When my younger son was pulling out all the stops to get good grades, complete research papers, and build portfolios to submit with college applications, I was understandably concerned about the amount of pressure he was under. Yet it was part of the process of moving forward, getting ahead, working toward goals.
In fact, I am concerned about the pressures that parents put on high-achieving children, and I include myself among those who have done so. I am concerned about the tendency that adults have to be looking at the next steps in their relationships or careers, without appreciating where they are right now.
I am concerned with our focus on advancement that too often obliterates our pleasure in the very accomplishments we’ve just achieved.
Addicted to the Race, or Hiding?
When my boys were pushing themselves (and I was supportive in that period of push) — and it wasn’t so long ago — I couldn’t help but consider our almost unquestioned commitment to perpetual movement. The race, the chase, the exceedingly high bar.
There’s a difference between giving our children the tools to be competitive and squeezing the spontaneity out of childhood, not to mention adolescence.
Just as we do all too frequently to ourselves.
For the adults, this pressure cooker approach becomes both habit and excuse, which isn’t to say that for some, it isn’t also necessity. If not the forward motion per se, sufficient forward motion so as not to fall back to a point where we can’t keep going.
But what if the adults become addicted to the chase? To the pace? To the competition? If not addicted, what if they hide in the busyness, in the commotion, in the socially sanctioned pursuit of goals?
This isn’t a novel concept; we are a culture that applauds ambition and rewards it, certainly in men. And we cultivate it in our children so they can survive when they’re adults, and so they have a shot at the “good life” we want for them.
Striving? Moving Forward?
I’m the first to admit that I’m sometimes at my most alive when striving toward a goal. This kind of intellectual engagement keeps me feeling fully alive, primarily in positive ways, being more essential to me than that ambiguous and fleeting state called happiness.
Consequently, I am a fan of striving. Yet what I seek, personally, is a melange of striving and “being.”
In a recent conversation, a friend said to me “I need to feel as if I’m moving forward.” She happened to make the remark in the context of a relationship — she’s been at the same “stage” for the past year, and somehow she cannot seem to be content with what she has though she says it’s good. But really, her statement could apply to many areas of her life.
The typical sequence of forward movement of course is college, job, marriage, home, children… many years of that last, often reshaping aspects of the former, followed by grandchildren and retirement.
Don Draper Classic
That’s an engine for another generation, don’t you think? And a significant aspect of that model is the career element, which itself assumes a progression of ever-increasing opportunities, titles, responsibilities and money. Some of us still hold ourselves to this linear path and these particular milestones — vestiges of the American Dream — and I have certainly met many people who espouse and embody the following statement:
I have a life, and it only goes in one direction. Forward.
That’s a quote from character Don Draper in Mad Men, a scene in Season 1 circa 1960, as he says goodbye to a brother in order to protect his new identity and his self-created life.
We use forward motion for a variety of purposes, don’t we?
To get ahead because we truly want what comes next, because we think it’s what we should want, or to put distance between ourselves and something we want to leave behind. Sometimes, motion itself feels like enough — we have no time or energy for further examination, and we like it that way.
Forward Movement, Personal and Professional
Considering the next logical step in our relationships and careers is just, well… logical, isn’t it? Then again, if we’re preoccupied with whatever comes next, are we depleting the fullest experience of where we are now? Are we sometimes “fixing what ain’t broke” by turning our backs on people, places and situations where we’re content?
If I’m happy where I am in life, why should I feel compelled to push myself into some next state that may not make me happy or that I already have an inkling will not suit me as well?
How often have both men and women married or remarried because they’ve been told “it’s time” or they feel it’s expected? How often do parents and in-laws then push for them to have a child, and then a second?
Looking at another arena, what about those who are told they need to be more ambitious, targeting leadership roles rather than team participation? Isn’t this the very notion of the Peter principle?
What about nudging our children onto the hamster wheel at an early age, then spinning it faster and faster? Don’t we tell ourselves this is their best interest? Necessary? The way to a good life?
Pushing Our Kids
An opinion piece in The New York Times addresses these issues of parents placing unreasonable expectations on our kids. In “Push, Don’t Crush, the Students,” the upscale, uber-educated city of Palo Alto is the setting for a discussion of precisely the type of pressure we put on our secondary school students to “succeed” – and at seemingly exponential rates.
Matt Richtel writes:
In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed… [Silicon Valley] culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient… and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’
… children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college.
The underlying issues here involve cultural values and economic reality. But to tell parents to “be encouraging and supportive” – to push but don’t crush – is not only to expect them to thread a needle in a dimly lit room, but to offer those same adults and children few options as to how to present a balance, much less avoid chasing a moving target.
As for competition, it’s inevitable, necessary, and at times, enjoyable. We compete against others; we compete against ourselves. I have nothing against competition; on the contrary, I believe in it. The challenge is managing it, and knowing when enough is enough.
We talk a good game about being present, being happier, feeling more in our lives as we live them, all the while our multi-tasking mania has us by the throat, as we’re caught in the vortex of our (hopefully advancing) daily tasks, and “being” falls by the wayside altogether — so much so that we hungrily consume books, articles, webinars, seminars, videos, tutorials and formal courses to improve our capacity for “being.”
Surely the irony doesn’t escape most of us.
And yet we remain wedded to this notion of perpetual motion, which is in direct opposition to our desire, and possibly need, for inner stillness. To my mind, these two principles at times are more than a disconnect. They clash, violently. And we as well as our children become our own walking, talking fatalities.
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