Tell your kids the truth about achievement before it’s too late

I’m shocked at the number of people I coach who are disappointed by what they’ve accomplished in adult life. Most people think they will do something remarkable, or at least something that other people notice. Most people think they will make a difference in the world in a way that will garner recognition.

But when it comes to careers, the people who make a difference in the world (whatever you define that as) are people who exhibit dedication, focus, and passion for more than a decade. That’s what it takes to stand out in the adult world.

You can understand this by looking at the adults whose careers you admire. Look at what they had to do to get where they are.

You can show this to your kids by telling them what kids who are really good at something have to do to get there.

1. Achievement takes practice. I think a lot about this because I have a kid who is a musician, but research shows that most people who are great at doing something didn’t just put in 10,000 hours. But they put in 10,000 hours of great practice.  And learning to practice is learning to focus. And learning to focus is learning to commit to your goals and your dreams by taking real, measurable action, every single day.

2. Achievement means giving up a normal life. I have recently started looking kids who are elite basketball players — they are nationally ranked even as sixth graders — and they approach basketball the same way kids approach music. They worry all the time about injuries. They relocate for the right coach. They leave school because it’s a distraction.

3. Achievement means carrying the burden of over-commitment. It’s scary to put all your eggs in one basket. It’s scary to watch your family making sacrifices for you to reach a goal you may never reach. Aiming for a big goal while recognizing the possibility of failure is probably the hardest part of reaching any big goal, and few people – adults or children – can handle the pressure.

4. Achievement means always wanting more. A lot of people who meet a big goal find that they want more. Because recognition is like money and we always want 20% more. Startup founders think they have to have multiple wins or else it was just luck. Artists who are in a gallery want to be in a museum. Writers who are published in the New Yorker want to get a book deal. Rock stars want to be rock legends.

Do you see how recognition is like money and you can never feel like you have enough? You always feel like if you get the next thing you’ll be happy. But you won’t. Because public recognition, like money is not something that is inside you. You can’t base your identity on something you can’t control.

5. Your biggest achievement will be your relationships. You tell your kids that money doesn’t buy happiness. But do you tell them recognition doesn’t make you happy? Do you tell them that being great at something won’t make them happy either?

You are already a step ahead if you homeschool and your kids don’t get grades. Schools train kids to seek external validation in letter grades, and the kids who are most devoted to getting good grades are the people who grow up most desperate for external validation.

But I think all kids need to be told that it’s fine to not be remarkable. They can just be them. And in fact, I think what makes us human is that we are remarkably good at building relationships. So we can each feel special for the relationships we build.

And remember all those coaching sessions I have where people are disappointed that they have not achieved more? All those people end up seeing that what they really want in life is meaningful relationships. I’m good at coaching people to see that.

It’s harder for me to shift my own focus from achievements to relationships. Writing this blog post helps. So does hanging out with my niece. I don’t feel the need to address achievement with her because she’s not my kid. I can just focus on loving her, and watching my sons enjoy their time with her. So I guess we need to teach kids to value relationships over achievement, but also, kids teach that to us.

8 replies
  1. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Are you a big movie watcher, Penelope? “Molly’s Game” is like the movie version (true story!) of this blog post. A little more intense at times, but same ideas, and a damn good story.

  2. Amy D. Kovach
    Amy D. Kovach says:

    This is so true. That is why I particularly hate all this talk of changing the world directed at children (especially graduation speeches). The overwhelming majority of people will work hard and lead good lives with their loved ones, and there is much satisfaction in that.
    I almost feel that in today’s climate, that more accurate message would be attacked as setting the bar too low. However in reality, those healthy relationships that give life meaning should be seen as more of a goal, not a byproduct.

    I sure do see a lot of things differently since I’m in my 60’s. I’m loving this time of life so much.

  3. Erin
    Erin says:

    As a parent, the relationships I have with my kids are so important. Choosing to homeschool = choosing that relationship. Regardless of unschooling v curriculum v any other discussion regarding “successful homeschooling,” the best way to measure the success of homeschooling might be the healthiness of the parent/child relationship.

  4. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    The hard part is that the health of our relationships with others is so dependent on the health of our relationship with OURSELVES. That’s the hardest relationship to really manage, and the one it’s easiest to ignore, and the barometer for the potential health of any of our other relationships. And also, parenting makes it both harder and more necessary to both face our own demons and embrace ourselves. Don’t you think?

    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      Isabelle, I don’t know much about the parenting as I am not one, but I do believe you have hit a nail on its head. A bit of a chicken or egg issue. But surely it starts within.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Great article Penelope. Growing up is a whole different experience than when I was a kid back in the 60’s. Also, I would like to link this in an upcoming post about time as it is related in context. Would that be ok?

  6. Marina Chernikova
    Marina Chernikova says:

    I’m a social psychologist, and there’s just SO. MUCH. RESEARCH. showing that meaningful relationships are one of the main sources of happiness for humans, and that people who strive for other things (external validation, money, etc) end up unhappy. You’re probably familiar with much of that research, but email me if you want links to some of the most interesting studies.

    It’s funny, though–I know (and believe) the research, but I still struggle to implement it in my own life. It’s easy to know that you should develop meaningful relationships, and much harder to actually do it effectively (particularly for certain personality types).

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