At my 5th grade daughter’s Parent Teacher Conference, we discussed her report card. Her grounded, wise teacher held up the card and cautioned us—"Please make sure she knows she’s thriving and this isn’t the only proof. Do your best to reinforce success is not about this."
In our household, we’ve always focused on kindness, empathy, curiosity, and a hunger for learning—and frankly, both our girls could recite the Garrett TED Talk on the importance of effort word for word. But when the mirage of validation stares you down in the form of a lineup of high marks—it’s difficult to take a measured approach to praise.
The achievement seduction is real.
It’s the belief that if I get the grades, win the awards, get into the schools, land the good on paper jobs—I’m guaranteed a successful life. A happy life.
To be clear, I know that academic effort, striving and persistence toward goals are important variables in moving through childhood into an adulthood where both happiness and financial health are possibilities. But these things do not make up the full picture and they do not provide guarantees. Our maniacal focus on achievement is out of proportion to what it can offer—leaving many of us in perfectionism, anxiety and a desperation for validation, promotions and external praise. At the same time, those who focus on accolades are often out of touch with what drives them outside of our society’s formula for success.
When I support women mid-career, they hit this identity-shifting moment. After a lifetime of striving toward things that seemed important, they realize that these aren’t the things that are important to them. Acknowledging the dissonance to anyone feels like a failure and an unimaginable risk. There’s no roadmap for doing life outside the formula.
The first step out of these woods is compassion for that young person, who dutifully followed the rules and diligently worked to get to this place. Who wouldn’t want the life you were promised? You were expecting certainty where it never truly existed, and now the idea of taking a path where uncertainty is known can be terrifying. This process of uncovering how you want to live your life requires courage and patience. A simultaneous quieting of the noise of others’ expectations and a deep listening to your intuition that you’ve become skilled at silencing.
From there you can find pride and momentum in both the weaving together of those moments that ignited you throughout your life and the relentless exploration of things you’ve always hungered to learn and do. My clients who move down this path build their own companies and create new roles at organizations they admire by writing job descriptions around their strengths. They finally give themselves permission to pursue their creative projects and they unapologetically show up in their lives as the people they are, rather than those others wanted them to be. Once you are free from whatever your 5th grade report card said about you, the university you did or didn’t get into and the title you’re supposed to have by your age, you regain control of your choices and your life.