Re-Evaluating the Formula for Success

Recently, a young engineering student from Columbia University cleared out her bank accounts, deleted her Facebook, changed her cell phone number, and practically vanished with a few weeks left in school. After her mother's pleas in the press and via social media, Nayla Kidd resurfaced and shared her story, Why I had to Escape My Ivy League Life and Disappear, with the NY Post. Kidd wrote, “I needed to break from my old life of high pressure and unreasonable expectations…I felt like I had to choose between living a life I was passionate about and doing well in school. Even though I was wired to be a good student, I didn’t feel inspired.” At the end, she wrote, "I finally broke down because I was living a life I thought I should be living instead of living the life I want."

Going to an Ivy League school and making great grades is one of the quickest ways to elicit a raised eyebrow of approval. For decades, this has been regarded as the truest sign of success. But this very reality is suffocating for Nayla and a host of others who find themselves miserable after following the prescribed formula for success: good grades + good school + good college = success. 

As parents (and teachers), we’ve long been prescribing the formula for success, even drawing hard parameters for what is considered a “good school,” so much so that anything outside of our prescription feels like failure to our children. By encouraging our children to explore more and tune in to their strengths, interests and needs, we give them permission to define success for themselves. And when they do this, they become students who seek out learning not because we’ve told them they have to, but because they see learning as essential to realizing their own dreams. 

A friend and fellow champion for kids, Ryan Makhani of, wrote a great piece for HuffPost Education: 10 Strategies to Help Children Define Success for Themselves. In it, he talks about walking away from a career his parents considered "successful" to pursue what he wanted. Makhani highlights 10 strategies that speak to what we can do to support our children and help them create their own path to success. While Ryan's notes were written for parents, they ring true for anyone working with students. Ryan writes:

The parents that I have seen who help their children define success for themselves usually do the following:

  • The parents are aware of their own fears and dreams.
  • The parents encourage and challenge their children rather than control all their decisions.
  • The parents do not impose their definition of success onto their children, rather have conversations to help guide what success could be and what it could look like for their child.
  • The parents ask questions that encourage their children to find their passions and define their goals.
  • The parents provide tools for the child to explore and imagine their possibilities.
  • The parents help the child not compare themselves to others, but rather to their own selves and own growth.
  • The parents support the child’s curiosity and listen in ways that the child can feel supported.
  • The parents take time to know their child in regards to what pushes their buttons, how to motivate them and what they love.
  • The parents encourage the child playing in areas that could become a life-long passion.
  • The parents recognize that the context in which their child is growing up is significantly different from their own childhood.

Yes, this requires us to let go a little, but if we let go, it gives our children room to grab ahold. So today, find some time to ask your teen a few of these questions to help them begin to define success for themselves.

  1. When you picture yourself as an adult, what does a typical day look like for you? Listen for what they value and what they enjoy. If their recap includes going to a particular job, ask them why they chose that job and listen to see if you hear your words come out of their mouths or their heart. This will speak to intention/personal interest. If they don't mention a job, ask them what they do to generate the income to live that lifestyle.
  2. You're really great at ____, have you thought about how you could use that talent/skill in a career? Don't limit this to academics. I'm really good at listening to what people are really saying. That is a great non-academic skill that can be parlayed into a host of careers–including the one I have. 
  3. If you could be an apprentice under one person, who would it be? Why? This one is pretty straight forward. Plus, if you know someone who knows someone, you might be able to make magic happen.
  4. Are there any injustices or causes in the world that you are passionate about? The power of passion is immense and shouldn't be overlooked. Some are passionate about making money, while others are passionate about food, gaming, creating, traveling or manners of humanity. This isn't about passing judgement on your child's passion, but rather helping them find a way to engage it in a way that fuels academic curiosity and ultimately generates a sustainable income. 

These are just a few starters. However, one of the best things you can do is share your story. If you are living at the intersection of your interest, strengths and skill, share how you got there, how you leveraged your academic study to get to where you are. Be sure to share any hype you bought into that actually didn't make that much of a difference as well as any of your missteps. If you aren't loving your work or haven't yet found success for yourself, share that too and unpack what's been blocking your way. Essentially, have the conversation you wish someone had had with you.