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Let's Take the "Suck" Out of Success

  • 2021
  • High School
Brennan Dignan, High School College and Career Counsellor

"The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither wit nor courage; neither our wisdom nor our teaching; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

- Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

Success is the great white whale of modern culture.  Monomania is the disease.  Like Ahab, too many students are plunging a six inch knife into an 80 tonne whale, sacrificing everything and everybody along the way without ever articulating why the white whale is so vital to them.

This year I am facilitating Project Wayfinder’s Purpose Curriculum with grade 10 at the high school.  You might call it my version of a monomania intervention or the attempt to lay a healthy foundation before we embark on the perilous journey that is post-graduation planning.  WARNING: HERE THERE BE MONSTERS. To give you a taste of the Project Wayfinder endeavor, consider the paper tower exercise.  It’s quite simple: using a sheet of paper, build the best paper tower possible.  

As you might expect, most of the students build for height, diving right into the assignment without thinking about what constitutes best.  The magnification of this peculiar phenomenon in our society is the point of the “paper tower” exercise.  It’s like that little blind spot in your eye caused by the optic nerve and so the brain either ignores it or makes something up without you ever noticing.  Like these blindspots, the metrics of success are often unnoticed,  yet its invisible ghost hands are at the helm steering the boat.

As you might also imagine, some students are really good at building tall paper towers, but many aren’t. In fact, given the constraints of “tall”, it absolutely limits many individuals’ greatest gifts from being actualized in this world, causing irrevocable damage along the way.  And through the powers of extrapolation, these students deem themselves unworthy.  It’s particularly problematic in the world of college counseling. Students get locked into an idea about which institutions are the “best” without ever challenging the cultural myths that surround them or their perception of the success it will grant them, and so the hunt for the great white whale sets sail.  For many, chasing this version of success sucks. 

Now let me introduce you to Martin Seligman, one of the key figures in Positive Psychology and its offshoot, Positive Education.  For context, Positive Psychology is not some “Bambi-Pambi”, let’s all get in a circle and hold hands kind of psychology.  It’s a reputable field with an enormous amount of world class research which has been peer-reviewed, verified, with replicable results that are so undeniable that the US Army hired Martin Seligman to create a comprehensive soldier training program based on the research.  I mention Seligman here because his framework is going to situate our “tall paper tower” problem and present a solution. 

After sorting through heaps upon heaps of data, a pattern emerged that unearthed five broad domains that, when cultivated, promotes human flourishing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.  This is what is referred to as PERMA and is the basis for Seligman’s theory of well-being.  When your PERMA is in balance, it leads to Human Flourishing.  When your PERMA is out of balance, life sucks. 

I think it’s beyond refute that we collectively worship the god of achievement, the proxy for success, at the expense of everything else.  It’s not that achievement is a bad thing, just that there needs to be a healthy balance across all domains.  And for students, what constitutes achievement?  A one-dimensional assessment known as a test score or a letter grade, which the best cash in to continue the devil's bargain at university.  A student can literally fail miserably in “PERM”, but excel in “A”, and they are the talk of the cocktail party.  In fact, we actively undermine the “PERM” in service of the “A” and then wonder why the youth of the world are so stressed out.  “Yes child, we know it sucks now, but you’ll have time for friends, meaning, and doing something you actually enjoy later”.  But do we ever really have time later, or are we all chasing the vanishing point on an ever receding horizon? It seems that the collective “we” are actively doing the exact opposite of what hard science is telling us to do, that is if we want well-being as part of our lives. 

So what’s the solution? At the level of the “paper-tower” exercise, the solution is to collectively articulate what criteria we will use to determine the “best” and then use that criteria for assessment (round 2 of the exercise).  Outside of Project Wayfinder, we need an Apple (the company) sized disruption in the business of education that builds student capacity across PERMA and then equally weighs each domain in its assessment regimen.  However, that’s a post for another time.  For now, I encourage you, as well as myself, to remember that when life starts sucking for the young humans in our care, a good place to start unraveling why is with PERMA.  And to tie a bow around the “paper-tower” metaphor, let’s support our students in their endeavor to build aesthetically beautiful, creative, innovative, diverse, and enduring paper towers.

(The following images show round two of the paper tower exercise)




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