“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This innocent question is maddeningly hard to answer for many young people. Part of the difficulty is born of the surreal environment we build for our children and the distance we put between them and the adult world.
Smarter than a Fifth Grader?
By now you’ve probably at least heard of Jeff Foxworthy’s game show “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” I have watched and episode or two and once I got past the entertainment value of having grown women and men being one-upped by clever and confident children, the show fascinated me with the content that kids know but adults quickly forget, if they ever knew the material at all.
The lesson was reinforced for me this week when I read about Rick Roach, a member of a board of education in Florida. Roach is successful by just about any real-world measure one might propose. He has worked in education as a teacher, a counselor and a coach. He has been elected to a school board in Florida four times and holds two masters degrees. He replicated the “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader” phenomenon for a very serious purpose. Roach took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT for 10th grade students.
Just like his game show counterparts, Roach found the FCAT daunting, admitting that he knew none of the answers to the math section, but was able to guess his way through 10 of the 60 problems. He didn’t have anything to crow about in reading, either, scoring just 62% correct.
Rick Roach did not release these results as an admission of personal idiocy but rather a case study in the massive disparity between the testing of high school students and the requirements placed on a highly-credentialed professional educator and administrator. In Roach’s own words, “A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.” How then, could we expect a young person to understand the adult world and venture even a tentative guess as to how he or she might fit into it, given such a skewed perspective?
Cookie Cutters are for Cookies
The other implicit assumption of the FCAT, any test of its ilk, or schooling in general, is that 100% of students should reach some level of competency on 100% of the material tested. If the tests, as Rick Roach pleaded, “relate[ed] in some practical way to the requirements of life,” then this would be sensible.
Some engineering and science types, reading of Roach’s poor showing, became indignant and said he was in fact innumerate and should not hold his position as an educator. Such arguments are at odds with the reality of Rick Roach’s sustained success over 25 years. The missing principle here is specialization. Most successful adults in our culture succeed not by mastering a large, general corpus of knowledge, but by becoming excellent in a limited area of expertise. I have no doubt that Roach could embarrass nearly any engineer in a discussion on topics in which he excels.
But to students cramming for the same standardized exam as their classmates, the lesson of specialization is lost. Worse still, competing against other students on the same material channels student attention to remediating “weaknesses” (which outside of school may be irrelevant) to acceptable levels rather than discovering their signature interests and strengths. Revealing and then refining individual talents to mastery level produces unique individuals who have no need to compete against others on generalist tests. This is how adult life works.
Seeking Authentic Answers, Holding them Lightly
Given the obstacles of questionable curriculum and uniformity over specialization, how can young people get their hands around choosing a direction in life? I believe the first step needs to be making contact with working adults. One of my most memorable days was eighth grade career day. I was already interested in Psychology, but listening to a working therapist describe his job, I started to get clear that this was really what I wanted in my life. The tragedy was that career day only lasted one day!
Accessing the adult world of work can seem daunting. A not-so-old adage says “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In the same sense, nobody knows you’re a student. Using the Internet is a great way to tap into what adults are thinking and doing on a day-to-day basis. Blogs and social media only increase the access.
The next step towards getting a life involves finding mentors and speaking with them one-on-one. A polite and insightful email exchange can teach you more about “real life” than a semester of classes. Not everyone will be friendly or have time for you, but imagine how flattering it must feel to have someone look up to you and ask you how you achieved your place in the world.
In the end, the only way to really understand adult work is to do adult work. A raft of laws and social conventions make this harder than it has to be, but workarounds do exist. Tech mogul Bill Gates started programming at age 13 in a time when computers were rare and expensive. Gates had to be creative, even breaking the rules, to get time on the machines, but his risk-taking obviously paid off. Look for ways to hang out with, if not work with, the people you want to be in five or ten years.
The benefits of approaching the adult world head-on are twofold. First, you begin to see what skills people really use as opposed to what educators think you “should” know. Second, you’ll quickly find out what you like and don’t like, and where your natural talents lie. Failure is best viewed as intelligence gathering: “I love math but hate actual accounting; no need to major in that!” Whereas staying the course makes sense in many context, jumping around is a better strategy for discovering and refining signature strengths.
A final thought: even though getting your view of adult life unfiltered is infinitely clearer than what you’re likely to learn in a classroom, try not to get too attached to anything you see. With the world changing at an ever-increasing speed, what you see in high school might be irrelevant in college, let alone by the time you start hunting your first job. Similarly, don’t expect that you’ll remain static in your interests and abilities. The idea is to look past the details to the bigger themes that endure over time, both in yourself and in the world. The last step (a “final exam” if you will) in this process is to match your long-term signature strength into some form of work our culture finds valuable. Pass this test and you need never take another one.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by