Re-Evaluating the Formula for Success

Re-Evaluating the Formula for Success

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. 

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.

Yes, You Can (and Should) Take It With You

My husband pre-life-changing discovery

My husband pre-life-changing discovery

If you asked my husband what the most life-changing moment was for him, he wouldn’t say the birth of our children or meeting me. He’d say finding out that HEB sells chopped onions in the freezer section.  (Rude, right?) You see, my husband is all about efficiency. He likes to give his full attention to the more meaningful, more impactful things rather than spend precious time and energy on tedious things. Isn’t there a way to skip the watery eyes, sticky fingers and the annoyance of doing something that’s the first step in almost every meal he cooks? Wasn’t there a way to get a head-start, so he could get busy with the part that’s most meaningful? 

Year after year, teachers are forced to do the same thing. They are handed a roster of student names and charged with helping those students be smarter, more academically and developmentally complete in 9 months. And every year, they start the school year doing the same thing: chopping onions...I mean...getting to know students. While this is absolutely an essential step, there is no reason teachers should have to start from scratch here. Doing so means they are in essence spending less time and energy on the more meaningful work that they uniquely positioned to do: teaching. 

This doesn’t have to be the case. 

Think about bacon. When we panfry bacon, we’re left with a flavor goldmine in the bottom of the skillet: renderings. This amazing concentration of goodness can provide a boost of flavor to everything from soups to roasted veggies and anything in between. Or they can be discarded. Over the last year, your child’s teachers have spent countless hours learning your son or daughter. They’ve figured out in what conditions your child thrives best. They’ve learned what kinds of lessons and which subjects pique your child’s curiosities and which don’t. These teachers have seen your child at their best and worse. And now, as the year winds down, you have to decide what to do with the renderings, the amazing concentration of information that say so much more about your child than numerical grades. Or it could be wasted.

In the same way that HEB’s precut onions give my husband a head-start and the opportunity to jump right in to what matters most in his cooking, you have the opportunity to give your child’s next teacher the opportunity to do the same. By collecting and sharing all of the knowledge and goodness that your child’s current teacher has spent the last several months figuring out, you provide continuity, allowing your child to pick up where he left off. When a teacher shares the strategies that have worked with a student in the past, the new teacher has a go-to guide, a cheatsheet of sorts that can only serve your child well. Sure, every teacher needs to get to know his/her own students, but the benefits of not starting from scratch are many–especially when list of new students is long.

To help with this, I advise my parents to use my End of the Year Reflection tool, which is great for having your child’s teacher download what’s been learned over these last few months so that information can be passed along to the next teacher.  Use this tool so that when it's time to have the essential first conversation with your child's teacher, you'll have specific, meaningful information to share to help her/him best serve your child.

Click the button below to download the End of Year Reflection tool and for future access to other things in my Parent/Teacher Toolkit (including Establishing the Parent/Teacher Partnership: First Conversations).

Don't let that concentration of goodness go to waste. Click the button below to download the End of Year Reflection tool!

The "Best" Schools Meet Kids Where They Are

I recently came across an article Meeting Kids Where They Are by Bill Gates. The article highlights the value of colleges and universities that rarely, if ever, make "The Best Schools" lists. No, these schools don't carry the prestige of a Harvard or Yale, but their purpose and function is just as noble: they serve the kids who aren't a right fit for the likes of Princeton or Columbia.

See, here's the thing about finding the best fit school: it's about more than academics. All of those schools listed above are great academic institutions, and yet each one of them has it's own unique vibe, which I often call culture. One school might be full of geniuses and have a culture of competitiveness, while another might have the same academic caliber of students, but the culture might be one of collaboration, where kids don't see each other as threats but as true peers. The way a student experiences those two places are radically different.

When deciding between schools, we have to remember that schools are not just places for our kid's brains, they are also places for their social selves, their emotional selves. A great friend once said a school is responsible for "addressing students' IQ while expanding their EQ". I promptly wrote it down because this–this is truth! Looking at rankings alone neglects half of the equation, more than half for those students who are more socially inclined. 

So when you are laying out your options and trying to decide between schools, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Beyond academics, what kind of school does my child need? In what conditions does my child thrive? 
  2. Where is my child socially/emotionally? What are his strengths/challenges in those areas and what would a school that meets him where he is offer?

And if the school that you're left with isn't a highly ranked one, that's okay. The best school is the one that meets your child right where he is and develops in him the personal confidence, sense of efficacy and academic skills to realize his full potential. What could be more valuable than that?

The options and opportunities are vast and as unique as your child. Don't be afraid to look for the best fit.

If you are applying to schools next admissions season, register for our online course Choose Well: The Ultimate Guide for Choosing the Right Schools.  We've taken the process we use when working one on one with our families and put it online for families everywhere. This course will help you take you the steps to find the right school for your son or daughter. 



We Were Waitlisted–Now What?

Just before we shifted into chill mode for spring break, we got the news: blah, blah, blah, WAITLISTED, blah, blah. Of course, that’s not exactly what the letter said, but that’s what I read. Like many parents who start the search process as early as September, not having a definitive yes or no can feel like one’s been sentenced to purgatory to tread water thick with uncertainty. 

This blog is for those of you who after opening admissions letters find yourselves saying, "Okay, we were waitlisted. Now what?" 

Being waitlisted is about math.

The number of available seats at higher performing schools across the country doesn’t come close to meeting the demand. In the public school space, this means once the number of seats allocated (building capacity - projected number of zoned kids attending = number of magnet seats available) are filled, everyone else goes onto the waitlist. In the private school space it’s similar math, although not everyone gets put on the waitlist. Only the candidates who “fit” are added to the list, those students who would have been admitted if it weren't for such limited supply. 

What happens now?

Being waitlisted is like being in a holding pattern at the airport–sometimes there are simply too many planes trying to land at the same time, and it’s not until the traffic thins and the dust settles that you touch ground at your final destination. Between the time letters go out and the common reply date (first/second week in April) is what I call “dusty season.” Parents are trying to decide between their options, schools are fielding calls from accepted parents who have lingering questions and calls from others who want to understand why their child didn’t get in, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do next. There’s a lot going on, and waitlisted parents should use the time to gain some clarity about your next move until the dust settles.

First, take a few breaths and determine how much emotional energy, if any, you want to leave tied to the possibility of coming off of the waitlist. How much hope are you willing to hold on to? You know your emotional bandwidth. Don’t set yourself up for devastation should things just not work out. If you’re in the private school runnings, feel free to email the admissions director a short email letting them know your position. Remember to keep it short. It’s dusty season, and matriculating their admits is priority number one. Something like this should do the trick:

Dear {insert name},

{Insert child's name} and I were both happy and sad to learn {he'd/she'd} been waitlisted at {insert school}. Happy because we know being waitlisted means you think {insert name} would do well at the school, but sad because as of now, there isn't enough space for {him/her}. 

We wholeheartedly believe that {insert school} is the right fit for {him/her} because {insert the number 1 and 2 reasons you applied to this school}. So we are more than happy to wait it out and hope for the best. When can/should I circle back for an update?

Fingers crossed,

{insert signature}

Second, think about what you do have. Maybe you got in to one of your other choices that you liked but didn’t love. Give some thought to the reasons you applied to that school in the first place. Maybe it has 3 out of the 4 things on your wish list. Remind yourself of the positives and start planning how you’ll supplement if that becomes your child's final destination. Maybe you applied to a private school during a non-entry year, take a few breaths, put your feelings aside (tough, I know) and ask yourself: Is there a better time? Am I still convinced that this is the best school for my child? If the answer to both questions is ‘yes,’ schedule a conversation with the admissions director to get their insights and decide if reapplying next year makes sense.  

Help your older child process the news. Don't forget that they were the ones taking these tests and filling out applications. They'll see this as a judgement of their ability unless you help them see otherwise. Talk them through the math, and then help them decide how much emotional energy they want to continue to invest. Help them come of with a plan for how they can be happy at option B if option A doesn’t pan out. There’s no better time to teach your kids how to respond when what you want isn’t immediately available to you.

How long do we wait?

In most cases, the earliest you'll come off a waitlist is a few days after the common reply date. That gives admissions directors time to see how many seats weren't filled by their first-round admits that are open to students from the waitlist. For private schools, this process is finalized by the end of the month. For public schools, however, this can extend through the first week in August. See why you have to determine your emotional bandwidth first? This process can go on for some time.  

Congrats to those who found and got into their top choice schools. For those who did not find their fit, resist the urge to think you or your kid is not good enough. Fit matters, and you’d much rather be in a place that’s a good fit for your child academically and personally than to be in a place that’s not. (Reread #2 above.) And for those hanging out with me in purgatory, I’ll tell you what I told my husband, “now we sit back and let the dust settle."

Edit: An earlier version of this blog listed these two scenarios explaining how one might come off of the waitlist.

  1. Private: You were waitlisted for kinder at Preschool-8 School X. Some parents who currently attend that school also applied to other private schools, but they also had to “hold” their seat at School X. They got into their top choice school and will forfeit the seat they were holding (and the deposit), which creates an unexpected opening for your child.

  2. HISD: You got into your second choice school and were waitlisted at your first. Because you don’t want your child out in the cold, you accepted the seat at your second choice and decided to save a sliver of hope that lightening might strike. On June 12, you get a call from your first choice saying lightening struck and they have an opening for your child if you want it. You shimmy in your seat, say yes, and now your second choice seat is open for someone else. Of course, you could say ‘no thank you’, and the school moves on to the next person on the waitlist.


An Amazing 2015: Bigger Than Choosing Schools

I often say that I am in the business of preventing mid-life crises. While my work focuses on coaching and supporting parents to make informed decisions about their kids' schools, my ultimate goal is to help parents make educational decisions that honor who their children are at their core. I help parents pay attention, ask the right questions, listen to the answers, act on that information and engage their schools in the process. This provides sanity for my parents, but it does something more important for kids: it teaches them how to see themselves and make decisions that honor who they are as individuals. 

This is the gift I reference in my most popular blog of 2015. This is the gift I wanted to give my students in becoming a middle school teacher and administrator. This is the gift I want every child to receive: the gift of being seen. 

As I think back on 2015, I am tearfully grateful at the opportunity I’ve had to take care of kids, to support parents in giving the gift. You have invited me into your homes, your offices, your lives. You've attended workshops, read and shared my blogs, allowing me be your guide.

What we’ve done together this year was bigger than (just) choosing schools for your kiddos. We have looked at our kids (nearly 150 kids to be exact!) and really seen them. For all of this, I could not be more grateful.

2016 promises to be even better. I’ll be launching a 2-day summer workshop for rising 9th graders to help them be more purposeful and prepared for high school, and I am writing a step-by-step workbook that will help parents choose and engage with their child’s school. But most importantly, I’m over-the-moon, shimmy-in-my-living-room excited to continue doing my part to ensure that more kids know the confidence, joy and sense of purpose that comes from being seen.  

From my family to yours, happy 2016!


The Risk-Free Summer

When I was younger, I wanted to be so many things: a writer, a lifeguard, a video dancer (they were fully clothed and highly choreographed back then), the voice over the intercom at the car dealership, and the first woman NFL football announcer. While some of these dreams had a clear path to becoming a reality, the path for exploring the other ideas was a bit less clear. 

Since I'd spent days and weeks over countless summers watching them at my neighborhood pool, I knew what it took to become a lifeguard. My mother, who in her youth had also worked at this pool, knew exactly how to point me in the direction of my dream. I spent every summer from the age of 15 until I was about 20 as a lifeguard, save that one summer I worked at Red McCombs Toyota. 

Because I didn't know the first step towards becoming a sportscaster, a writer, or a dancer, I fell into the easiest routine rather than exploring the range of things that interested me. My dreams never had a chance to become a reality.

As adults, many of us look back and wish we'd had someone to help us figure out what to do with our interests, passions or curiosities. How many of us are in jobs right now wishing we could be making a living doing what we want instead of what we feel is required? But this blog isn't about us, it's about saving our kids from that place, that place of being 30 or 40 something and having fallen into the easier routine without having truly pursued a passion/interest. Every summer, middle and high-school-aged kids, have an amazing opportunity to do what they aren't always able to do during the school year: pursue their own interests. With the right opportunity and guidance, not only can our kids learn more about who they are and what they like, they can also learn who and what they aren't. Giving our kids the opportunity to figure themselves out requires some trial and error, and there's no better time than during the risk-free summer. 

This Tuesday at Corner Table at 4:30pm, I'll be co-hosting a info-session with Dana Brown from Choate Rosemary Hall, who will share a bit about the summer opportunities her school offers. The event is free, and there will be beverages and light snacks. There's nothing to lose, and who knows? Maybe you'll find the guidance you need to help your child take the first step towards realizing their dream.

To register for the info-session, click here