Top 3 Blogs by Tim Elmore


The day I stopped asking students the wrong questions 

I appreciate everyone who reads, comments, and sparks continued research through our blog articles. I wanted to take this week to post the top 3 articles that have helped leaders like you over the past year. 

I want to make a confession. For years, I have spoken at high school and university commencements and made the classic remarks others have made to students:

  • “Find your passion and pursue it.”
  • “Go after your dreams, and don’t let anyone deny you.”
  • “Trust your heart and fulfill your purpose.”

These clichés were what I really believed at the time. I wanted to help students figure out what they were supposed to do with their life through self-diagnosis. If they would only look inside, they could discover their calling in life.

It’s a sort of self-determination I felt I should encourage in students; I wanted them to be ambitious, and I thought this was the right mindset to go after it.

Today—I no longer believe this.

Why This is Bad Advice

Too many students heard this message from parents, pastors or commencement speakers and somehow drew the conclusion: Wow! I can dream up anything I want to do, and if I try hard enough, I can do it. Hundreds of thousands began choosing majors in college that our society and economy just didn’t need. For a while, the number one goal of college graduates was to be rich and famous. In one survey, students claimed they most wanted to be the “personal assistant to a celebrity.”

As a result, students’ job searches were autonomous and self-absorbed. They began with: What do I want, and what must I do to get it? Even if the search was altruistic, it was still ignited by self. In the words of David Brooks, it was first about self-investigation and ultimately about self-fulfillment. William Ernest Henry’s famous poem, “Invictus,” summarizes the sentiment: I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.

I believe this has left, perhaps, millions of students with grievances against our culture and their advisors. Why? It didn’t work too well. They graduated only to find life wasn’t about them—employers weren’t interested in their self-fulfillment, and money was far too hard to come by in a sour economy.

A Lesson From the Past

During the dark days of World War II, Victor Frankl spent years in a Nazi ghetto and later a concentration camp. It was there he learned that life cannot be evaluated in simple terms of “self.” Each of us individuals are part of a larger community, and our success must be measured in terms of that larger community, not in laying personal life plans. We are all part of history, a narrative into which we’ve been placed to contribute to the specific circumstances and challenges of our day.

For instance, Frankl spent most of his time in the concentration camp laying tracks for the railroad. This was not the life he had planned for himself. It was neither his passion, nor his dream. This left him with two choices: he could either get lost in depression over it, or he could choose to find meaning in his suffering by figuring out how best to contribute to his current circumstances.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life,” he’d later write, “but rather what life expected from us.” Frankl had been given an amazing intellectual and social opportunity to study human behavior under the most horrific conditions. He had the chance to share what he was learning with his fellow prisoners and, if he survived, with a larger population. It became invigorating to him. “Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs,” he wrote. Frankl would tell suicidal prisoners that life had not stopped expecting things from them. Life “ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before the individual.”

A Different Set of Questions

So, as you work with students, may I suggest we make a shift in the questions we’re asking? I am making this shift and finding the conversation more invigorating:

Stop Asking… Start Asking…
1. What do you want to major in? 1. What problem do you want to solve?
2. What do you want out of life? 2. What is life asking of you?
3. How much money can you make? 3. What do you have to give?
4. How can you achieve something great? 4. How can you add value in a given context?
5. What do you possess inside? 5. What are the needs or opportunities around you?
6. What will make you happy? 6. What are you being summoned to do?

Our world is too broken and in need of repair for us to simply ask:

  • What do you want to major in during college?
  • What jobs pay well and can get you a nice house or car?
  • What will make you happy?

Happiness comes when I find a great “why” behind a career choice. As Frederick Nietzsche noted, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

What’s Happening to College Students Today? 

I have a sad story to tell you. On January 17, 2014, a beautiful, talented student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania jumped off the top of a parking garage and killed herself. No one, not even her close family, saw this coming.

Her name was Madison Holleran. She was a freshman at Penn. Perhaps the saddest part is that she was the third of six Penn students to commit suicide within a period of just over a year.

Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated event in college life these days. Suicide “clusters” are common in the last decade. This year, Appalachian State lost at least three students; Cornell experienced six suicides; Tulane lost four students just five years ago; and five NYU students leapt to their deaths in the 2004-2005 school year.

The suicide rate among 15 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. has increased moderately but steadily since 2007. A survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

So, what’s going on? Is life really that bad for these students?

Three Tangible Problems in Our Culture

One key problem is—we live in a world where many kids “post” pictures of their unrealistic life on social media, and fellow students believe it. Ironically, this generation who celebrates authenticity has created one of the most inauthentic, unreal and artificial sub-cultures anywhere. We Photoshop. We exaggerate. We edit. We touch up. Viewers begin to feel like the only one struggling while everyone is doing “awesome.” Sadly, today’s kids live their lives comparing themselves to the edited, “fake” social media status of others. We must remind them that social media is only the tip of the iceberg, hiding the reality of most user’s lives.

Second, we’ve not taught students how to evaluate mistakes or failures. Often, we’ve worked so hard to prevent failure in their life, they are absolutely afraid of it. Meeta Kumar, who has been counseling at Penn for 16 years, has noticed this change. Getting a B can cause some students to fall apart, she said. “What you and I would call disappointments in life, to them feel like big failures.” We frequently fail to give students a grid with which to assess themselves, to learn from failure and hence, welcome it as they mature. We’ve unwittingly conditioned them to think that failure is something to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, this has cost them greatly.

Third, on top of all this, today’s student is part of a common generational lineage that’s set them up for disappointment and even depression. It was an accident, but it’s happened to millions of college students. Here’s the common narrative: student’s grandparents likely lived during the Great Depression. Their goal was to have a stable job and pay the bills. They raised their children (the parents of today’s kids) to seek a stable job and pay the bills as well—but post-World War II days were much more prosperous than Great Depression days. The Boomer generation’s expectations were met and surpassed.

As a result, Boomers today have raised their kids with higher expectations, causing kids to feel special. On top of this, kids have had more access to technology than ever before—which is where the problem lies. Thus, when a student’s high expectations confront harsh realities, emotions suffer. Feeling entitled to a special life can be problematic, especially if adults forgot to tell you:

  • Life can be hard and disappointing.
  • Life does not revolve around you.
  • Life must not be lived in comparison to others.

How Can We Lead Them Well?

Let me suggest some simple steps we can all take as we lead these students:

  1. Put Social Media in Perspective.

Sit down with students and discuss a person you both know well. Then, look at their Facebook page or Instagram posts. Talk over how social media fails to tell the whole story. Host a conversation about the hyperbole in our world today and our human predisposition to display our best days… not our common, ordinary days.

  1. Put Failure in Perspective.

Ask students to identify a failure or mistake they’ve made. Have them describe the biggest one they can remember. Then, debrief that failure, showing how it can become an instructor and how it can be overcome. Next, tell them about some of your biggest flops, failures and fumbles along the way. I’ve found students are drawn magnetically to my past failures, because they can see I have not only survived, but have gone on to accomplish some big goals.

  1. Put Their Story in Perspective.

Talk about their place in history. Discuss how their generation emerged at a time of expansion, when adults may have failed to communicate that life can be hard, and that this is normal. In fact, by becoming resilient during tough times, we become our best selves. Be real with them and unveil the big picture story of past generations.

Above all, acknowledge adult failures to prepare them for adulthood, and commit to invest in them in the future.

Five Destructive Parenting Habits We Must Replace

I appreciate all of you that are a part of the conversation around our blog articles. This week, I am posting the top 3 blog articles from this past year that have helped leaders like you. Today’s article is “Five Destructive Parenting Habits We Must Replace.”

Now that my kids are grown adults, I feel more comfortable teaching both parents and faculty the art of leading young people into healthy maturity. Like many parents, my experience raising my first child enabled me to relax a bit on my second child. We tend to obsess at the tiniest quirk in our first baby, and by child number three, we’re not as stressed. In fact, I just read this sequence and chuckled at its familiarity:

  • First child eats dirt. Parent calls the doctor immediately.
  • Second child eats dirt. Parent cleans out his mouth.
  • Third child eats dirt. Parents wonder if they really need to feed him lunch.

After careful reflection and gathering data, I now offer some recommendations on some common parental or faculty behaviors we must replace. I learned these over the years and these shifts have made all the difference in the world as I lead students.

1. Motivation: We must replace FEAR with WISDOM.

Our generation of parents are riddled with fear. We’re scared our kids won’t make the honor roll; they’ll get pregnant; they’ll get abducted, you name it. Even though research shows that “stranger abduction” only represents one-hundredth of one percent of all missing children, we fret like it happens in our town every day. School shootings scare us into keeping our kids close and in view at all times. Imagine the message this sends to our young: The world is evil! Don’t take any risks. Never trust anyone. It’s enough to produce the most anxious population of American teens to date. So here’s my question: what if we replaced motivating kids with feelings of fear with encouraging them by using words of wisdom. Simply offering logical wisdom for each decision completely reframes their attitude and stifles their inner fear. Let’s be rational, not emotional.

Fear-based Parent: You can’t walk to the mall! The traffic is horrible; you might get hit by a car and killed!

Wisdom-based Parent: You can walk to the mall if you’re with Ben or Collin. Be sure to look both ways before crossing the street. Text me when you get there.

2. Evaluation: We must replace a focus on GRADES with a focus on GROWTH.

I changed the way I spoke to my kids about their report cards when my daughter turned 12. Prior to that time, I was like most parents. If she made three A’s, two B’s and a D . . . I focused on the D. I talked to her about her weaknesses. It was not fun. Once I began gazing at her high grades and talking about what she liked about those classes, we both had a better attitude with which to conquer the D. Too often, we’re misguided and create stress in our children. We measure the wrong things. Our focus should be on strengths, not struggles: where are they growing and thriving? This is where they’ll likely spend time in their careers. Let’s obsess over growth, not grades.

Grade-obsessed Parent: Why didn’t you make all A’s? What’s this C doing on your report card? You’re not going to get that scholarship!

Growth-obsessed Parent: Let’s explore the subjects where you were strong. Wow—look how you’ve grown! I love how you’ve improved in science.

3. Schedules: We must replace CLUTTER with SIMPLICITY.

According to Dr. Robert Leahy, the average teen today has the same level of anxiety as a psychiatric patient did in the early 1950s. Stress levels have continued to climb for more than seventy years. This is absurd. Part of our problem is the complications we face daily. Noise. Screens. Busyness. Information. Pings. I believe humans are not hardwired to consume the volume of data we do each day. We need margins for our mental and emotional health. What if you became more intentional about clearing the calendar and creating space for unsupervised play or relaxation? What if you made your students choose one or two activities and not do them all? Research tells us that when our days have margins we actually develop empathy and creativity.

Cluttered-life Parent: Quick, suit up or we’ll be late for your soccer practice, piano lesson and karate match. Hurry, we don’t have time to mess around.

Simplified-life Parent: Let’s plan to participate in just one extra-curricular activity this fall. It will leave time for family, house chores and unscheduled fun.

4. Identity: We must replace UNCONTROLLABLES with CONTROLLABLES.

Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck taught me this. In her book, Mindset, she suggests we naturally tend to have a “fixed mindset.” We assume if we make a bad grade in math, we’re just not good at math. It’s a fixed fact. Or, we just aren’t good readers, or good communicators. She says we must cultivate a “growth mindset” in our students. We must treat our brains like a muscle that can grow. Then, parents and instructors must focus on encouraging variables that are in their control, not out of their control. Instead of flattering them for their beauty, we affirm their integrity, which is much more in their control. When we encourage controllable qualities, we empower our young to grow and encourage good priorities. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

Fixed-mindset Parent: You’re just not good at math; you just aren’t a natural student. Your sister is the smart one in the family.

Growth-mindset Parent: You may not be good at math . . . yet, but one day you will be. And I do appreciate your honesty and I love the empathy you show your friends.

5. Feedback: We must replace emphasizing BEHAVIOR with emphasizing BELIEF.

I recently met with a focus group of parents. While they were all very engaged in their role as moms and dads, one reality surfaced that surprised me. It was the level of anger they expressed toward their kids—short tempers, bursts of emotion, sometimes loud yelling. This tends to equate to punishing our children when they misbehave instead of disciplining them. We look backward and retaliate instead of looking forward and incentivizing better behavior. When offering feedback, my kids respond far better when I speak from “belief” in them. This means I convey the thought: “I know you’re better than what you just did.” When I correct students because I’m convinced they’re capable of more, I call out the best in them, rather than the worst. Too many kids are fragile and need us to get this one right.

Behavior-based Parent: I can’t believe you did that. What is wrong with you? You never get that task right!

Belief-based Parent: I’m giving you this feedback because I know you’re capable of exceeding my expectations. I’ve seen what you can do.

Here’s to replacing our human tendencies with visionary leadership.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.