups and downs of my life. And the kids respond well. The talks seem to resonate with them. I often hear from teachers or others that the kids appreciate my honesty and the vulnerability that I display. The high schoolers that I have met yearn for tales of triumph over adversity by the people they look up to. Us, the adults in their lives.
We need more adults to talk about their challenges to teens. We need to embrace opportunities to give our teens examples of the resilience we so desperately want them to have.