Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 6, 2020
I have children and grandchildren. I started late, so great-grandchildren are probably not possible. I have lived my entire life in the entrepreneurial world. I have had three full distinct careers (can’t hold a job). There was no logical path to explain this journey. My father tolerated my fantasies, and my mother basically gave up on me.
The end of my story is not yet written, but I suspect that I have been more blessed than I deserve (there is still time for me to screw this up, I am sure). My concern now is not about me, but about my children, the “next generation,” and their potential paths in life. What are the roads available, and what is the proper role for the mentor or parent?
For guidance, I turned to Madeline Levine, a psychologist, and her article in The Atlantic, “Kids Don’t Need to Stay on ‘On Track’ to Succeed.” Her theme is simple. “When parents portray success as a linear progression of SAT scores, acceptance to selective colleges and high-powered internships (which the parents assist in getting), they set the kids up for disappointment.” I would ask all of you, when did entrepreneurship become a “major” at certain colleges?
Levine tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who comes to see her. She asks him what he would like to do when he grows up and he exclaims, “I want to run a startup.” Levine lives in San Francisco, so you can see some of the influences on the young fellow. But come on, what happened to I want to be a fireman or a doctor? Notice that the child did not say “work at a startup” — he said he wanted to “run” it. He has plans to go to Stanford and be an intern at Google. This is borderline insanity.
How did this happen that the path to success is so narrow and so connected to wealth, rather than personal satisfaction and being part of the human community of man and adding value and not simply another app? I will confess to being old and curmudgeonly but come on, we parents seem to be in the process of creating our own zombie apocalypse with our children as the stars.
What does it mean to “be on track?” To what and to where? Is the new order a cross-country race where every mile has a marker, a medal and added stock options? Her research supports that “curious wanderers” make up 90 percent of the people who consider themselves successful vs. 10 percent of the “straight arrow” upward path group. There are thousands of stories about people who left the “approved track” and ended up elsewhere — happy, fulfilled and feeling successful. Look, I know the Wharton, Harvard, Stanford stories also, and there are many of them. If you ski the racecourse and don’t hit any poles, you can win. It has gates for a reason. But if you go off-piste and wander, you will see different scenery — but in fairness, you might also trigger an avalanche.
Levine does come to one overarching conclusion: “People who consider themselves successful have a real passion about the work they do. They work harder than others (that may have something to do with success), they welcome mistakes and they feel that what they do has impact.”
Years ago (actually decades), I read “Walden, or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau. He spent two years, two months and two days in a cabin he built himself near Walden Pond. We all know the metaphorical and poetic themes in the book, but for some reason, they don’t really stick for most of us. We read it when we are young and idealistic and then we forget. I wonder if that 10-year-old boy (or his parents) would enjoy the book.
At some level, the COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps a blessing in disguise. People are sheltering in place — and some are reading books. All of us are rediscovering who we live with. There seems to be a renewed centered-ness to the community. Simple things replace the need for newer and bigger and better and more. Family dinners are an event first mandated and now enjoyed. Nothing will ever be the same.
Rule No. 653
“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” — Yogi Berra