I am writing this letter to your sixteen year old self – eight years from now. I know you are facing a lot of challenges since you began junior year. The work’s become more difficult, high grades are harder to achieve, and the classes are bigger and more impersonal. All this is happening while your hormones are raging, your body is changing. But what is all that compared to coping with the tension of the upcoming college entrance exams! And the prospect of whether you will be accepted to the university of your dreams?
How could the pressure be anything but momentous? The grades and scores you receive in the next few years are the crystal ball to your future. How you perform in the next year will represent a significant make or break moment in your life. Keeping up could be your ticket to a top-tier college and all the happiness and success you deserve.
The glass slipper
When you were a toddler you didn’t care much for dolls. Building rocket ships from Magnatiles was more your style than rocking babies to sleep. But you liked princesses, and especially the story of Cinderella. Just like other little girls who love that fairy tale for the dream it symbolises, you were thrilled by the idea that YOUR foot might one day fit the glass slipper.
We all long to be chosen. Whether it’s the glass slipper, the A grade in Geometry, or the acceptance letter from the renowned ivy-league college, we want the outside world to see and validate our accomplishments and talents. To tell us we are special.
Although you didn’t know it at the time, you were ‘chosen’ when you were four years old. Against long odds, you aced a battery of IQ tests and a psychologist-observed playdate-–you must have threaded beads on that maze like a little Marie Curie—and were accepted into one of the most competitive and best public schools in New York City, if not the country.
The glass slipper fit! How the kingdom rejoiced at the news! Three cheers for the princess!
The public acknowledgement was wonderful. Others now knew what I always had: you were exceptional. And now, because this one door was ajar, countless others would open too, like rows of falling dominos. If you do well in this most desirable of schools, my logic went, you will one day go to the most desirable of colleges, which will lead to the most desirable of career and so on. In other words, you had the key not only to a coveted kindergarten slot but the ideal life.
I no longer believe in fairy tales.
I no longer believe in a future that is based on a false sense of self and security.
The last thing I want is for you to end up with a bunch of As on your high-school transcript, a 2400 on your SAT, acceptance into Harvard, but have no idea why you did it.
It’s not because I don’t want the best for you. It’s precisely because I do.
But I no longer want you to wait to be chosen by the outside world. I want you to carve your own path, to be driven by dreams that belong to you.
I want you to fail.
Did you know that when you were learning to walk that you fell approximately seventeen times per hour? Not only did you refuse to give up but every trip and tumble helped you get closer to where you wanted to be.
But you (and I) forget how to take a spill. We do everything to avoid disappointment, the disapproving gaze and the dire future we believe goes with it.
We take the class that will guarantee us an A.
We write about a topic we know rather than take on a new idea.
We try out for the part we think we could land.
We reach out to the familiar person not the one we long to know.
Why do we yearn for approval of the ‘perfect’ and always ‘right’ self? What makes applause for this imposter so desirable?
On and on you will hike,
And I know you’ll hike far
And face up to your problems
Whatever they are.
Betray the imposter. Plan for a future of your own making, one based on fearlessness, discovering who you are and being true to what you believe in.
Fail. Mistakes to learning are like cocoons to caterpillars. You need them to figure out how to fly higher. If you haven’t experienced setbacks, then you have never learned, never tried even harder and never looked for new ways to move forward. You have never developed the coping skills and perseverance that you need to face obstacles in life. You have never learned to take responsibility. Never chosen yourself.
Choosing yourself means uncertainty, imperfection, and the chance of a skinny envelope from the college that couldn’t figure out that they need kids like you.
“If things start happening,
don’t worry, don’t stew,
just go right along and
you’ll start happening too.”
Here’s what I wish had known at sixteen:
Relish the struggle, not only (or, in spite of) the outcome.
Stay calm and mentally present when faced with difficult challenges. Breathe.
Know that even monkeys fall from trees.
Do they make standardised tests for these kinds of things?
It is as if we change the whole course of life
By changing our attitude towards it
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m not unique in questioning why I got caught up in the race to the Ivy League, which in New York City can begin in pre-school. When I went through the kindergarten testing and admissions process with you and your sister, I was Jekyll and Hyde: I wanted nothing to do with the charade, but at the same time was petrified that if I didn’t participate you would lose out.
Later, on the playground and at the PTA meetings, I heard the voices of parents, anxious and fearful about how results on the next multiple choice exam might fix their child’s path to a certain (for better or worse) future, like a dead butterfly forever pinned in its place in the glass-topped display box.
And I wondered if there was another way. A way to honour your dreams and potential without missing out on potential opportunities – even if those opportunities are offered by a broken system. I wanted to discover an approach that would kindle, not extinguish, your light.
I didn’t have to look far to realise that seeing things differently was not only desirable but a necessity. The digital revolution is transforming how we live and work; there are so many more ways to thrive professionally and personally in this brave new world. A set of credentials from the hallowed ‘experts’ or the gold stamp of approval from a cloistered institution is one option to consider. But the explosion of information, the removal of gatekeepers, and a hyper-connected economy means that there are increasingly more pathways to learn, produce important work, solve problems and connect with others. What the world needs now are individuals who are resilient risk takers, creative analysts, and committed collaborators.
An open mind, a brave belly and a heart on fire is not something that can be measured by some score or grade or symbolised by the graduation certificate of a particular school or college.
The rules of the game
My calls to be your true self and claims about what really counts in the new economy is not going to change the fact that you will, more than likely, take the college entrance exams and apply to college.
But let’s at least agree that these standardised test are just a game that you must decide whether or not to play.
If you do get on the field, do your best work. Apply yourself and be resourceful and creative. Deliver on the promise you make to yourself. Remember that mastery depends on the mind set you bring and the effort you expend. You can’t control the final destination, but you can make sure you set off with a full tank of gas.
Be willing to prospect for gold in dust. You might be surprised at what you learn. Not only how to think, but how you think.
Think left and think right and
think low and think high.
Oh, the thinks you can think up
if only you try!
And how to let go.
Just remember to never let a set of digits or an envelope with a brand-name logo be your seal of approval.
Maybe your next meaningful and life-changing educational experience is not even college but a trip to Bangalore to micro-finance women’s small business. Or a stint in flamenco dance company. Or starting the next Cisco.
Be brave, decent, and curious and it won’t matter where you go or what you do.
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the girl who'll decide where to go.
Whether you end up exploring space or the mind, raising children or cathedrals, teaching or tree-planting (your latest aspiration), commit to be courageous and to excel in whatever you do.
And will you succeed? Yes! you will, indeed. (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed).
Don’t be the perfect princess. Reach higher. Fail. Get back up. Take risks. Hit. Miss. Be the imperfect you.
Beautiful, flailing, incandescent.
Love, Mum (and Dr Seuss)