Monday, January 19, 2009

Believe and You Can Achieve? Maybe, and Maybe Not.

My fiancee, a freelance book editor, is currently editing a book that gives advice to teenagers on how to achieve life goals. Occasionally, she reads passages aloud and we both chuckle. I am not allowed to divulge the name, or quote from, the book, but I will say that the reason for our chuckles is that the book endorses the very Oprah-esque idea that believing almost always leads to achieving. Here is an approximation of one chuckle-worthy passage:

The act of believing that one can achieve a goal has a way of alligning the universe in a way favorable to achievement of the goal.


A goal is a dream that comes true.

Now, I am all for inciting optimism in our youth and telling them that, in theory, they can achieve anything with the right amount of effort and belief in themselves. Unfortunately, ideas like those quoted above take the idea of encouraging youth and "extremize" it by telling them to expect success... and without reminding them that hard work, rather than belief in ones self, is the biggest factor in success.

So, rather than telling bright-eyed teenagers that a "goal is a dream that comes true," it may be better to tell them that "a goal is a dream that can come true with a lot of effort put towards it." Instead of saying that believing that one can achieve "alligns the universe" in favor of the goal coming true, it might be better to tell students that it is they who must allign the universe (as the universe is under no obligation to allign itself to anyone).

And what are the dangers of telling kids that believing equals achieving? What harm does it do to tell our students that the most important ingredient to becoming a famous singer, an NBA superstar, or a successful entrepreneur is belief in ones self?

The dangers to such an approach are as follows: (a) by overemphasizing positive thinking, we are underemphasizing the value of hard work towards achieving goals; (b) by being afraid to tell students that they very well may not achieve their goals - no matter how hard they believe - we are setting them up for probable disappointment; (c) by teling them that the "universe will allign itself" to their goals, we are setting up an entitelement mentality that does not reflect the way the world actually is.

Frankly, I am all the more concerned about the pernicious effects of the "believe and you can achieve" mentality by my work as a school teacher. Per my job as a special educator, I am required to talk with all of my students on their desires after high school. Most of them want to be famous singers, sports stars, or entrepreneurs. On top of this, all but a handful of my students have goals that are well alligned with what tehy aspire to do. (Paritcular standouts are the student convinced of NBA stardom who is a second string on the high school team and the budding entrepreneur who has recently contemplated dropping out of high school.)

I don't wish to sound like a person who would discourage students from having aspirations. I am not going to tell any student that they absolutely cannot be in the NBA, but what I will tell them is that the realistic chance of them being there is small enough that if they are not the very best at what they do, they should not expect the NBA to come knocking. And I am sure that there have been entrepreneurs that never completed high school, but I will tell any student contemplating this path that entrepreneurship requires a whole lot more than a desire to make money and that most businesses (headed by people with college degrees) fail.

The bottom line is that someone needs to tell our students that there is a whole lot more to achieving than believing. Someone needs to tell students that the universe is under no obligation to allign itself to their goals and that no one has give them a job on desire alone. Someone must tell them that they must allign the universe to them and do the work necessary to earn their future jobs, and even then, success is not guaranteed.

I know that "the power of tenacity and hard work" is not nearly as poetic as "the power of positive thinking," but...then is not always poetry.

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