As a high school educator for 20 years, I have had the privilege of encountering so many talented young people, their exuberance for life can rub off on teachers like the old temporary tattoos of the 1980s that have once again found a resurgence in the dollar stores of today. We feel tremendous positivity from the ‘great moments’ of education when such students border on the cusp of genius, producing great projects that supersede our own wildest vision of what we had assigned, or when they make a grand breakthrough in their learning, the result of painstaking resiliency and determination on all our parts – students, teachers, assistants, and, in many cases, parents. Teachers, whether we get thanked for our role in any of this or not, revel in these victories. For us, to see true potential striven for, and achieved, in our students, it is the ultimate rush of the profession – it can fuel us for years to come with the ambition to have these moments realized again with the next crop of kids we help cultivate. So what then, like those temporary tattoos that flake away from our skin when we shower or pull our sleeves over our arms, causes us to crash from those successful highs, to suddenly plummet into the realm of disillusionment, self-doubt, angst, and regret – all of this sometimes within a day (sometimes sooner) of feeling like we are on top of our game, and that we have the greatest profession in the world?
For teachers, particularly those of us in secondary school, the levels of despair are painful when we contemplate the much-less talked about, taboo experience of seeing our students fall. By fall, I don’t mean fail – the word ‘fail’ we now connote as a learning opportunity in today’s educational lingo, a chance to learn from mistakes with the option of doing better, whether that be an exam rewrite or the classic ‘watch out-for-this-next-time’ warning on a poorly-executed science experiment. No, by fall, I mean really fall – in life, outside of the classroom, no longer within the safe confines of the school system, where failure means no ‘redos’ or the ‘don’t-get-bogged-down-in-that-quagmire-again’ cautionary heeds. By fall, I don’t mean the traditional bumps and bruises of “the school of hard knocks” my generation likes to tout and brandish either. I know many good people from that school who’ve taken a licking, recovered, and done brilliantly for themselves. By fall, I mean royally screw up. It can mean dropping out of school, but not always – it does, however, refer to negative happenstances once they leave the clemency our K-12 institutions provide – getting in trouble with the law, becoming addicted to drugs, and/or prostituting themselves for money, for another ‘fix,’ for desperation, for survival. It means becoming exploited by forces no teacher or parent could possibly foresee or counter. On a lesser scale, it can also mean seeing kids flounder in ways that never see them realize their true potential or calling, whatever that may be. In many respects this can be equally as tragic because the results of this floundering may not be readily apparent in young adulthood, but become far more problematic for the students when they reach later adulthood, when they themselves may be overcome with regret, blame, shame, disappointment, depression, addiction and/or, worst of all, suicide. The whole point of what teachers want for all our students, at every level, is for them to achieve their own measure of success in life. To do that, they need to meet or exceed their potential, in whatever endeavor that may be. It is up to the student his or herself to define that success. No one else, teachers (myself included), bosses, friends, or sorry parents, not even you, can define that for them – nor should we.
So then, why am I even bothering to write an article like this one? Well, if 20 years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s that every kid – no matter what walk of life they come from – has tremendous potential in at least one significant area, regardless of their ‘IQ’ or ‘standard reading level’. There have been scores of students, for instance, I’ve seen struggle in my Social Studies classes who’ve gone on to far exceed any of my own abilities in subjects like writing, cooking, mechanics, journalism, fashion design, cosmetology, construction, art, welding, media, computers, plumbing, outdoor education, business, physical fitness, and engineering. You bet these kids surprised me, in some cases they surprised their parents, and almost always surprised themselves at just what they accomplish once they find their calling. Though I would never have realized it at the time, these kids too would ultimately work their way into my ‘great moments of education temporary tattoo club’ – their stories still inspire me to this day, and are on occasion brought up by me to that new crop of kids who have similar struggles understanding how a bill becomes a law in the Canadian House of Commons, or exactly how the forces of supply and demand dictate price in the modern day capitalist economy (i.e. ‘Social Studies’ stuff).
Unfortunately, long time educators who are in this profession for keeps frequently come back to those kids who flounder. Why? Probably because we care too much, but it’s more than that. There’s something to be learned from them, lessons that can, should, and will benefit the next group to pop up in our classes, to try and help steer the new generation away from the pitfalls so many other young people their age stumble into. While every generation has had to deal with obstacles, some even devastating if not terrifying (the two World Wars that “The Greatest Generation” faced down certainly garner them the title belt, at least for recent memory), the problem for our youth today is that they are living in what feels like an overflowing jug, an age of uncertainty where the signs of an overwhelmed planet, economy, and human population have reached the tipping point – the consequences of which no other generation before them, including my own, has ever had to confront before. They are, more than ever before, heading into a cut-throat world, where achieving individual success means having to pick sides – management vs labour, government vs. citizens, corporation vs. corporation, being uber-rich vs. being like the rest of us, trying to keep our heads above water. There is little room in-between anymore, for compromise or consensus. Our middle class is shrinking [i], and our society is ever-so shifting towards an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that permeates all aspects of social life, not just business or politics. We can’t even agree on what to do about mass shootings or whether ocean acidification is a problem or not! The reaction of our youth is not surprising – they only have three choices. Tune in & fight, tune out & wallow, or try to survive as best they can. Each one comes with its own share of predicaments, stresses, and anxieties, for the parents, the students, and the young adults in their 20s struggling to find their place.
Before we dismiss this as a routine part of ‘every generation,’ – who didn’t have their share of ‘tycoons,’ ‘geniuses,’ ‘slackers,’ and ‘good folk trying to make ends meet’ – the concern as I see it is that our kids today, and the future generations they procure, can’t afford the latter two options. At all. What we’re seeing with the current response of North American teenagers today to the Parkland shootings is an awakening – it may start with guns, but it won’t end there. Too much is on the line, and they no longer trust the previous generations to have their best interests in mind. Their future is bereft with large-scale problems that are well on their way to becoming global crises, if they’re not already. Here is a short list – (1) an out-of-control opioid epidemic with no end in sight, (2) accelerated climate change with no solution in sight, (3) the sinister but clandestine threat of cybercrime in its many forms, (4) a new age of nuclear proliferation that includes several ‘rogue nations’ not just two superpowers, (5) a domestic political division exasperated by a rules-free digital media world, and – if any of that wasn’t enough – add (6) the phenomena of social isolation and disconnect created by the aforementioned pervasive digital constructs, not to mention (7) a burgeoning global inequality gap, augmented by gender, racial, and class divisions, and to top it all off, an (8) out-of-control world population projected to exceed 8.5 billion by the time they turn 40 [ii]. Each of these challenges alone are enough to paralyze a generation, and our kids are getting thrown into a veritable piranha-pond loaded with them, and many of them know it. They know it because they’re learning about it in school, though the shielded confines of ‘theory’ that most of them see right through, especially when we teach them skills like critical thinking. Worse yet, they know it because they’re also learning about it through the open waters of today’s media, social and otherwise, where the noise is far reaching and the criticism damning. It’s no wonder our kids are anxious today and struggling with mental health issues at a far more pronounced level than ever before [iii], they are anticipating these challenges all the while trying to plan ahead for the ‘normal targets’ we expect them to hit in the ‘dog-eat-dog world’ they already a part of. Normal targets that every generation before them have struck off the list – graduate high school, obtain post secondary training, get a job, build a career, acquire a set of wheels, become independent, find a spouse, have kids, build a life, be happy. Piece of cake, right?
Our kids are scared. They may not admit it, or perhaps fully grasped it yet, but it’s there. I can sense it even amongst junior-high aged students. There is so much wrong in their world that they face a dubious future, and all their getting is a plethora of hatred, misinformation, disinformation, blame, and irrationality about it. Unfortunately all we have to give them is the caterwauling that they themselves have to sort through with whatever critical thinking skills we try to arm them with in school. No wonder so many seem ambivalent, our society certainly haven’t given them much hope. Forget about the crap you hear that they’re pampered, spoiled brats, or entitled millennials. This generation today is waking up, becoming self-aware, and I think many of them are starting to realize this is their world that we are handing over to them, as mucky and deluded as we’ve allowed it to become.
The good news is that these kids have advantages that the ones before them didn’t have. They have information – indeed they are the children of the Information Age, they have a better understanding of the global village than anyone reading this over the age of 35 ever could, they have grown up in the social network, and they understand the power of communication, collaboration, and the importance of thinking differently. Our job in our high schools today is to help them mature, to imbue in them the best we can with the skills of responsible citizenship, including the traditional stuff – reading, writing, engagement with the world around them, but also the 21st Century stuff – creative thinking, collaborative skills, and the newest layer in the citizenship realm – digital responsibility. It’s what happens to them after that, the byproducts of everything the previous two generations have left them – the divides, the recrimination, the perils, technological & otherwise – that has me worried for them. That said, there are three non-fiction books I would like to bring to light here – books that summarize with illustrative explanations the key strategies of successful thinking – that I would argue every high school graduate – every young person under the age of 30, really – should grasp to help lay down a foundational framework for success in the 21st Century world. Success, of course, in avoiding the traditional quagmires of adulthood we all faced, but moreover success in meeting the inevitable, multifaceted challenges (crises?) that are coming their way. But above all else, success at just being happy. That’s it, just being happy in the everyday world of chaos around them – something all educators want for their students and all parents want for their kids. Notice I didn’t include the kids themselves in this list of wants, as we’ll see obtaining happiness is more than just striving for a care-free, worry-free, duty-free life, rather it is far more than that – happiness comes with a price tag, one in which they’ll be willing to pay, but it is very important that they pay it.
These books are recommended as separate entities – all of them have been written within the past decade, are all valuable enough to read on their own (that is, without having read the other two), and each one can help young people lay the foundation for a life of success and happiness from their 20s through to the end of their days. For the 18-, 19- and 20 year old reading all three, or at the very least familiarizing themselves with the core teachings each author encapsulates for them, it will definitely give them a far greater advantage that anybody who remembers listening to AM radio or an 8-track cassette ever would ever have had when we delved into our 20s. Furthermore, these books are not just recommended for young adults going to college or university – they are recommended for every, single young person, regardless of what post-secondary venture they plan to partake in, because each book delves into ALL aspects of young people’s lives – relationships, roommates, part-time jobs, travel, hobbies, technology – not just academic or vocational pursuits. Finally, all three books are relatively short – no more than 200 pages (did I mention I am a teacher? I know many teens ‘aren’t readers’ – more on that when I write about book # 2 on my list). All are readily affordable, running around $13 – $20, thereby making great high school graduation gifts. What follows below is my best sales pitch for each book, and why you as a young adult or – if you’re a parent, then your child – should read or skim over each one (I’ll even accept that). Please note, I have nothing to gain by promoting any of these books, I don’t know the authors, and have no personal stake in what they are trying to proclaim. I am merely recommending them simply because I care about our young people’s future, believing beyond a shadow of a doubt this generation of kids will facing daunting challenges no other before them have ever had to face, and I want them to have a shot at overcoming them. With that, I also want for them a fair shake at “the pursuit of happiness” we all received maturing into a world where global warming was still a challenged ‘theory’, and ‘Tweeting’ was something we associated with a Hanna Barbara cartoon. My recommendations for the three books every young adult soon-to-enter their 20s should read are as follows, in no particular order:
Book # 1 – The Defining Decade, Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by Dr. Meg Jay, Ph.D., Grand Central Publishing, 2012, 200 pages, ($19.19 on Chapters.ca)
As the title implies, 18-, 19-, and 20 year olds are entering the decade that will lay the foundation for their career, relationship, financial, and personal aspirations. The problem, of course, is that most don’t realize it, and certainly don’t take advantage of the opportunities they have to capitalize on it. Neither do many twenty-somethings, for that matter. Then, all of a sudden, as I’m sure we can all relate, our 20s are gone and we’re catapulted into the “thirty-something era,” where we really have to become adults. Societal expectations, for instance, rightly or wrongly, expect you to have your act together by 30 – you should have a degree, a trade, a job, a partner, a starter home, a car, your life path defined and set. There is no more social license for trying to figure out what your identity is, what your career longings are, and how your life’s dreams are going to play out, you’re expected to have figured it out by then. What Dr. Jay’s book does is first of all convince you how formative your 20s are in today’s in laying out the roadmap to where you want to be by adulthood, really for every decade until you are in the grave. Your 20s, especially in today’s economy and societal norms, still give you flexibility and leeway to figure all of this out, but once they’re over, there’s little to no room – be it your parents’ patience (e.x. when exactly are you going to move out of our basement?’), your eligibility for financial incentives (e.x. think scholarships, loan remission), or your wannabe employer’s desire to hire you (e.x. so…you’re 30 and you still aren’t finished your degree, really?) – to wait on you any longer.
Particularly effective with Dr. Jay’s book is the way she lays out the typical pitfalls people in their 20s stumble upon – overbearing partners, toxic friendships, fears of inadequacy, or a little too much ‘living it up’, and not enough ‘working hard’ to earn it. All of these pitfalls throw wrenches into people’s lives that increase in size like expandable grow monsters (another popular 80s toy resurfacing in the Dollaramas’ of today) well into their 30s, 40s and 50s. These are the booby traps we come to regret later in life largely because we realize too late how much of a hindrance they actually were, through the very lens of hindsight Dr. Jay wants our young people to anticipate. While her essential argument can be summed up as “wouldn’t it be great if our young people could conceptualize what they were getting into?” It would indeed, and using a variety of constructed case studies from her own practice, she is trying to get her readers to think about ways in which you can totally screw up your twenties, and the exorbitant consequences for doing so in all walks of your life. The problem is societal, and that’s important, because much of what influences the perception of our twenties – television, celebrities, pro athletes, even traditional customs (e.x. misleading, but popular, catchphrases like ‘30 is the new 20’ & ‘your 20s are your time to shine’) – are only distorting this decade into a fantasyland instead of respecting it as the transformative period of your life. It is the period where forethought, planning, and hard work should be regarded as the necessary prerequisites needed to protect oneself in the face of the turbulent economic world the 2020s and 30s are going to carry our way. Our generation of young people, with each subsequent one to follow, need to figure this out now more than ever. There is no room for them to flounder for what is to come ahead. Employing Dr. Jay’s book is one way to help them realize this and hopefully become self-aware of how critical this stage of life really is for their futures.
Book # 2 – Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Ballantine Books, 2007, 244 pages, ($14.15 on Chapters.ca)
If our high-schoolers are fortunate enough, they may have already been exposed to this book, or at the very least, its core ideas. Carol Dweck’s research and theories have been spreading throughout education circles for the past decade, and have been incorporated by many school jurisdictions, staffs, and teaching circles in that time. If that is the case, then these fortunate teenagers will know the difference between the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset,” and if they do, then they should also know which one is the more advantageous to have, in all endeavors in life. For our kids and their parents who haven’t been exposed to Dweck’s book, it simply goes like this: you can choose (yes, choose) to be defined by your failures in the ‘fixed mindset,’ OR you can decide to accept that you are human, that you have capacity to learn, to improve – to grow – and realize that failure is a necessary step in moving forward in whatever you want to do in life. Now, before we incorrectly jump to the assumption that the “fixed mindset is bad” and the “growth mindset is good,” it is important to note the Dweck points out that many people have achieved tremendous success encompassing a ‘fixed mindset,’ where one’s performance is driven by an innate desire to succeed at all costs. In-and-of-itself, a fixed mindset isn’t horrible to have, but at the very least her work implies people with this way of thinking – this self-definition – need to be aware of it. Referring to numerous case studies from the business, sports, and academic worlds, all of whom offer up famous, recognizable personalities who many readers will know – and kids can easily Google if they don’t – the number one common denominator for such people is the problem of maintaining their achievements, their standing, and their status. The struggle to do so often comes at the expense of their sanity, their personal relationships, and their happiness. Not to mention that is also at the expense of others – people you have to step on, be ruthless with, and ultimately consider pawns or, worse, peons in order to make it to the top.
The real jist of Dweck’s book is in presenting how the ‘growth mindset’ can help our students and, subsequently, anyone else who reads it. As a teacher, I see the ‘fixed mindset’ limiting kids all of the time, at all levels. ‘I’m not a reader,’ ‘I can’t do math because I’m a girl,’ or ‘I don’t understand politics, it’s too hard,’ are all too common catchphrases teachers could retire off of if they received $10 each time they heard students say such variations thereof. Part of the problem is that the fixed mindset is ingrained in kids by societal customs that never give them an alternative to think otherwise. Dweck’s book challenges all of that, by helping readers adopt the ‘growth mindset’ – that has you focus on doing the best you can, while understanding that reaching the pinnacle of success is a gradual process, one that requires time, effort, persistence, help, mistakes, and especially failure, and all of that’s okay. It encourages initiative, cooperation, and adaptability – all valuable 21st Century skills to have, as esteemed as any ability to write computer code or operate a piece of machinery [iv]. Those latter skills can ultimately be taught to any adult willing (or desperate enough) to work; the former – well – by adulthood either you genuinely have them or you have to fake it. Just imagine how absurd it would be if employers actually have to hold in-services on ‘sensitivity training’ or ‘creating a collaborative workplace environment’ – oh, wait a minute… [v]
The power of Dweck’s work lies in its relative simplicity, and high schoolers ready for the post- secondary world should not only be able to find it readable, but practical for the new world of learning that lay ahead, whatever that may look like for each and every one of them.
Book # 3 – Happier: Can You Learn to Be Happy? by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., McGraw Hill, 2008, 168 pages, ($21.26 on Chapters.ca)
The Happiness movement that came out of Harvard University in the first decade of this century, the product of Dr. Tal Ben-Sharar at first glance may come across as contrived and formulaic; however at its core is a fundamental principle of positive psychology that holds true for young people who can embrace it as early as they can, when they have such tremendous power to shape the course of their lives – that is, to be truly happy, you need to be follow two rules, and it doesn’t really matter what it is you are doing so long as you are following these rules. Satisfaction, contentment, drive, purpose – and with them all happiness – all emanate from these two rules. The first is that no matter what you choose to do in life, ensure that it gives you pleasure, that you receive enjoyment from it. Sharar is primarily referring to your life’s work – your career choice – but it really can refer to anything you are doing once you grasp the principle. However, that rule alone is not enough, it requires the second rule to go alongside it, otherwise, I suppose it would be easy to assume we should all just play video games or do drugs all day and obtain that long-sought after key to happiness. No, rule number two must go in conjunction with the first, otherwise you would just veer into the path of inertia, and all the calamities that accompany it – lethargy, inadequacy, and depression. Rule number two is that your pursuits must have meaning, in a context much larger than yourself. A popular catchphrase in the modern day WE movement which has caught on well with most youth who engage in the movement’s spirit is that helping others feels good, doing a service for one’s community, charity, and/or planet feels good, and that is very much the same spirit embodied in Dr. Shahar’s second rule. The key for our young people to understand is that building a life imbued with pleasure and meaning is not only an integral part of long-lasting happiness, but also a blueprint to making a difference in their communities, organizations, and/or planet. Taking on endeavors that gives us pleasure and purpose implies we will do it with enthusiasm, motivation, and kick. Completing tasks that have significance for causes larger-than-oneself means we will do it for the most altruistic of purposes, that we will be more apt to persevere and be resilient, knowing that there are others – possibly even society itself – that will benefit from our industry. Doing work that combines both pleasure and meaning will be exactly the kind of undertakings our kids need to be doing to make our world – their future – a better place.
The other value in Dr. Sharar’s research is the idea that happiness is a currency, as important as money and time, and that we often give up that currency in the “rat race” of life, one that is even bound to be more demanding to our kids in this new, 21st century age of 24 / 7 communication, networking, and lack of privacy. Technology and digital media, lest our kids completely disengage into a neo-luddite tribalism, are going to be hotwired into their careers round the clock, as their jobs will literally be following them around all hours of the day. We are living this phenomenon today where we can be texted anytime by our employers, our professions are telecast in the next popular reality or DIY show (& thus scrutinized accordingly by the ‘armchair’ public of the world), or we are reminded of the dictates of professionalism whenever we think to post a joke or a sports criticism on Facebook. Thinking about happiness as a currency compels you to be cognizant of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether doing it is worthwhile. Dr. Sharar offers some Stephen Covey-like paradigms for figuring this out, but the book’s ultimate benefit is in making its readers aware that your happiness belongs to you, and that treating it like a currency makes you self-aware of your need to protect it, watch how it is spent, and seriously consider why you are spending it. Granted some of this may only come with wisdom and life experience, but for our young people, paying mind to their happiness in this fashion at 18, 19, or 20 would prompt them to, at the very least, consider their happiness – that is, happiness as they define it (as opposed to anyone else) – to be the ultimate influential factor for their career & life plans.
Okay, so there’s my three non-fiction books every young adult should read right away, as soon as they can. My barometer of success for this article is low. For instance, if this article is read by one parent, who in turn buys their kid just one of these books to read, and the kid reads it and incorporates at least one piece of learning from that book, I will consider that a victory, and thus worthwhile of the ridiculous amount of time I spent writing this article. Why the low standard? It’s because I have nothing to lose or gain from this article. I am posting it up for free on my blog, and will make zero dollars from it. I wrote it because I want our kids to do well, and I worry about the world they will maturing into as adults, when they are no longer ‘young adults’. The challenges are intimidating, the problems compounding, the feedback loops already set into motion. Not only do I want them to be able to meet these difficulties head on, but yes, I want them to be content and productive with their lives, to be truly happy, whatever that may look like for them. Happy people take on challenges, they work together, and they are resilient in the face of adversity, and there is going to be a whole lot of adversity our future generations are going to face, with a burgeoning overpopulation that will tax our resources, with a planet that is shouting out warning signs that threaten our way of life, with artificial intelligence that could well put us face-to-face with everything we fantasized about in movies like AI or the Terminator [vi]. Any one of these scenarios would be enough to send anybody in a downward spiral of despair, but I want our kids to have the opposite reaction – to be successful, adaptable, and determined in their lives, to attain the strong quality of life they aspire to, and above all else, to fight like hell to keep it when it’s time for them to do so.
– Feature Photo Credit: Alex Jones – 1247 – Upsplash.com
i – Levitiz, Stephanie, Canadian Press, “Canada’s Working Poor Nearly Doubles Since 2002 While Middle Class Shrinks: Poll,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/10/09/canadas-working-poor-nearly-doubles-since-2002-while-middle-class-shrinks-poll_a_23238027/, October 9, 2017.
See also: Schwartz, Nelson, D. “Middle Class Contracted in Over Two Decades, Study Finds,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/business/economy/middle-class-united-states-europe-pew.html, April 24th, 2017.
ii – United Nations News Center, “UN Projects World Population to Reach 8.5 Billion by 2030, Driven by Growth in Developing Countries,” http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2015/07/un-projects-world-population-to-reach-8-5-billion-by-2030-driven-by-growth-in-developing-countries/, July 29, 2015.
iii – Schrobsdorff, Susanna, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” Time Magazine, http://time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/, October 27, 2016.
See also: Denizet-Lewis, Benoit, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” The New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html, October 11, 2017.
iv – Morrisson, Kimberlee, “21st Century Skills for a 21st Century Economy,” Entrepreneur Magazine, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/218643, February 25th, 2010.
v – Cowan, James, “Sensitivity is Often a Work Place Punchline. The Joke’s Over,” Canadian Business, http://www.canadianbusiness.com/blogs-and-comment/workplace-sexual-harassment-sensitivity-training/ November 4, 2014.
See also: Goodman, David Jane, “New York City May Require Businesses to Conduct Sexual Harassment Training,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/23/nyregion/nyc-sexual-harassment-workplace.html, February 23, 2018
vi – Paul, Keri, Marketwatch, “Stephen Hawking’s Final Reddit Post is Going Viral Over Its Ominous Warning About Robots,” MSN News, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/stephen-hawking’s-final-reddit-post-is-going-viral-over-its-ominous-warning-about-robots/ar-BBKdJAe?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp, March 16th, 2018