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I see educators focusing on 21st century skills so their students can make it in the real world. Just as prevalent are twenty- and thirty-somethings still living with their parents, unable to make ends meet.
The systemic challenges we millennials face in adulthood are real and widely covered. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose and change our communities for good. Take Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Afghanistan war veteran and two-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., who continues gaining traction in the 2020 presidential race. “I think when you run at this age, your face is your message in a lot of ways,” Buttigieg told CNN. “And part of what we are looking at is the idea that it’s time for a new generation in American leadership.”
While he may on the right track, clearer guideposts after school ends would help others take a road to success.
Being steeped in the education field, I see the way paved by five skills: learning, communication, care, relationship building, and self-advocacy. Some call these soft skills, but in my experience, they are the hardest to master.
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Today’s independent school leaders are grappling with a number of daunting developments: more competition on the educational landscape, expanding demographic diversity, divisive politics, the rise of Millennial parents and workers, the retirement of Baby Boomers, the question of college’s value, the excitement of social media, and the hopes and fears of artificial intelligence.
Limited Diversity of Leaders Nationally
- In public schools, women make up 76 percent of teachers and 20 percent of superintendents.
- In the nonprofit sector, 75 percent of nonprofit professionals are women, and just 43 percent are nonprofit chief executives.
- In the private sector, white men hold 63 percent of top leadership posts, white women hold 24 percent, black women occupy 2 percent, and Hispanic women account for 1 percent.
- In government, U.S. state legislators are 75 percent men and 25 percent women, including 5 percent women of color.
Challenges in Independent Schools
Ideas for an Inclusive Pool
- use energy strategically,
- schedule solitary time,
- show enthusiasm,
- schedule a time to walk the halls,
- let extroverts know you care,
- talk to introverts one-on-one, and
- use solitude to make good decisions.
Leading with More Feeling
- Recognize emotions in self and others,
- Understand the cause and consequences of emotions,
- Label emotions accurately,
- Express emotions appropriately, and
- Regulate emotions effectively.
The Unintended Leader
Your Leadership Stories Matter
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Author Joshua Wolf Shenk knows something about the significance of creative partnerships from collaborating with his editor to chronicling historic examples — including Lennon and McCartney and the Van Gogh brothers — for his 2014 book Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity. I spoke with Shenk to learn how his findings can benefit educators and students.
Ari Pinkus: In your book, you argue that the pair is the primary creative unit for several reasons: “One, we’re set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group, given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges with caregivers. The dyad is also the most fluid and flexible of relationships, and pairs naturally arouse engagement, intensity… nobody can hide in a pair.” How can all of this apply to education?
Joshua Wolf Shenk: Education seems to focus on two kinds of work experience: purely solitary (test-taking, paper-writing, etc.) and work in groups. But the significance of the pair may be underplayed, as it often is in the culture at large. Most radical creative advance tends to happen in pairs. Work we ascribe to the “lone genius” is usually activated by relationships. These are not necessarily traditional collaborations in which two people are equally responsible for the work; the key term is not collaboration as such but “creative intimacy,” when two people inspire, complement, push each other to something bigger than they could do alone.
The classroom could be a site to apply this lesson and make it work for students and teachers. I know that, in my schooling, I always did my best stuff when I had chemistry with a teacher and with fellow students.
And it’s worth adding that these relationships, while often harmonious, were also sometimes competitive. Having a partner who sets a high bar that you’re trying to clear can be really powerful.
Pinkus: The book is filled with examples of successful pairings in various fields: the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon; artist Vincent Van Gogh and his art dealer brother, Theo; co-discoverers of DNA’s structure James Watson and Francis Crick; and others. What individual characteristics did they have that made their pairings thrive? What lessons can educators apply from understanding their dynamics?
Shenk: The core quality supporting what we call chemistry or synergy is what I call “complementarity.” Complementarity is this weird coexistence of really deep similarities in two people to the point that it’s uncanny how much they are alike. At the same time, they have surprisingly radical differences, too. Of course, any two people will be alike in some ways and unalike in others. But what I found in these epic duos were these really extreme traits at both ends.
We tend not to think about pairings that way. For example, if a kid is struggling, we think he should be with another kid who’s struggling — and hope they can help each other. But we might think the opposite: Put the kid who’s struggling with the kid who’s high-achieving, and hope that the more advanced kid benefits from explaining and the kid who’s a bit behind benefits from the other’s knowledge. What I’m suggesting is that teachers should think about putting kids together who have something to offer each other because of their differences and their enormous rapport. This is where the magic happens.
To some extent, you can think about it rationally, but teachers also need to trust their intuition —watching for the kids who really click.
One method of finding complementarity is the creative first date. I did this not long ago at a performing arts high school in Houston, and it was a lot of fun. I gave the students a small exercise and had them do it with five people in quick succession, and then I had them reflect on their experience. With whom were they feeling a little slowed down? With whom were feeling a little sharper, smarter? All of us have these different experiences with people constantly, and a lot of what I’m trying to do in the book is help people become aware of them and pay attention to them.
Pinkus: You delve into the concept of dialectics, writing that it “describes the process by which something singular emerges out of an interaction or duality,” and that dialogue forms a significant part of this process. How can educators harness the power of dialectics in and out of the classroom?
Shenk: When you look at great creative lives — people who have made meaningful work that’s reached its appropriate audience and has been received by the field as important — there is always an important story of relationships underneath.
It’s much easier to tell the story of an individual and present whomever he or she interacts with as supporting players. We like telling the story of the solo success in part because it is dramatically effective. For instance, every state in the country has a Martin Luther King, Jr. street or avenue or road — as a way to honor King’s great work in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But far fewer people know of Ralph Abernathy who essentially was King’s creative partner in the movement. It was, in fact, the relationship between those two men that created the civil rights movement. Everyone close to them knew it, but no one close to them really understood just how or why. There’s an element of mystery in it. In the end, it proved to be very convenient to just excise Abernathy from the story, no matter the injustice of it.
The story of relational influence is very common. In education, we always hear about teacher-student ratios, the implicit assumption being that exchange between the teacher and the student is the critical one, or the only one of value. But no matter what, you’re going to have a community of peers that is going to way outnumber the teacher. So how do you make that an engine for advancement rather than a hindrance? There really needs to be a consideration about how people work together and activate each other, inspire each other, vex each other, egg each other on.
Relationships are part of the engine of creative growth. And they’re often critical to creative growth. Alongside that are all kinds of challenges. Relationships are not easy. There is conflict; there is misunderstanding.
In pair relationships, you have two individuals and a social reality simultaneously. We need to think about how to support both — encourage individuality and idiosyncrasy and responsibility alongside empathy and awareness and so on.
Pinkus: In your book, you say that when it comes to creativity, “the heroic work, our teachers enjoin us, is to stay with the discomfort.” Why is discomfort necessary for creativity, and how can teachers best enjoin their students to remain there?
Shenk: Things are easy for us when we go down a path that’s already marked off, that is well-trodden. You’re less likely to get lost. We spend our days moving through these paths, hewing to established forms. We’re biologically driven to do that, to follow patterns and models and to not shake things up.
One reason speaking in front of a group can be so terrifying is that we were created in evolutionary time with this physical awareness that being exiled from the group would be like death. When you’re up in front of a group, you’re feeling that ancient fear.
So the natural forces are pushing us toward convention. I don’t say that with distain; I say that with a lot of respect. We have to learn in life how to follow these conventions; how to drive on the right side of the road; do the dishes soon after we eat. But that’s not creative. The creative act is one that involves stepping outside of something that we already know and doing something new and different. “Disruption” is a cliché right now, but creative people often naturally think in unusually different ways. Think about how many creative people were misfits and losers in high school, and who were their teachers’ worst enemy.
Some kind of movement out of the ordinary is essential to creativity. At its essence, the process is uncomfortable because it takes us out of these predicted and prescribed pathways and subjects us to all kinds of new and potentially scary and shameful things.
So letting people know that discomfort is OK, that it’s part of the process is critical. We hear these stories that the creative act follows this mythic structure. You have to charge into the wilderness and get lost in order to find the golden challis that you’ll bring back to a cheering crowd. It’s scary in those woods. If you set off down that path, and say, “Oh my god, it’s scary in there,” and then you race back out, then you’ll never get anything that’s meaningful to you, and you’ll never help the world.
This resistance is core to the creative process. That’s why writers and other creative people have rituals and daily routines. They have all kinds of restrictions they put on themselves. The moment you sit down to write, the first thing you want to do is get up and get coffee or check email or do any of a thousand things. But doing those things will keep you in the small think of everyday life, and keep you from being able to come to that new and scary and delightful place.
Pinkus: Thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been really fascinating.
Shenk: I hope it’s helpful. Education is near and dear to me because the most important relationships in my life were in school. And I’m a writer in the first place because of a high school English teacher named Cindy Briggs, who I’m still in touch with. She came to Cincinnati when I gave my reading for this book. There’s a college teacher of mine named Pat Hoy, who taught me how to write essays. And I wrote this book in large part because I felt I was learning something that I wish I knew when I was younger.
To read more about the creative genius of pairs, check out the following:
· “The Power of Two” by Joshua Wolf Shenk
· “Creative Pairs, in Their Own Words” by Joshua Wolf Shenk
· “The Genius of Difference” by John Chubb
Ari Pinkus is the digital editor and producer at NAIS.
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How do we improve teaching and learning? What’s the best way to assess student progress? As educators tackle these questions, a group of schools has joined to develop a new approach to assessment sans grades. Formed at the 2017 NAIS Annual Conference, the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) aims to “change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.”
MTC’s work to reimagine the high school transcript has struck a chord. The group received $2 million from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, garnered copious press, and stirred the independent school community.
John Gulla, E.E. Ford’s executive director, and Rand Harrington, Kent Denver School’s (CO) head of school, shared their contrasting views of MTC in an extended email chat last fall. The two know each other from The Blake School (MN) where Gulla hired Harrington as a science teacher. In this edited exchange, they challenge each other’s thinking—and reveal their vision for education.
Rand Harrington: John, I saw you posted another MTC article. Although I am open to being convinced otherwise, my current thoughts on MTC are quite dim. I see this as a ruse to avoid the most important questions about great teaching. Last summer, the dean of admission at a highly selective university described MTC as a non-starter—unreliable and unnecessary. I can’t say I disagree.
John Gulla: I don’t have any need to convince you there are great benefits in an approach to assessing student progress without grades as reflected in the goals of MTC. Some quick points:
1. Grades are an inherently limited and greatly flawed practice. Why reduce to a one-dimensional measure something (student progress) that is inherently multidimensional?
2. Are you really quoting a university admission dean in support of your position? How can he know MTC’s approach to be unreliable when it hasn’t even been developed yet? Unnecessary? I could not disagree more. There are more than 150 schools now signed up with MTC. I’ll bet you this university learns how to read and interpret the MTC transcript to assess the students who apply from schools using it.
3. Too many teachers think grades are “objective” measures. They are not. Can they represent something meaningful about a student’s progress? Sure. But they weren’t handed down inscribed on stone tablets to Moses from on high. Do you know where and when and why their use began? (Mount Holyoke College, 1887, standardization). I could go on and on.
4. I’d urge you to consider these questions: Do grades serve your students well? Do they encourage the sort of teaching and learning that you hope to see at KDS? If so, then stay dim on this approach for your school.
Harrington: In my opinion, the key questions are: How will MTC improve classroom teaching? Is the talk of MTC moving along the conversation about what great teaching is, or is it a distraction? Here are my additional two cents:
First, college admission is a process of selection requiring some type of judgment. What remains is the question of what to judge and by what metrics. The way MTC was shared with me indicated categories that were nonuniform, determined by each school, very poorly defined, and more unreliable than what we have now.
Not one of the problems with grades—inaccuracy, no meaning, inflation, measures the wrong thing—can be fixed by changing how we represent grades or even changing the category, from disciplinary to non-cognitive. Every critique I have heard can be traced back to the skill of the teacher. Poorly trained teachers with no expertise who make a mess out of grades will make an even bigger mess out of an alternative transcript where “content” has no value.
Should we be measuring or encouraging a wider variety of skills and attitudes? Certainly. Is the way we represent student achievement to colleges the issue? No, the issue is how we teach and what we value in our classrooms. In the end, students will be judged by both their ability to learn concepts in physics (or history or math or art) and their work ethic and resilience. And, if done right, their grades should reflect both.
As you can sense, I have strong feelings about this. The teacher shortage is coming, and schools are ill-prepared. And MTC will not [in my opinion] solve this problem.
Gulla: I have never thought that there is only one right way to go about this pursuit of organized education.
For schools that want to continue to offer grades—those limited measures that so often become ends in themselves and obscure the real goal, which, in my mind, is to create a desire to know, something that I feel we are born with but that so much of formal education effectively snuffs out over childhood and adolescence—the same way forward is yours to take. Schools that want to continue to create sorting systems that have resulted in epidemic levels of childhood anxiety, depression, unhealthy habits of sleep deprivation, and soulless pursuits of externally determined societally endorsed goals, the path forward is clear. Keep on keeping on.
Harrington: My point is that tossing the foundations is a terrible mistake. The mental health issues you describe are serious, but are not [in my opinion] caused by grades.
Gulla: And my point is that we agree that the foundations are necessary, but we disagree about grading, which is not necessary. I worked for seven years at a school that gave no grades. It is possible to have a very “rigorous” experience without grades.
Harrington: No grades, but certainly the school had assessments. Were these all formative? Likely not, some
must have been summative. Were they narratives? The details are important, because what you call “grading” is pretty narrow (A, B, C scales). I am arguing that summative assessments are necessary, and that how those assessments are labeled is less important. You seem hung up on the labels themselves. Replacing A, B, C with something else does not solve the problems you describe.
Even the pure narrative ends up being scored by whoever is judging the student’s application to their next experience (higher education or a job). That scoring is a judgment that should be the responsibility of the great teacher who knows the student. Shying away from judgment (or grading) is a cop-out. Improve the skill of the teacher so the judgments are accurate and value the right things.
Gulla: You seem hung up on the “necessity” of some form of one-dimensional ranking. So I find when such an impasse has been reached, a story can help. Back when U.S. News & World Report was still a print magazine and they were trying to expand their pernicious practices of ranking to independent schools, the then-president of NAIS, Peter Relic, urged membership not to cooperate. The U.S. News group got wind of this and sent the project lead to talk with Peter. During the chitchat, Peter asked the guy if he had any children. The man said he had three. Peter asked him to rank them.
Harrington: I agree, that is silly in the same way that we discarded class rankings some years ago. I see class rankings as equivalent to your examples. In other words, one number to judge something that is multivariable. Our grades are associated with the standard disciplines: English, math, science, etc. If a student can only muster a C or a D in English classes, then one would deem that useful information about their ability to read or write (a deficit that would likely impact their potential success in college). We can argue whether we need more categories.
My point is that whatever dimensions you decide are meaningful, there is someone or some institution that will want to know if this student is OK, good, or exceptional in this area. [By the way], the MTC prototype does the exact same thing, but with hard-to-measure categories and colored pie graphs.
Gulla: Yes, outside institutions will want information so that they can sort students. They may even want us to grade the students, but we don’t have to do their work for them.
This is the whole reason Scott Looney didn’t want to go this alone with Hawken [School (OH)]. No college or university is going to decide to simply ignore and fail to consider how to read and understand a mastery transcript when there may be thousands of very talented (not to mention many who are full-pay) students whose applications have this transcript, not the antiquated, Industrial Age, Carnegie unit, seat-time based transcript they’ll be getting from schools that stay the course!
Harrington: Sure, performance-based assessments look amazing on first pass. Unfortunately, we (teachers) end up spending a lot more time on the mechanics of assessment with our noses pressed to the screen tracking students with digital rubrics than we do teaching and planning our learning experiences. I once developed a rich rubric that looked at experimental skills, problem-solving skills, and conceptual understanding. In the end, I had to give them a single grade. But unlike some folks, I didn’t find this too distasteful, given my grades had always been an indication of some weighting of all these things … as it should be.
So, this is perhaps the guts of what we disagree about. You have a very optimistic view that MTC will be the thing that will take us to this elevated place where we know students so well in all their dimensions that colleges will be able to pick and choose based on some other criteria.
But if you think getting a B in U.S. history is ambiguous and without meaning, then try evaluating a student’s “grit” on whatever scale you want (linear or otherwise). I’ve seen no evidence that those promoting MTC have spent much time on how to define good teaching or how to make these more meaningful assessments. If you believe these conversations are happening, then I will be the first to support the effort.
This conversation really deserves a few beers in person. Perhaps sometime this year…
Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—an exemplary mentor-mentee pair? A great student-teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to email@example.com and we’ll follow up.
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How can educators and parents best help teens cope with the challenging issues they face today, whether it’s social media and technology use, alcohol consumption, peer conflicts and bullying, romantic relationships, or academics? For answers, I recently spoke with psychologist Lisa Damour, author of the new book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. Damour is also head of the Laurel Center for Research on Girls at the Laurel School (Ohio).
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To learn more about how to unleash the potential of Generations X, Y, and Z, I recently spoke with Jane Buckingham, generational expert and founder and president of the consumer insights firm Trendera. Buckingham will speak at the 2016 NAIS Annual Conference in San Francisco on February 25.
Jane Buckingham: On Generation X, ages 36–50. “Everybody talked about [them] as the slacker generation. And yet we don’t see them as that; we see them as the generation that went through their midlife crisis 20 years too soon.
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How do key leaders at Ravenscroft School (North Carolina) and the Center for Creative Leadership assess their partnership in the new education model Lead From Here? What do they most like about working together? What’s propelling them forward? I take you behind the scenes of this pioneering partnership in my podcast with Head of School Doreen Kelly, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Colleen Ramsden, and Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) Project Director Christopher Ward.
On Success Stories from the Partnership (Clip 1 Excerpts)
On False Starts and Lessons Learned (Clip 1 Excerpts)
Colleen Ramsden, Christopher Ward, and Doreen Kelly.
On What the Three Like Most About the Partnership (Clip 2 Excerpts)
On How the Partnership Came About (Clip 2 Excerpts)
On Future Outcomes Driving Ravenscroft Forward (Clip 3 Excerpts)
On Opportunities for Growth with CCL’s Model in Schools (Clip 3 Excerpt)
CCL’s Leadership Model and Work in Schools
- Chris outlines CCL’s unique model of leadership and its place in the 21st century (at 0:45).
- He articulates how the model can be used to strengthen school governance (at 4:46).
- He takes us inside CCL’s work with schools from the conception to the evaluation stages (8:38).
An Emphasis on Cultivating Young Leaders
- Chris defines the systemic approach CCL believes is needed and underused now (at 0:37).
- He offers advice to school leaders about nurturing young people as leaders (at 6:18).
Excerpts on CCL’s Work with Schools (from Clip 1)
Excerpts on CCL’s “Multi-layered, Multi-stakeholder, and Systemic Leadership Solution” to Developing Young Leaders (from Clip 2)
Excerpts of Chris’s Advice to School Leaders on Developing Students as Leaders (from Clip 2)
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What am I here for? How can I live a meaningful life? People have been wrestling with these existential questions forever, and clear answers seem more elusive today than ever. Amid this uncertainty, author Emily Esfahani Smithhas illuminated a timeless foundation on which to build a meaningful life in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. It hinges on four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Recently, Emily and I chatted about how we can rely on these pillars and help children and teens lean on them to grow and weather whatever challenges they may face in life.
Listen to our full Q&A, which includes discussion on Emily’s spiritual foundation, the urgent search for meaning today, the topic’s revival in American universities, and the role of mindfulness in transcendence. (36 minutes)
Read edited excerpts from our conversation below.
The Four Pillars of Meaning
“In talking to many different people about what makes their lives meaningful and reading a lot of philosophy and psychology and literature about how to live a meaningful life, I began to see patterns emerge. People tended to talk about four different things.
- Belonging is about being in a relationship where you’re valued by others for who you are intrinsically and where you in turn value others. It’s not just any type of relationship; it’s one that’s based on feeling like you matter and treating other people like they matter.
- Purpose is about having something worthwhile to do with your time, and psychologists define purpose as having a goal that organizes your life and that involves making a contribution to the world. One person’s purpose might be working on a cure for cancer, and another person’s purpose might be raising their children. It has this other-oriented dimension to it.
- Storytelling is about the story you tell yourself about yourself about how you became the person you are today. To lead a meaningful life, we have to develop a coherent narrative about who we are and how we got to be that way. This involves reflecting on the top experiences of our lives, but also the more tragic experiences, and understanding how they shaped us.
- Transcendence is about those moments when you are lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. For a lot of people this might happen in nature, at church, or even in the work they do. As a writer, I can sometimes get so in the zone that I lose all sense of time and space and before I know it, it’s past dinner and I’m still writing. People who have had these transcendent experiences say they rank among the most meaningful of their lives.”
Achieving Belonging in Our Mobile Lives…
“It’s important to recognize that belonging exists in moments among individuals. So even though for most of us, our chief sources of belonging will be our families, friends, and communities, we can cultivate this belonging with anyone.
“Let’s say you are at the grocery store and checking out; you could just conduct the transaction with the person who is checking you out, or you could take a moment to have a short conversation with them, to ask how they’re doing, to treat them like a human being. Research shows that these kinds of small moments, these micro-moments of belonging are powerful sources of meaning for you and for the other person. They lift both of you up.”
…And Helping Children Gain Belonging
“It’s important for children to understand that there is this obligation to be present when they’re with another person and to treat them with dignity and respect, no matter who they are. We know things like bullying are such problems in schools and now in the online world, but adults can help kids realize that developing true friendships and being a good person come by treating others like they matter, and that this lifts both people up.”
Approaching the Problem of Youth Suicide
“I’ll tell you a story that really moved me when I was researching my book. I went to this presentation that high school students from around the country were giving about what’s called a dream project. They each had these different dreams, and were working towards accomplishing them. This one group of girls presented their dream to publish a book of letters written to a friend of theirs who had committed suicide just a few months ago.
“The girls were devastated obviously. Then they thought about a meaningful way to respond to this. They asked everyone in the school’s community to write a letter to this boy named Billy, as if he were still alive, encouraging him to not take his life and reminding him that life is worth living. They compiled these letters together in a book they called Dear Billy, which they wanted to publish so other students like Billy could read the book and find hope and consolation in it, and hopefully decide not to kill themselves.
“In this workshop, the girls asked us to write on a piece of paper a list of everyone in our lives who was dear to us: our parents, friends, families, doctors, neighbors, everyone who ever cared for us. Then they had us write our own names on a separate portion of that paper. Then they had us rip our names off the paper and said that’s what suicide is like: You’re ripping yourself out of the lives of all these people who care about you.
“I thought it was profound. It captured the fact that suicide is a social problem — not just an individual problem — because it’s not just about the person who has killed themselves who has suffered and is suffering. It leads to this wider suffering in the community.
“Helping kids realize that they are integrated in a broader community that cares about them is one step toward preventing suicide. If you can get kids to create a culture of belonging by cultivating small moments of belonging with each other, I think that would protect some of these at-risk kids. Research shows that one of the things that predicts a suicide among boys is a rise of individualism and personal control, which implies that if you nestle them within a community, they’ll be more protected.
“Also, it’s about helping kids understand what is the broader purpose of their lives. If they see they are needed by others, that will also prevent them from committing suicide.”
Taking Steps to Realize Your Purpose
“There’s a wonderful assessment, a scientifically validated test, that you can take for free online called the Via Character Survey. You answer a bunch of questions in about 20 minutes. Then, it tells you what your strengths are. Strengths are things like love, compassion, leadership, curiosity that across ages have been valued by cultures. There’s a real universality to it.
“Also, reflect on yourself. You don’t have to take a test to figure out what your strengths are. You know yourself as well; think about what you’re interested in, what excites you. And use that to reflect on the ways you can use your strengths to give back to society.
“Another thing I recommend is speaking to a mentor. Sometimes, especially when you’re young, you don’t know yourself as well as the older people around you know you. I know when I was in college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. It was only through the intervention of mentors who knew better than I knew myself that I was encouraged to pursue this other path, which was writing and psychology — where my strengths really lie.”
Crafting Your Story
“If you want to tell a story about your life, you either begin by thinking about it or writing about it. I would begin by reflecting on the defining moments of your life. What was your childhood like? Did anything happen there that you think really shaped you? Was it a positive? Was it a negative? How did it make you grow? Piecing together those dots of experience into a bigger picture that explains who you are today is the first step.
“It’s important to recognize you’re not just going to sit down one afternoon and say these were the key experiences of my life, and this is how they shaped me. Storytelling is an ongoing process, and you can constantly revise your story, edit it, tell it, and retell it in different ways, even if you’re constrained by facts.
“For example, you can imagine that two different people have the same set of events happen to them. Both people went through their parents’ divorces when they were younger. Then their parents ended up getting remarried. One person could say that was a really awful experience, and it made me lose faith in the idea that long-term commitments can ever work out positively. Another person might say that was a really terrible experience for a while, but then I saw both of my parents went on to have these new richer lives with their spouses. It made me see that maybe sometimes we make mistakes, and we have to try again in our relationships. It’s the same set of facts, but two different interpretations.
“Researchers find that when we tell redemptive stories — stories that move from something bad happening to something good happening — we tend to believe our lives are more coherent and more meaningful. So in addition to reflecting on the bullet points of your story, see that you’re interpreting them in a way that’s both consistent with reality, and focuses on the good that ultimately came of your experiences.”
Helping Children Shape Their Stories
“An educator or a parent, any adult who is working with kids, has a powerful role to play in helping kids understand and shape the stories they’re telling about themselves.
“If kids are telling a dysfunctional story about who they are or where their lives are going, then you can help them edit that story by pointing out that their interpretation of events is not true. ‘Do you really think that nothing that you do matters? What about the time when you studied hard for that test and your grade got better?’ Helping them edit their stories in ways that are healthier would be good for them. Research shows that the stories we tell about our lives actually shape how we live our lives. If we tell positive stories defined by redemption and growth and love, we end up living more in accordance with those values ourselves. It’s this self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Finding Meaning in Others’ Stories
“All the stories in the culture, whether it’s movies or television shows, radio stories, stories that your friends tell you over dinner, stories that you read in novels can build meaning in two ways. One, if you’re sharing stories with another person, it builds a sense of belonging because people love listening to each other’s stories. Having somebody listen to your story in an attentive way makes you feel like you matter and like you’re heard. David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, said listening is an act of love, and I think that’s absolutely right.
“The other way storytelling builds meaning is when we hear somebody else’s story, or read it in a novel, or watch it on television, it helps us process our own story more deeply. You might read Hamlet by Shakespeare, and maybe you haven’t gone through everything that Hamlet has gone through, but maybe you experienced self-doubt. Maybe you are unsure about a major decision you have to make in your life. Hamlet’s story of doubt and uncertainty helps you come to a deeper understanding about where you are and how you might move forward.”
Opening Yourself to Transcendent Experiences
“Transcendent experiences exist on a spectrum. You can have a major transcendent experience when you are meditating, in prayer, or doing something where your sense of self just completely fades away, and you feel like there’s no boundary between you and the world around you. You feel totally connected to the outside world, to God, to nature, whatever the case may be.
“There’s also more ordinary, everyday experiences with transcendence. You can go on a walk in the woods and feel a little bit more connected to the world around you, a little bit less weighed down by your own problems. You can listen to a beautiful piece of music, or go the art museum and just look at a beautiful painting. In those encounters with beauty again, you can experience a stillness and a renewal that comes from slowing down and stepping outside your own head for a few minutes.
“To have more of these experiences, you can be intentional about seeking them out. Instead of spending the last five minutes of every day on social media before you go to bed, try listening to a piece of music or reading a poem you love. Don’t just eat lunch at your desk; go out for a walk during your lunch hour. A lot of times we’re so tempted to be tethered to our phones, to not just walk to school or whatever, but to listen to our pop music as we’re walking to school, or to be checking our texts and email constantly. If we can resist this urge to constantly be connected to our technology, we’ll open ourselves up to more opportunities to experience transcendence.”
Seizing Opportunities to Grow After Crisis
“It’s important to have meaning in life because it brings you a sense of wholeness and well-being, but it also helps sustain you through life’s more difficult challenges. The people who tend to be more resilient in the face of a crisis are the ones for whom the pillars were already strong in their lives beforehand. The ones who tend to grow in the face of some sort of crisis are the ones who lean on these pillars to get them through, or actively build the pillars up in their lives.
“I interviewed a Vietnam War veteran, who experienced a terrible post-traumatic stress disorder when he came back. It turned him into an alcoholic, and his life completely unraveled to the point that one night he drank so much that he got into a car accident where he killed another man who was on a motorcycle. This person, Bob, hit rock bottom. Not only did he take somebody else’s life, but he thought his own life was now meaningless. He couldn’t understand why he was here and what purpose his life had. With time, he started to see the only way he could redeem what happened to him was by helping veterans who were struggling in the same way he was.
“He started this organization called Dryhootch, a chain of coffee stores throughout the Midwest for veterans. There’s no alcohol, just coffee. It’s also a community center for veterans to do things like meditate together, play board games. It’s a space that’s familiar to them and comfortable, but is also protected from the temptation of alcohol and other substances.
“His goal was to help people like him not make the same mistakes he did. He was able to overcome the crisis he faced by having this renewed sense of purpose, by creating community, a form of belonging for others, and he really built these pillars in his life.”
Fostering Students’ Resilience in Adversity
“I would encourage educators to help their students connect with the different pillars in their lives, and help them see how those pillars already exist or how they can build them up.
“The research on kids and adversity is clear. One of the profound things that makes a big difference in how a child weathers adversity is if they have one person in their life who really cares about them. Things could be a mess in their home life, and maybe their friends are not there for them either, but if they have a teacher or an aunt or an uncle, somebody who shows them love and affection, they will fare a whole lot better. A teacher can either be that person, or can help guide their students to somebody.
“Teachers can encourage students to form a kind of community. If they’re struggling with mental health, maybe they can reach out to other people who are struggling, too, and create a support group where they get together and talk regularly about these kinds of things.
“The other thing that’s very important for kids is purpose — if they know and feel connected to some dream they have, some goal that lies in the future, it can be something that motivates them and helps them get through whatever they’re going through at the moment. We know from research that kids who have a sense of purpose are much more resilient in the face of adversity.”
Nurturing Children’s Natural Generosity
“I am so excited these ideas are reaching children because I think they’re some of the ones who need it most. I hear all the time today from parents and teachers that so much of what their kids care about is becoming an Instagram celebrity or making lots of money, things that are more about self-glorification.
“But I think kids have this natural generosity to them, and all we have to do is encourage them to bring out that part of themselves. Then they will be far more likely to withstand the trials of childhood and adolescence and not fall into so many of these problems that we see young people falling into, from depression to suicide to substance abuse. It’s about helping them find their meaning, and helping them realize it’s not about them. It’s about how they can contribute to others.”