“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” – Steve Jobs
I pulled this quote off an article I read shortly after Apple icon Steve Jobs passed after an incredible battle for a number of years against cancer. It really struck me at the time and I saved it, coming back to it a number of times to contemplate my life, as well as what it means to me as an educator. As I thought about what I have experienced with teenage students and see every day when I walk the halls or visit classrooms, Job’s words may in fact be the best advice that I could give to students. And, after being an educator for thirty years, the reason that I want to send this message is because things have not really changed.
This is what I have seen. High school students want to be accepted. Peer pressure has always been there. There is no difference today than there was when I was a rookie teacher in 1985. Teenagers will go to great lengths to be accepted by others. They get their hair cut or styled like other kids. Their clothes are basically the same as other kids they hang out with. The do, say and believe the same things. With just a few exceptions, there are very few unique individuals among a typical group of high school students. There are some that like to think they are expressing their individualism and “real-self,” but in reality they are just like other kids that are trying to so the same. Most boys think about girls, and most girls think about boys. Some kids like sports, some like cars, and some like hanging out with friends. Same as when I was in high school.
At the same time, there is a difference between the teenagers we have in school today compared to those when I started out in the mid-eighties. In my opinion, kids today live under much heavier influence from their parents. In the past we heard the term “teenage rebellion,” but we don’t hear it much these days. Parents aren’t as strict as previous generations and thus their kids don’t have to challenge them as much as kids once did. They also care about what their parents think. They don’t want to disappoint them and thus there is a fairly high level of conformity. The young people today in no way resemble the high school students of the 1960’s or the 1980’s who not only challenged their parents but also the status quo. I am not saying it is an easy job being a parent of teenagers today, but I will argue very strongly that it isn’t as tough as it was for moms and dads in previous eras. Sure, it is a sign of the times and things are a lot different now, which is perhaps why Job’s made the observation noted above.
We have created a sense in this country that everything is high stakes and every thing our kids do is vitally important to their future. We have protected, coddled and laid out a plan for their future so that they can succeed. We have done everything we can to limit risk in their lives. Heck, even in rural Iowa we have parents reserving spots in the “right” pre-school before their kids are even born! We have given trophies to all the players so they feel like they didn’t lose. And we have spent money we don’t really have so our kids have the right clothes. Moms and dads call professors at college to check and see what their child can do to improve their grade. This very, very strong environment of conformity and fear of failure has resulted in kids not knowing how to cope or deal with adversity or when life throws them a curve.
So how does this fit with what Jobs had to say? It is simple: take a risk. Take a chance. Try something just because you want to and don’t worry about what others might think. No risk no reward! I read where psychiatrist’s and therapist’s appointment schedules are packed in many parts of our country with twenty-somethings who cannot cope with having to make decisions on their own, or have no sense of accomplishment or self-worth because all they ever accomplished was actually done by their parents. What I would love to see within our school community is for kids to break out of the mold. Why does popularity conflict with leadership? Why can’t kids stand out from a crowd and be a leader without risking negative ramifications from their peers? What about standing out from the crowd and showing support for a cause that might not be so popular, or defending a peer being persecuted by others? Or better yet, not being afraid to create and think, and not worry about the grade?
In reality high school is a very brief period in a person’s life. Some marketers try to convince kids that they are the best years of their life, a sham to get them to spend money on “memories.” From my perspective, a way to make them better years in one’s life that perhaps results in a more productive and happy life is to take the Apple innovator’s advice and approach every day like you don’t have anything to lose.