4. Climbing the stairs — to what?

Pretend all you have ever known is how to climb stairs. From a young age you were trained to scramble up stairs really quickly with great agility; you are most familiar with interior staircases found in any skyscraper which you are able ascend with masterful ability.

Yet one day, the world changes and you find yourself dropped in middle of an expansive field. Your gaze is naturally set toward your feet looking for that next familiar step up, but all your eyes meet is a foreign landscape of endless grass in all directions. Mountains are miles off in one direction, an ocean acres away in another—a choice of 360° in which to move forward and not a clue as what to do.

In essence, this is how we prepare our young. 

My analogy is a gross exaggeration, but unsettling realities ring true. From a very young age, American children are being trained and conditioned with a certain set of skills and mentalities designed to give them an edge. The emphasis placed on performance and rankings in academics, athletics, and extracurricular accomplishments is overwhelming, and arguably detrimental to the healthy development of a child…and a society.  Typically good intentions of wanting the best for offspring largely motivate this unbalanced drive to manufacture the best resume for eventual college matriculation and attraction of other coveted resources.

“[Our parents] sought to create little hyperachievers encouraged to explore our interests and talents, so long as that could be spun for maximum effect on a college application,” writes Noreen Malone, a Millennial Generation journalist for New York Magazine. Of course, this does not apply to every family, but this is an example of a rather pervasive stair-climbing mentality.

What has been imparted to the Millennial Generation with this approach?

The head psychologist of a counseling center at a prestigious private college told me, “They [students] keep using these same strategies to figure out how they can distinguish themselves.” He described such strategies as taking on heavier academic loads with double majors or multiple minors. “Others join a lot of organizations on top of their academics because they believe this will make them look good to land the best job or get into the right grad school.”

Students will continue to operate how they have been trained.

“Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured,” writes David Brooks in a May 2011 New York Times Op-ed, “College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills.”

It’s like being conditioned mentally and physically to climb stairs and all of a sudden being plopped into a strange new field of unfamiliar terrain and obstacles. This is essentially how we prepare our young, yet parents and employers are wondering why this problem of extended adolescence? Many emerging adults feel stuck, anxious, or frustrated and not exactly sure why. Ambitious yet anxious.

We are training a generation with overdeveloped muscles and skills in some areas while other muscles remain grossly underdeveloped or atrophied.

In fact, research exists to support this notion. At any given point in the teens or twenties those making the transition to adulthood felt that in in some ways they were adults and in other areas they were not. Similarly, in some ways they were very mature and by other measures were very immature (Arnett, 1997, 2001, Nelson & Barry, 2005).

Confronting such realities is difficult for everyone. If you’re a parent you have to ask, “have I done this to my children?” If you’re a young adult it can be hard to take an honest look at yourself and question, “do I need to grow up in some areas?”

The human body informs us when something is wrong. For instance, if you’re incessantly climbing stairs you may develop a shin splint. How conveniently does nature stop us and say, “Maybe you should take a rest, sit and think about what you’re doing first.”

Similarly, perhaps the stress, anxiety, depression, and apathy many experience is nature’s way of saying, “something is amiss!” There seem to be more young people than ever on prescribed psychiatric medications for depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit disorders. Is this a societal shin splint?

I think it is time to really stop and think about what we are doing.

Could there be a correlation between the way the Millennial Generation has been raised and this extended adolescence phenomenon? I believe so.

Arguably, it takes somewhere between 20 to 30 years to really see the results of how a child has been raised. Thus, conceivably, it takes at least the same amount of time or longer to see how one generation collectively brought up another. The major point I raised in this article is the possible over-emphasis on productivity and results at the expense of other human developmental needs. However, there are other huge concepts that we hear discussion on such as teaching hyper-individualism and false self-esteem. Tailoring child-rearing philosophies and designing curriculum around these ideas over the last 30 years have conceivably brought about the self-centeredness, entitlement, and narcissism that I hear many people complain about.

The psychologist I mentioned previously said, “there is more fragility and less resiliency,” referring to the generation being ill-equipped to handle setback and failure. He believes this is a result of how we’ve coddled a generation: “everyone is so worried about hurting everyone’s feelings,” referencing how self-esteem is ‘protected’ by giving everyone a trophy in little league. This put us into a conversation on how I have experienced this in the working world watching twenty-some year-old young adults (male and female) start crying when they were called out on work-habits or tardiness. I have had almost the identical conversation with two people, a counselor at a prestigious private elementary school who cited, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and developmental psychologist and researcher, Jean Twenge, PhD, who wrote The Narcissism Epidemic. Jean has gotten considerable criticism for drawing the connection between yesterday’s self-esteem movement and today’s entitlement attitude. Why?

These are hard questions to face for both the young and old alike, but for different reasons. However, honest confrontation always takes courage.

Even the best of intentions can lead to disastrous results. After the college psychologist made the statement about little league parents being afraid to hurt their children’s feelings, I asked, “don’t you think that is doing the children a disservice and actually hurting them in the long run?” He agreed and we spoke of those ‘atrophied muscles’ and how many twenty-somethings cannot emotionally handle setback and failure.

In the mission to climb stairs higher and faster and the fixation to mentor our juniors to do the same, are we ignoring the shin splints? (stress, anxiety, depression, frustration). What happens when you fall back a couple steps? (being able to handle rejection and failure). And how about when the terrain changes? (being prepared with one set of skills, yet needing another).

No one stops to think.
Where are we going?
What is the mission?
Why were we climbing these stairs?


A note to my readers:

So far, in my writings, I have been bringing up many questions without offering much detail or providing some sort of resolve. That has been intentional, as my objective is to open up some higher-level, macro-trends to ultimately begin to connect some dots and delve into some more detailed and nuanced discussion on very specific ideas over time. In other words, hang in there. Also, I’m not entirely sure how all of this will unfold, but the more feedback I receive will somewhat help shape the flow of the blog. Let me know if there are any particular topics I’ve brought up that you would like me to exposit further. drew@drewlichtenberger.com.

May I also interject a disclaimer: none of my writings are designed to complain or place blame on a particular group (i.e. parents, educators, professors, nor members of the Millennial Generation). I raise many questions, yet not to point blame or incite anger, all of which I believe is highly counterproductive (though I am a proponent of accountability). Rather, my aim is to unearth possible problem-areas of how we, as a society, are systemically raising future generations in hopes to stimulate cogent discourse, and begin to inter-generationally confront problems and ultimately move toward posing solutions.

Often, organizations spend vast resources trying to fix problems, yet they are really only addressing symptoms, leaving the root problem unaddressed. It takes five to seven times of asking “what’s the problem?” before the real root cause is found. This paradigm informs my approach in tackling some of the enormous challenges of society my generation faces.

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3 Responses to 4. Climbing the stairs — to what?

  1. Stacey says:

    Interesting analogy you bring up — the formative stage of academics-and-career like a staircase — what happens if you fall off or end up in a “wide open space?”

    “Your gaze is naturally set toward your feet looking for that next familiar step up, but all your eyes meet is a foreign landscape of endless grass in all directions. Mountains are miles off in one direction, an ocean acres away in another—a choice of 360° in which to move forward and not a clue as what to do.”

    I find that is a relevant illustration, and something I have experienced post-college. Life isn’t just a staircase; there are open fields where a whole new dynamic has to come into play. Within such a field, I can identify certain areas in which I am mature and immature–that open field forces upon me self-examination the staircase washed over, it introduces realities I don’t know how to face and shows me that I am ill-equipped to operate how I want to–in a manner that I innately know is the way I was meant to be.

    So therefore I continue with my untrained attempts to assess the appropriate means of maturation in those areas untouched by the academic ladder. And this time I don’t have the tools and training that academia automatically equips me with for the staircase; I have nothing in hand but the knowledge that I know nothing.

    Without tools and training — coming from a place where tools and training are everything — I think I’m not alone in feeling like I’m just shooting in the dark. And in spite of that… and despite my inner desire to better the world and leave a positive impact on those around me, I still feel occasional compulsion to get on a unidirectional staircase, to keep climbing its cage-like structure…

    As to the reasons behind it, I pushed through primary and secondary school in order to get to college, because college was the only means to climb out of the black hole society was forcing (both my expat nationality and) my generation into. And I am still fighting the notion that a university degree is a staircase platform with about half a dozen flights to go til the actual place where we will be equipped and free to live fulfilling lives in this world.

  2. Pierce Rucker says:

    It occurs to me that a fear of failure may be a root problem, when, in reality, we learn more from failure than we do from success. And fear is a very powerful emotion that is disabling in most cases. Perhaps, we, as a society need to tell young people that failure is a part of life that needs to be accepted, dealt with in a realistic way and not feared. Embrace your failings and learn from them. Instead of chiding or, worse yet, punishing the young person who gives good effort and fails (and they all will along the way), give he or she the encouragement to learn from the failure and not to be afraid of it. I am not suggesting that failure is to be celebrated but, rather, put to good use as a learning tool.

  3. anne says:

    My brother Jimmie was Ed Markey’s friend and advisor when he was first running for congress. Ed tells the story that Jimmie was pushing him to run for congress in those early years and Ed kept saying no. Jimmie discerned that Ed was afraid of losing. Jimmie said, “you have to learn how to lose in order to win.”

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