Tonight my little sister Jenna graduated from 8th grade. I accompanied her and my parents to the ceremony held at the high school that I graduated from back in 2000. Being twelve years apart with no siblings in between, I always feel like there’s a huge gap between my generation and her generation. In reality, there really isn’t. Much of what she goes through is the same as what I went through twelve years ago. Take tonight for an example:
The principle gives a speech about reaching for your dreams, pursuing your passions, and striving to do something amazing. The teachers hand out all sorts of awards to the kids who have perfect attendance or have an average over 90. Each kid gets called up and given a diploma, a class picture, and a folder with certificates for their various achievements. My sister had nothing short of 20 different awards and certificates. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great student. But is anyone that good? I’m guessing most kids went home with the same bag of goodies. We live in a world where everyone gets a trophy for just trying. Kids become conditioned to being rewarded for just showing up.
The question I kept asking myself was: does all of this give our kids the best chance to succeed? As the (very long) graduation ceremony began my mind started to drift back to the time twelve years ago when I was sitting in the exact same spot. I thought about who was in my graduating class and what they’re doing now. Some have gone on to start businesses (two of my partners – Mike and Greg – were in my 8th grade graduating class). Some are working in politics. Some have joined the peace corps. Most have settled for mundane jobs and given up on their dreams. Still, others have hit rock bottom and become addicts or criminals. Yet twelve years ago we all sat there just like my sister. We were all filled with hopes and dreams and promises of greatness to come. Why did some veer off course?
At that point I realized something – our parents don’t prepare us for greatness. They prepare us for mediocrity, to be average. Do you want your kid to cure cancer? Start their own business? Join the army or the peace corps? Work for a non-profit? Get a Ph.D? Teach inner city kids? Help the disabled? The question parents should ask themselves deep down: do you really want your kid to change the world?
Every single parent would answer “yes” to that question. But their actions speak louder than their words, and the two don’t agree. They’ll go on and on about how their child will become president or solve our energy crisis, but what they don’t realize is that achieving anything great requires hard work, sacrifice, passion, focus, determination, and most importantly the ability to deal with failure. Because most likely, if you’re striving for greatness, you’re going to fail. Achieving great things is hard. Most of the great things in this world have been discovered or achieved by people who relentlessly fought for what they believed in even when they failed repeatedly, even when they ran out of money, and even when others told them to quit and get a “real job”.
Parents: how will you react when your kid has $20k in student loans and leaves a secure job to start a company like I did? Or when they take a leave of absence from college to go overseas to help in Darfur? Or when they decide to join the army and go fight in Iraq because that’s what they believe in? You’ll get nervous. You’ll push back. You’ll ask them to reconsider. Because it scares you to see them fail. But what you don’t realize is that your fear also prohibits them from doing something great. Your fear pushes them into working 50 hours a week doing something they don’t love because it’s “safe” or “secure”. Our world has warped our minds into believing that your 401K is more important than your happiness or what you do for others.
We do a great job of telling our kids to be great, we just do a horrible job teaching them the traits they need to become great. My advice to every graduate this spring – be it 8th grade, high school, or college – you truly can do anything that you want with your life. Dream the impossible, then do it. Cherish that mentality – don’t let other people ever take it away from you.