When The Cost Of Success Is Stifling


cost of successBefore I dive into this important and impactful piece, I want to clarify that I’m putting on my “Psychologist” hat here, so bear with me. The content of this article is heavy, and tragedy is referenced. If you’re in a place right now where that would be triggering, please heed your own self-care needs. But otherwise, I think we all need to collectively sit down and have very real and serious conversations with our kids and ourselves about the cost of success. We can prevent experiences like this from occurring, but we have to change the fundamental way we operate first. It’s a heavy task, but we don’t have any other options.

I therefore invite you to open your hearts and minds for the next few minutes with me.

Recently, tragedy struck a local family when their ambitious high school student took his own life. His death shocked his school, family, and community. This was largely due to the fact that the young man cited intense academic pressure as the reason for his decision to end his life. Since then, many thoughtful comments have circulated indicating that this student is one of a growing number who feel so incredibly burdened by the drive to succeed that they become crushed by the weight and magnitude of it. Several national news articles recently also addressed this feeling in other high schools and colleges, so this is not just a local epidemic.

And an epidemic is exactly what this is.

As many scholars have pointed out, we have this problem because our society deems college as the ONLY path towards “success.” And even then, a “good” college is where you need to go to be “successful.” (I assume the underlying message is financially successful here). As such, students are told from an early age that they must be academically successful or the alternative is dire. This creates the “A or fail” mentality. And it places students in the camp of near constant competitiveness. They are told to reach for the stars and are given a prescription for over-scheduled perfectionism that doesn’t leave room for error.

Those that survive go off to achieve their families’ goals (at least that’s the belief). And those who don’t…. I am not entirely sure what the fear is, but I’m guessing it’s a doom and gloom path of financial destitution and personal failure. Given these choices, it’s no wonder that kids are breaking themselves striving to be the “elite” few that make it.

But here’s a perspective that needs to be shared.

I have spent years working in college counseling centers at university campuses across the West Coast. So I can tell you what can happen when a student crosses the proverbial finish line and gets into college. Most of these young people are burdened with serious anxiety disorders and depression related to their own internalized pressure and the expectations to be “successful.” They find themselves completely unfulfilled in an academic path that was likely not chosen by them. (Usually it was picked out by well-meaning parents). And they are completely lost because they have no intrinsic motivation or passion to guide them. They then become paralyzed by a lack of connection to their academic path or environment. And they fear disappointing their families by possibly failing the expectations that were set for them.

These students probably don’t belong at college to begin with. But to not go was never a possibility that was communicated to them. 

And therein lies the problem with the cost of success.

We haven’t done very well as a society to look at aptitude, talent, passion, and interest to help guide our young people towards ideal paths for THEM. Instead, we drink the Kool-Aid that college is the only path. And students who would be much happier, more fulfilled, and excited about a career in computers or culinary arts or as contractors, electricians, or firefighters are told that these paths are wholly unacceptable. So these students are funneled towards a career that they didn’t really want and wouldn’t personally choose. Then they get to my office and are burdened with serious mental health concerns that could be treated by opening up their possibilities to what they actually want and making that ok.

But I don’t want to be the one to say this to your child—you need to.

And that brings me to another problem we have. We have started to creep towards changing the dialogue by valuing vocational training again. Both our past and current administrations have lauded vocational programs as the wave of the future for young people and as a way to cut down on post secondary educational costs. And to some degree, we can certainly talk the talk. But what ends up happening is that lots of families have the mantra that this path is ok for “someone’s kid” but certainly not “my kid.”

This whole “not my kid” phenomenon is making this problem even worse because it is drawing thick lines between the social classes. Those from higher socio-economic backgrounds are praising the option of not going to college in favor of following a trade—so long as it isn’t their child that decides to do this. Because their child WILL be “successful,” which means they’ll go to college and potentially fall prey to the same identity crises listed above.

And if we still keep the mantra that those with means WILL go to college, we have basically created occupational class warfare. One that is only based on perception and not reality. Because, in case you haven’t run the numbers, electricians and plumbers make more money than most college graduates. So if your vision of “success” is tied to a piece of paper and social prestige, you may want to have a serious introspective look to ask yourself why that is.

And this brings me to my final point.

Outside of the identity crises, anxiety disorders, and depression that many college kids face due to the serious pressures they receive from family, schools, and society at large, the other problem that college students face is low distress tolerance. This basically means that students don’t know how to fail and recover from failure. They are therefore thrown off by any possible disruption in their success narrative (a bad grade, a fight with a friend, a conflict with a professor, etc.). These seemingly minor hurdles become insurmountable obstacles that send them into a spiral.

In previous generations, kids would learn how to solve problems early on because parents would give them the space and grace to fail and LEARN from their failures. But today’s parents are often so wrapped up in the narrative that their child won’t be “successful” unless they get perfect grades and go to a “good school.” This basically leaves no room to falter and recover. So if you’re never given the option to fail, you never learn that it’s an acceptable and normative part of the growing process that HAS TO HAPPEN in order for children to transition into functional and adaptive adults. Without these lessons, children and young adults simply forestall failure until later in life when they aren’t as protected. And then the stakes are higher.

Therefore, what we need to do is twofold.

First, we need to change how we shape and mold our kids—both at the family level and at the academic level. We need to personally be ok with our children’s possible paths, which may or may not include our preconceived notions of “success.” We also need to really ask ourselves what “success” looks like. I’ve put it in quotation marks because it’s so nebulous and often only tied to financial security. But if the cost of success and that security is a lifetime of mental health concerns, the price is much too high.

Let’s instead measure success with other parameters like being fulfilled, being kind and giving, being connected to our community, being skilled and talented at something, and of course being happy. When we start to view “success” through this lens, we open up our minds and hearts to our children’s needs, which is the most important barometer of all. And we also need to recognize the fact that college is not what it used to be. For many, it is an equation that doesn’t fit. And it might not fit for YOU and YOUR CHILD, and this is OK.

So please, let your kid help define their strengths and their path, and try to listen to them. And please, for the sake of their future selves, please let them fail sometimes. Let them get back up, problem solve, and course correct. It needs to happen if we are going to create a future of competent and well-rounded adults.

So the next time you contemplate your child’s future, maybe invite them into the conversation and leave it open-ended. We all want our children to be happy, so let’s try to do that.