As the attendee numbers on the Zoom call ticked up at 7:30 am this morning, settling at 84 attendees, my eyebrows shot up in surprise. The attendees were high school students attending their last National Honor Society meeting for the year.
Conflicting thoughts zigzagged across my mind: It was undeniably impressive to see how driven they were.
Simultaneously, I felt truly worried for these kids.
In showing up at that hour, they’d likely cut their sleep cycles short. That’s an unhealthy thing in and of itself. Moreover, the intensity with which they approached a “simple” NHS club meeting said to me that this was a group of tremendously hard-working kids. What we know from the data (and what I know in working with high-achieving high school students) is that as much as this very behavior would help put them on track to follow a traditional path to success:
Great college -> Great job -> Great income
This would also leave them especially vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and burnout.
Adam Grant, renowned author & Organizational Scientist recently said (here):
“students at high-achieving schools have 3-7x higher rates of clinical depression and anxiety symptoms than national norms.”
To make matters worse, futurists say that there’s no way for our minds to really grasp the global changes that are coming to our world. Therefore, there’s no way to look ahead and reliably predict what will, in fact, be “worthy” or lead to “success”.
While I’m not advocating for laziness, this makes me want to call all 84 of those students and warn them to take it a little easier than they are.
The pandemic triggered a period of unprecedented upheaval and created an equally unprecedented opportunity to revamp the education system that many people believe is broken.
Yet, here we are, swimming in a cesspool of unintended consequences.
While there was a greater focus on students’ mental health during the pandemic, and some very significant changes resulted from that focus (example: 75% of 4-year colleges said they’d either not take SAT/ACT scores at all or made it optional for students to submit those scores), we still seem to be going in the wrong direction.
“In a nationally representative study conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s education school, researchers studied over 10,000 high school students in the fall of 2020. Comparing the experience of these students to about 65,000 adolescents surveyed between 2018 and February 2020, these researchers, too, found that many students reported feeling more stressed about school during the fall 2020 than before the pandemic. A chief cause of their stress: the pressure to achieve… These findings held across socioeconomically diverse schools.”
(Read the full May 4, 2021, NYT article here.)
The students who showed up at that National Honor Society meeting were no doubt driven by a desire to get into a selective college and secure that traditional definition of “success”. The message that they’ve absorbed is this:
“It’s harder than ever to get into college (thanks in part to colleges dropping the SAT/ACT requirements), so I have to work harder and do so at any cost because the rewards will be worth my while.”
As parents, we say that our definition of what’s “worthwhile” is that which will lead to a happy life. Indeed, as I speak with parents every day, they usually say they want most for their children to be happy.
We can and should be doing better for our kids.
When it comes to building solutions that might be better, I find what happiness experts say to be tremendously helpful:
Happiness depends on the quality of your social connections. Over the last year, we’ve realized this one fact in a visceral way. In case you need the data though, check out this study done by Harvard University that touts the same finding.
“The principal investigator of that study, the psychologist George Vaillant, summarized the findings as follows: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ People who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive; those who don’t, don’t.”
In truth then, belonging to a high school club and using it to build and sustain meaningful social connections is more important than whatever you think it’s going to mean for your college application. So, make that the point.
2. No matter how much the world changes, what will continue to matter is the importance of engaging in personally meaningful work. As much of what is covered in school is not optional, this is tricky for high school students. But, that is also what makes finding things to do that are truly meaningful and worthwhile so much more important.
These are the fundamental values upon which my co-founders and I are building TutorChat.org.
TutorChat was launched with the idea that if this grades game must be played while we attempt to overhaul the college admissions process and how we educate kids in grades K-12, then let’s find a way to give all students a better shot at finding happiness along the way.
Peer and cross-aged tutoring has been proven to benefit kids academically, socially, and emotionally. Plus, we all know that private tutoring provides a significant leg up for students.
We thought then, that all families should have access to this kind of help regardless of income level. So, we keep our prices ridiculously low at $49 a month for unlimited sessions. At TutorChat, high school students (vetted & trained) are matched with one student who needs help over a long period of time, and we give our tutors the training and support to grow their skills as mentors and coaches along the way.
As I watch tutors find meaning and purpose in their work with their students they are matched with and as I see students not only build academic skills but also build a sense of confidence in themselves, I know that we’re onto something meaningful.
That is actually what I was doing on that call this morning: presenting the TutorChat opportunity to those super motivated, very intense high schoolers.
I’m hopeful that while these students are “playing the game”, they also feel that amazing feeling of having really connected to and helped another person.
Likewise, it is my hope that the many other initiatives out there that help families shift their focus in these ways will allow us all to build a more worthy path forward for our kids because we absolutely have to do better than we have so far.