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“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” – Joseph Campbell


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Since the dawn of time, parents have wanted the best for their kids. They’re our link to the future beyond our own time here on Earth.

More importantly, we feel a connection with our kids: a visceral bond. When they’re happy, we feel delight. When they hurt, we feel pain. When they succeed, we feel proud. When they fail, we feel the loss.

It’s natural to want good things for our kids. We want them to grow into strong, good people. We want them to have work they love that enables them to live well. We want them to find good friends and a wonderful mate with whom they can grow a beautiful, loving life.

We want them to succeed.

But there’s an expression of this natural sentiment that’s growing across a large spectrum of our population. It troubles me.

There are certain colleges that are supposedly the doorway to success, and those colleges are very difficult to get into… not necessarily because they provide the best preparation, but simply because so very many people are vying for so few openings.

Then there are certain high schools that are the doorways to getting into those colleges… and certain junior high schools and elementary schools that are the doorway to those high schools. There are even top preschools and kindergartens that you must attend if you’re going to get into certain top elementary schools.

On one level, that’s understandable – competition motivates people to do their best. We want our kids to get a good education and be prepared for success. On the other hand, by putting all this pressure on young kids in this certain direction, it puts the focus on a fairly rigid external standard. It can draw them away from what they genuinely love and aspire to – away from their own unique paths to success.

This popular obsession creates a very small window through which only a few can pass, while multitudes are faced with a sense of failure that isn’t merited by the challenge.

The intense pressure and expectations that are being placed on kids to follow a certain path – excelling in school, getting straight A’s and near-perfect SAT scores, and engaging in extracurricular activities for the express purpose of pleasing and impressing the admissions departments at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. – has an all-or-nothing, perfectionistic quality.

Basically, the message is: Go through this labyrinth of intense scrutiny and graduate from an Ivy League school… Then you’ll be happy and successful. If you don’t, you’re a failure… and you’ll have to make do with some second-rate life.

I’ve talked with parents who are freaking out because their 5-year-old isn’t measuring up or their 10-year-old might not be able to get into the top preparatory junior high school.

These people are scared. And they’re working like crazy to be able to afford and groom their little ones for this particular path… They’re also afraid their little ones won’t measure up.

This is not about flourishing or living a happy, successful life. It’s obsessing about getting into a club.

This is not the mindset that has characterized most of American history. To be sure, America was partially founded by brilliant and very well-educated folks. But she was also founded by self-taught geniuses like Benjamin Franklin and self-made men like George Washington.

We’re a culture of pioneers. The self-reliance and rugged individualism that have forged our national culture are granite pillars of a great country.

The idea that there is but one path to success, I believe, reflects the growing power of our more greatly centralized government. The road to great success increasingly runs through Washington, D.C., where surrounding communities are now among the wealthiest in the U.S. That is not a positive development.

The truth is we’re all much more different from one another than we think. Our internal experience – which includes our deepest loves, joys and dreams – is not like anyone else’s.

If my calling is to excel through school and graduate from Harvard, that’s wonderful; and I can use all the support and challenges that will get me there. But if it’s not, then trying to force that path will only serve to distract me from what may be a true calling.

Building a life is a creative process from the inside out, and it is often much more of a meandering path than we expect… even with a diploma from Columbia.

Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College in Illinois. Harry Truman never attended college at all. Had I been a student of the classics, I would have learned more from Victor Davis Hanson’s program at Fresno State than from any Ivy League.

If there’s one point that I want to get across here to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else who cares for, teaches or encourages kids, it’s to… relax.

Love and enjoy your kids, and encourage them to do their very best. Hold high expectations for them personally. But in doing this, pay attention to who they are, not what you – or anyone else – want them to be.

In doing so, you will support them to be who they are. You will see the best in them, and you will become their greatest champion. The draw to get through the labyrinth of elite schooling is only a cultural dance: It’s a fashion, like getting the coolest tennis shoes or the latest iPhone.

What matters are not the steps of this particular cultural dance. What matters is that we learn to move with grace and style – to live with integrity and dignity. What matters is that we be the best of who we are.

Frankly, that’s not something we often learn in college. It’s something we can be inspired to strive for. And we can find that inspiration anywhere – from a loving parent to a dedicated coach… or sometimes a devoted professor. We can find that inspiration at our first job or by building a fence with our dad. That inspiration can find deep roots when we have our own children or commit deeply to a meaningful path.

A life of success, integrity, grace and dignity is not something we’re gifted with by following any rote path – even a very high-powered one. It’s something we build for ourselves.

Living to the fullest takes consciousness, courage and devotion. It also takes allies: people who see the best in us and help us live from our deepest and best selves. If you want to truly enhance the lives of your kids – or anyone you love, for that matter – be that ally.


Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,

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