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What is Success? Not What We Measure Now….

June 30, 2012

Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary, an article in today’s NYTimes, grapples with the question of how we define “success” in our country today. The second paragraph frames the question:

I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.

The article is full of probing questions with no east answers, like:

How do we go back to the idea that ordinary can be extraordinary?

How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?

“You make a lot of money or have athletic success. That’s a very, very narrow definition. What about being compassionate or living a life of integrity?”

Inculcating values like accepting one’s limits, accepting a second place finish, and aspiring to the accumulation of positive relationships instead of the accumulation of things or status… well… they just don’t gibe with the competitive system in place in our social order… and especially with the competitive system in place in public education. If you think our schools do not reinforce competition, look at what gets recognized and reinforced.

The solution to this is NOT to give trophies for participation: the solution is offered by psychologist Madeline Levine who is quoted at length in the article:

Most people, she said, have talent in some areas, are average performers in many areas and are subpar in some areas.

The problem is that we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important.

The solution, then, is twofold: make it clear to students that they aren’t all going to be soccer all-stars, honor roll students, and accepted to top tier colleges to help them make millions of dollars… but they must strive nonetheless and understand that they can possess critical qualities that schools don’t measure. Being kind or compassionate doesn’t lend itself to a mathematical metric that generates a means of sorting or ranking students… so it isn’t viewed as important from the child’s perspective…. But EVERY child can be kind and compassionate no matter how good they are in sports, how well they do in class, or how much money they make. THAT is a lesson schools should be teaching children.

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