You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

You Can Do Anything is part of Plan. Succeed. High School Edition, a series of summer workshops where Houston Area students learn the organizational skills and habits to be successful in high school and college. 

I was reading the Houston Business Journal and came across an interview with Houston billionaire Tillman Fertitta.  The interviewer asked Fertitta, what is one of the biggest mistakes small business owners make, and his response made me think of one of the unintentional lies we tell our kids.

Fertitta said one of the biggest mistakes he’s seen is "Not knowing your strengths and your weaknesses. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t have a particular strength, you need to go out and replace that."

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From the time our kids are wee ones, we tell them they can do anything if they work hard enough at it, and no where does this come back to bite them harder than in high school. In high school, kids know the stakes are high, but they aren’t always clear on how to best leverage their time and energy to get the best results. So what do they do? They take all of the AP courses. The study until the wee hours of the morning, pumping their bodies with caffeinated energy drinks to put off their bodies’ demand for sleep and to sustain their waning focus. They do this extracurricular activity and that one, largely to pad their college resumes. And with all of their efforts, they expect what we’ve told them to be true: that if they just work hard, they can do it all. But the reality is, they can’t. Nobody can. And if our kids don’t acknowledge this, they learn a tough lesson the first time they study all night for a biology test only to earn a C or worse yet an F for their efforts.  Our kids dissolve into a million pieces, feeling like ultimate failures, lamenting their damned GPAs. So what do we do? We hire tutors in hopes that they’ll continue to work harder and maybe a little smarter. While this may help them get a better grade on the next test, it does not teach our kids one of the most important life lessons: “You can do anything, but not everything.” (David Allen, LifeHacker) At the intersection of our strengths, skills and interests, lies our greatest contribution. Trying to do and be everything prevents us from focusing on the most important, most impactful things, exhausting our resources, and ultimately preventing us from feeling like we add any measure of value anywhere. 

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So instead of preparing our kids for a lifetime of burnout that many of us know and resent, here’s what we should be teaching our kids:

  1. Know your strengths and use them daily: There is no better work than work that allows us to use our strongest skills. No, everything in life won’t be easy, but how many self-help and books on leadership on the best-seller lists deal with saying ‘no’ to things that don’t align with your strengths and core values? Rather than setting our children up to have to unlearn this self-sabotaging belief that they have to say ‘yes’ to everything to get ahead, let’s teach them to how to lean into their strengths.
  2. Know your weaknesses: You have them. I have them. Your kids weaknesses don’t make you a failure, but spending countless hours trying to make your weaknesses strengths takes energy and focus away from the things you are good at. It’s exhausting and a waste of your personal resources.
  3. Resolve and have a specific plan to be good enough in your weak areas: This is a two-part deal: resolve and have a plan. Just because you have weaknesses doesn’t mean you shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, I’m just not good at that.” No, it means you do whatever you can to be good enough so that your weakness isn’t a detriment to your overall goals. Commit to attending tutorials with the teacher once a week (resolve) to review your notes and make sure you’ve honed in on the key takeaways (specific plan). Commit to spending 5 minutes every night (resolve) reviewing the previous day’s work, previewing the next day’s work and writing 1-2 questions that you have from the preview (plan). Or better yet, connect with someone whose strength is in your weak area, someone who breaks things down in a way you understand, and have a Sunday check-in to review and preview. This  works best if it is mutually beneficial and you lend your strengths to minimize the impact of their weaknesses.

And just to be clear, all of these options require work. None of these provides our kids an excuse to coast. Instead, they teach kids to dig into things that really matter to them, be aware of and accept their sore spots, and ultimately be more strategic about how they allocate their personal resources without compromising their personal and academic development and long term opportunities.

As you prepare to send your son or daughter into the throws of high school, think about how you can share these lessons with them now, before the weight of needing to be perfect stifles their ability to make forward progress.