Giving Up

San Fransicso FlowerI have a difficult time giving up on people. It’s a quality but also a bit of a curse. There are times when it’s just right to walk away. But for my students, my persistence may be just what they need.

I’ve had an assortment of challenging students over the years who’ve made giving up on themselves a regular habit. At some point in their past they bought into the notion that they weren’t good writers, or readers, or mathematicians or students –or people.

The advantage to getting to know these kiddos as fully formed adults is that they have no past with me. I get to draw my own conclusions as to their abilities, qualities and faults. It’s interesting that my assessment often doesn’t align with their own versions of themselves. Like the girl who told me she was an awesome writer –not so much. Or the boy who looked at me with astonishment when I told that him he was a good writer. No one’s ever told me that.

I had a student who had a particular talent for manipulation. I never called her out on it but when she’d again gotten away with something she shouldn’t have, I said that her intelligence wasn’t serving her well. She ignored the negative part of the message to say that she liked being called smart, that she wasn’t used to it, except for hearing it from you.

I was never a high school cheerleader and my long-time friends wouldn’t ever call me warm-and-fuzzy. On the other hand, I’ve always been a more-than-half-full kind of person. That means that in marketing I can spin a simple story of success into something bigger than it may appear at first glance. And it means that when my kids at the college do something wrong, I can also look at what they did right.

We start from here.

It’s my go-to bromide, but its triteness doesn’t diminish the genuineness with which I deliver it. Some students hear it way more frequently than others. Not a good thing. Still, it’s the only way I know how to approach the mess-ups that they sometimes consider catastrophic. I can’t magically fix their screw ups or take back the bad decisions they’ve made. What I can do is tell them to move forward.

I try to make that first step in the right direction start with an honest acknowledgement of what they did—or more likely, didn’t do—and look for a way to make bad things better, turn something wrong into something right. We work out a plan to accomplish whatever the tasks or goals they need to, and I nudge them forward with a pep talk.

While they steadfastly hold on to all they can’t do, I remind them of what they can do. And they buy in. Every time. Regardless of how many times we’ve been down this same road or how formidable the obstacles in their path.

We don’t always get the results they want. Sometime it doesn’t work. Some of their stuff really is too big for either of us to handle. Still, they seem to like the idea that someone believes in them –even if they don’t always believe in themselves.

No Plan B

Julia head shot2   One of the perks of a private prep school is that the on-staff academic counselors do a pretty good job of plotting clear paths to college for their students. As antithetical as it may be to most incoming freshmen, the counselors start early on asking their young charges to think long-term.

  So Julia’s advisor may have missed a key point in their recent meeting. Julia was thinking long-term; just because that long-term vista didn’t neatly align with the square peg dictates of the woman’s role doesn’t mean Julia doesn’t have a plan. On the contrary, she does.

    My guess is that those incoming meetings generally last a good 20 to 30 minutes. Jules was outta there in five.

    So what career do you hope to pursue someday? What are you plans?

    I’m going to be a supermodel.

    Fly-on-the-wall –can’t you just picture the juxtaposition? The slightly cynical stare of a parochial pedagogue, sans even a trace of makeup, being full-frontally faced with the wide-eyed certainty of youth.

   From behind her desk, perhaps there was a knowing nod, a hidden eye roll, a stifled chuckle.

Well, what about your Plan B? In case that supermodel thing doesn’t work out for you?

    I don’t need a Plan B.

    And the thing is –Julia doesn’t.

    In the wake of Steve Job’s passing, there’s been a small flood of his life’s philosophy via writings and speeches he gave. When he rejoined the company he founded, he set in motion the Think Different campaign with a letter to the public reminding the masses, among other things, that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    Perhaps also then it is the people with no Plan B who possess the perseverance to bring their first choice lives to fruition.

    Jump out into the great unknown without a safety net and you damn well better make sure your first choice plan works.

    Michael doesn’t have a Plan B, either.

    Which would be fine but for the probability that he may not have a Plan A.

    That’s not to say he doesn’t have a vision or even a goal. I just haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that he has an actual plan on how to reach it.

    I could be wrong here. Communication is sparse.

    In a trickle of words last year, he informed me that just because he wasn’t going about things in a way with which I might be familiar didn’t mean that he wouldn’t get to where he wanted to be.

    I can’t argue with that. Partly because, truth is, I don’t really know the path he should take.

    I only know the level of frustration I feel when I watch him close doors which I think are better left open.

    And he looks at me as if I haven’t a clue; as if I don’t want him to pursue a dream.

    But I do.

    And that’s why I’d like him to have a plan.

    Not a Plan B, but a single, missile-focused Plan A.

    The kind he can pursue, without a parachute, to the sacrifice of most everything else. Because it’s his passion, his dream, his calling.

    I’m all for not having a Plan B.

    I’d just feel a whole lot better if there were at least a Plan A.

 

Wacky Ideas Welcome

When I was in high school one of my teachers embraced the philosophy: the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. The premise being that if you had a question and didn’t seek out an answer, you were being stupid.

In spite of the questions I’ve heard over the years that test the premise, I still buy into the notion that it’s better to ask than to remain in doubt. So when my student said that she really had no interest in debating the topic of euthanasia for an argument based writing assignment, it occurred to me that she might not be asking the question.

questionsSo I did.

When I had said euthanasia, what she heard was “youth in Asia.”

Ah. Pretty hard to take sides in a for-or-against debate about a billion little kids in a continent a world away.

I encourage my students to ask lots of questions, in part by asking plenty of my own. I usually take a Socratic approach, turning their questions back at them to get them to think of their own answers. They don’t often appreciate my methods. What some of them care for even less, though, is when my queries stray from their school work and hit closer to home. It’s not idle curiosity, nor am I looking to unearth any imagined mysteries of their college antics. Instead, I offer them somewhere to throw the dirt that can weigh them down so. So I ask questions that can lead to places that I don’t need—or particularly want—to go.

Questions are good. Even if the answers sometimes aren’t.

Because those questions can make them think –reimagine, step out of their comfort zone, take a chance.

The process works outside academia, too. Just differently.

Marketing is supposed to be creative and fun, but even in such a dynamic field, there is the temptation to hang on to what works. After all, if you’re getting good results from a strategy, why would you change it?

To do better, my company’s founder might say.

So when an email went out last week about a campaign for one of our favorite clients with the inclusion that “no idea can be too crazy or wacky for us to handle,” it was a reminder that taking chances isn’t just for kids.

The account manager opened the doors to the whole team, with the invitation to try something different.

She gave no guarantee that the more outrageous of the ideas wouldn’t be laughed at; we do have a sense of humor, after all. But she was encouraging everyone to step up and maybe even out on a limb or two.

Good for her. Better for the company.

She’s got a whole lot of ideas and answers of her own; she’s been at this gig for a while and she’s good at it. But instead of relying on what’s worked in the past and giving ready answers, she’s asking questions.

And questions are good.

Lanyards

Their successes aren’t mine.

But I do get to live vicariously.

Whether they’re my own kids (organic, as one of my peers suggests) or my students (inorganic), I get to share in momentous happenings on a timeline from which I’m pretty far removed. Even as adults, these young people I know are still going through a lot of firsts.

With school, and jobs and significant others. With life.

Will wants to make our recent meeting a monthly event. Erica updates me through text. Lisa just got a promotion –again.

These are the graduates.

But this week I’ll start with a new crop of freshmen. And even as I know that most of what they’ll be going through as individuals, I’ve likely seen before, I can’t help but get caught up in those firsts.

First times are awesome.

But scary.

And I still get that.

So whether they’re excited or worried, or confused, or just plain afraid, I’ll tell them that it’s okay. That it’s normal. And that in spite of the outward appearance of their fellow classmates, they are not alone.

Some of my students inadvertently flaunt their newness with the bright green beacons they wear around their necks in the form of id-toting lanyards. Others are outwardly confident, sapping from stored supplies of high school popularity, probably not understanding how quickly it can drain. But most are quietly cautious, just trying to navigate this new terrain without tripping onto a land mine, without making any mistakes.

We all make mistakes, though.

Maybe that’s the first lesson freshmen should learn, loud and clear.

Sure, we want them to succeed, not to do anything really stupid that winds them up in trouble—or worse—their first days on campus. But even if they screw up, it’s not like they will be the first ones to have done so.

I won’t tell them that –not initially anyway.

And I won’t share my own stories –probably ever.

But it’s those stories I pull from to gather empathy.

Because once upon a time, I was young. And on occasion (rare), I probably did something stupid.

 

 

You Already Know the Answer

3d white people leaning back against a question mark

I know I frustrate my students. In the midst of a project or paper or in my position as other side to their argumentative debate, I often answer their questions with questions of my own.

C’mon, just tell me the answer, they sometimes say aloud.

I could.

Most of the time, I don’t.

Instead of answers, I try to set them on a path, leaving a breadcrumb trail of academic hints to where they need to go. I try to take them about halfway. Not all the way.

I can’t really say they appreciate my process. It’s likely that they don’t.  But on (rare)
occasion, they seem to get what I’m trying to do, even get caught up in the game.

After a particularly vexing exercise, one of my students—having finally arriving at an answer—said she liked when I made her do “this.”

I said: What, think?

A smile, a nod.

Ahh –that’s what this is all about.

I confront them less with my antics when we stray off the curriculum and into the ocean of their lives.

They let me in –in a flood of information. Maybe more than they intend to, maybe more than they should. But once we’re both in the deep end, they often reach for any debris in the water to stay afloat.  In that panicked instant, sometimes I’m all they’ve got. Captain of their sinking vessel is not a role I relish, but one I can’t seem to avoid.

And when they feel fully engulfed by a rising tide, near drowning, I certainly don’t play a game of hide-and-seek with the life raft. Still,I try only to throw them a line or hold their head above water as I remind them –they already know how to swim.

My students often forget what they already know. Instead of relying on their own instincts, they ask me questions as if I might have all the answers (ha, if they only knew). While my position at the helm of my own life may allow me to sight obvious obstacles more clearly than they, I’ve hardly got omnipresent access to all the what-ifs of their lives. But I get that what they often need to do is to just talk through the problem at hand.

Sometimes it actually is school-related. How to get a better grade or work with a professor they don’t particularly like or handle a group project when they seem to be the only one in the group doing any work.

More often, it’s life stuff. Social stuff. Boyfriend, girlfriend stuff. Life and death and big question stuff.

Scary stuff –for both of us.

I talk a lot when it’s those big ticket items, but I try to listen even more. Because I don’t have the answers.

Not really.

But I do have one.

And it’s that if they’re honest and open and willing to dive into that really deep end of their inner waters,  it’s they who have the answers. They just need to listen -to themselves.

 

 

I-Dream

Our generation has been telling the next since the day they were all born: do what you love.

I think they’ve gotten the message loud and clear.

Unfortunately, as we were setting a bright beacon on which they could universally focus, we didn’t necessarily include instructions on how to reach the star. We failed to offer them much of a map or for that matter, a real destination.

Ooops.

Big oops, actually.

We told them all—over and over—to find the one thing they loved to do above all others –as if it would hit with epiphany-like clarity, as if there were a single answer to their single selves.

Talk about setting them up for disappointment.

My college has jumped on the bandwagon we’ve all driven as parents by bringing onto campus The Dream Share Project. While the mission of the endeavor—to empower young people to chase their dreams—may seem a noble goal, more than a few of my students came out the other side of the presentation with an enough-already plea.

See, the problem with telling our kids to chase their dreams is that if they don’t quite know what those dreams are, they feel like losers. So, they grab onto something, anything, just to fit in.

One of my students recently said that she was no longer sure of her major but was too afraid to switch because the decision could affect the rest of her life. Rather than upset the status quo, she was going to stay on a forward path, with no regard to the inevitability that it might not
allow her to reach a dream which hadn’t quite become clear to her yet.

She’s not alone. Too many kids measure their goals by a furiously ticking clock which demands they decide right NOW what they’ll be doing 20 to 30 years hence. And it’s not just the college kids with this mindset; it’s high schoolers and younger. Kids not through puberty are planning
strategies now to assure some ninth grade ideal of a future success. Instead of taking chances, they’re taking courses; rather than exploring, they’re bent on securing the next rung on the imagined upward ladder –even if they’re not quite committed to the top of the climb.

Of course we want our kids to follow a passion, find a dream, do what makes them happy. But there’s a backfire in forcing the ideal down their throats. In making them choose too soon, we set some kids trotting along well-worn paths with blinders on against intruding distractions. And those distractions aren’t just of space and scenery; they’re opportunity and experience and life. While following a straight path may indeed be the quickest route to a good job, the truth
is, our kids’ dream jobs may not even exist yet. So many fields—think social media—weren’t even imagined 10 years ago. Who knows what the future holds? While dreamers of the past may have been accused of having their heads in the clouds, today’s kids may well find their dreams jobs in iClouds and beyond.

 

Peer Review

    Now they transition from being reviewed by their professors to being reviewed by their peers.


    But then, they’ve always been judged by their peers -often disconcertingly so. 


    Ever since the first mom posited the query –if all your friends were jumping off a bridge?….peer pressure has been given a bad rap. 


    It’s not too difficult to see why. After all, peer pressure is at the root of much that is wrong with our kids’ self-images and their actions.   


    On the other hand, there’s something to be said for being put in your place by your peers instead of your parents. By being held accountable now by those who will do so into your future, and for your whole life. 


    In the college where I work, seniors are given a yearlong Thesis project that begins with a lit review and ends with independent research. No shock that the students aren’t fans of the assignment. It’s long, arduous and requires work. They want short-cuts, easy answers and all through the process, they just want it over. 


    I offer up solid arguments as to its scholastic merit and real-world value, but I suspect the few who nod are doing so just to forestall any further cheerleading on my behalf. 


    One of the universally detested (among many) portions of the project is the second semester peer reviews. Despite the fact that they’ve just spent months reading dozens of articles, intently filtered by that “peer review” label, they still balk at the concept when it comes to their own work. 


    On peer reviews days, they must critique the work of their fellow classmates. For some of them, the task is daunting. They’re often not fully confident in the quality of their own work; certainly, then, they don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on another’s.  Ah judgment -they really don’t want to judge; lest they be judged. 


    But they should –on both counts. 


    The feedback we get from our peers is unlike any other. It hasn’t the unconditional support of a parent, or the inherent threat from a boss. It isn’t generally tied to reward or consequence, like a grade or a raise. In its best form, it’s simply unbiased review. We did something well –good job. We messed up –whoops. 


    Because little of who we are and what we do exists in black and white, peer review can be convoluted and complicated. But offered with clear vision and good intent, peer criticism can also be priceless.


    That is, if we’re willing to accept it. 


    While my students readily receive even my harshest critique of their work, they’re less inclined to do so from their peers. 


    So far, anyway. 


    I’ve warned them of an upcoming evolution where their career peers (and even their bosses) will begin to look a whole lot like them. I’ve also urged them to embrace the network they already hold with that soon-to-be-reality in mind. 


    I am lucky to work with peers I consider capable, intelligent, good-intentioned. Because of the nature of our work, though, most of what we do is independent. As peers, we can choose to interact often, minimally, or even not at all. 


    No surprise, I fall somewhere in the middle. 


    On occasion, I have both sought and offered peer counsel. I like to think I’ve given good advice; I know have received it. Real critique, however, is a bit harder to come by. 


    I have told my kids and my students too many times that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I really believe that clichéd sentiment. If I screw up and hear about it from my boss (and I have), clearly it carries weight. However, if a peer lets me know I’ve messed up, it may mean even more. 


    Most of my students are pretty confident. They’ve been well supported by family, friends –and me. We all tell them they’re smart and capable. We tell them they’re wonderful. 


    Sometimes, it’s only their peers who will truly tell them when they are not.