Will Ferrell's speech at USC graduation went viral a couple weeks ago. Besides being funny, he stresses the importance of making mistakes and not giving up. I also came across an article in the New York Times about Smith College and a class it started offering, Failure 101. At Smith they are actively encouraging students to fail well. In some ways, it sounds a bit trite. "Yes, the way we learn is from failing. The only bad mistake is one you don't learn from." But I'm not sure most of us deep down believe that maxim. We probably subscribe to something more along the lines of: "I'm going to do everything I can to avoid failure including not aiming too high for fear that I'll be setting myself up for failure. I'll reach a bit but only if it's something I have a good chance of achieving. Also, if I'm not doing as well as I would like, I'll lower my goal to something more achievable." I know I'm guilty of such thinking at times.
To actually embrace failure takes more than simply repeating the maxim. It's almost as though we have to seek significant challenge that almost promises some failure. A couple things could happen. One, we fall short of our overall goal but still accomplish some worthwhile ones in the process. Two, because of having pushed ourselves, we pick up new skills along the way. Three, our worst fears are realized, and we suffer a significant setback. This last result even brings positives since, in the vast majority of cases, we'll come back from the setback knowing we can survive even the worst of outcomes.
Gaming has become more and more prevalent in our society, and adolescents probably are some of the biggest consumers of it. The positive and negative effects of gaming are an active area of research, and, like many new technologies, we're still not totally sure what to make of its effect on us. (Check out the links at the end of this post.)
My concern when it comes to gaming is its opportunity cost. Time spent gaming is time that could have been spent on other endeavors. So, for example, if a teen were having a tough time academically in school but playing video games for hours on end each day, some of that time could have been spent studying and completing homework.
Part of being human is seeking to improve our functioning. Most of us want to get as close to our potential as possible, whether it be as a friend, spouse, parent, learner, or worker. But, what is real change when it comes to behavior, emotions, and thoughts? Permanency would be its most defining characteristic. Doing something better once or for a limited time wouldn't qualify as actual change; it would have to last for a good length of time to qualify. For instance, if one wanted to change workout habits and make exercise a part of his or her daily routine, doing so for a couple weeks and then stopping wouldn't be true change. The new routine would have to be some substantial length of time to qualify as change. The longer that time is, the more we can say that actual change has taken place.
In addition to a healthy perspective on college admissions, adolescents also can reduce some anxiety by knowing the likelihood of achieving one's educational goals. Some stats (NACAC, 2016) illustrate the point:
- Nationally colleges on average admit about 2/3 of applicants.
- 40% of schools accept more than 70% of applicants.
- About 33% of Americans have a bachelor's degree, 42% at least an associate's degree.
The likelihood of getting into college is very good. From my own experiences working as a school counselor, the average high school student can get into more colleges than not. In Illinois, for example, a student with an average ACT of 21 and a GPA of 3.0 likely would be admitted at a minimum of nine of the twelve state universities.
The statistic about educational attainment above speaks to one's expectations. The majority of Americans do not have any kind of college degree and are doing well for themselves. Some kind of training past high school is crucial, but it doesn't have to be the college route. Trade schools, apprenticeship programs, and vocational training are some of the other options.
Not having a bachelor's degree doesn't equate to some kind of abnormality nor does it destine someone to a life of poverty or lack of fulfillment.
Last week I visited South Carolina to see a couple colleges and was reminded of high school students seeking to get into certain colleges and basing their own sense of self-worth on those admittances. I'm not sure if anxiety about admissions is any greater or lesser than it has been in the past, but from my perspective, many students are putting themselves through a lot of unnecessary, albeit understandable, stress.
Some anxiety is good as it causes us to perform at a higher level and stay on top of our work, but too much stress is counterproductive as it leads to poor performance and burnout. Such negative anxiety partially arises from seeing one's worth through achievement and even more so when the arbiter of that achievement is external, as is the case with college admissions. Anxiety would remain at a productive level if students saw the process as a sort of game in which they would like to do well purely for the sake of doing so. Since falling short is no comment on self-worth, it is not to be feared to any damaging degree.
So, how do we help adolescents feel less depressed? If a lack of hope is seen as the cause of the depressed feelings, restoring that hope would be the answer. It needs to occur on two levels, societal and individual.
Mass alleviation of depressed feelings would need to be a concerted effort in which we help young people realize a baseline of hope. As frustrating as life can be, adolescents would feel that things are going to be okay, that their life always would be worthwhile. The only way they would feel so would be if their intrinsic worth wasn't based on proving it with success and achievement. They could experience a huge failure and still not see themselves as a failure. Unfortunately, that shift will require a wholesale change in our culture's way of viewing worth.
Individually, we can help each other them to the same place through all sorts of means. Our family and friendships probably are our biggest ones. They are best positioned to help us see our worth as an unequivocal, that is doesn't change based on our our mistakes or accomplishments. I would list quality work with a competent therapist as another means. A good therapist assists us in looking at ourselves and getting closer to a place of unconditional self-acceptance. These approaches are but two of many that are at an arm's reach.
One question that often pops into my head is the quality of life now and how it compares to the past. Are we better off nowadays? We also can narrow in on groups. So, for example, are teens better off nowadays? I have a feeling most people would respond, "No, they are worse off. Things were better when I was a kid." But, is that the case?
When it comes to depression, it appears things have gotten a bit worse for teens, at least compared to the recent past. The journal Pediatrics published a study last year in which 35% more of 12-17 year-olds reported an episode of depression when 2014 rates were compared to the rates in 2005. Whereas 8.7% of the study's adolescents reported an episode in 2005, 11.3% did so in 2014. My own experiences working with teens on a daily basis supports this statistic.
If more adolescents are experiencing depressive episodes, why? We know many of the factors influencing our moods including our upbringing, social influences, genetics, and trauma such as abuse or poverty, but how do those factors exactly lead to depressive episodes? Perhaps our thinking is negatively affected by those factors and those negative thoughts lead to depressive feelings. For example, if we don't believe we can do much to improve our lots in life, it makes sense that we would feel sadder about our current states.
In my next post, I'll propose some ways for dealing with this challenge.
Many people have heard of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) but probably less well-known is one of its earliest forms, REBT, originated by Albert Ellis. The theory behind REBT is that irrational thoughts lead to unhealthy behaviors and feelings. Irrational thoughts essentially are the demands we place on ourself, others, or life in general. Examples: "I must achieve everything I set out out to do. Others must treat me justly. Things have to turn out exactly as I want them to." If we hold these types of thoughts as core philosophincal beliefs, we are setting ourselves up for intense negative feelings such as panic, deep depression, or rage that can then lead to counterproductive behaviors. The REBT therapist systematically works with a client to challenge and change those irrational core beliefs and replace them with preferences: "It'd be nice if things turned out a certain way, but they don't have to for me to happy." (If you want to read a comprehensive explanation, here is a good one.)
The first tenet of Buddhism says: ¨Life is suffering.¨ No matter who we are or what age we are, we experience some negative feelings. But, each period of our lives brings a different sort of struggle. When we are young children, we usually deal with trying to understand the world as well as developing some independence. Young adults often are trying to establish themselves in their career, relationships, or their family. And the eldest among us generally are coping with a loss of independence.
Likewise, adolescence brings its own challenges. The future has virtually limitless possibilities for a teenager, and that unknown, while exciting, also carries much to be concerned about. "What if I don't become the person I want to become? Will I achieve my personal, professional, and social goals?" And it can be difficult to embrace that uncertainty, difficult to have an attitude that says, "Hey, it's all going to work out somehow. Strive for what you want, but be content with what you have."
To me one of the main parts of counseling adolescents is to try and encourage such an attitude in them, and not just the part about being content. Some adolescents need to be challenged in the appropriate manner to put forward the effort needed to strive for something worthwhile. On the other hand, some adolescents have the striving part down very well but are too fixated on achievement and the external validation that can accompany it. As a result, those adolescents are more prone to anxiety about the uncertainty of their futures and not making some kind of misstep. If a counselor can help an adolescent find that balance between taking it easy and pushing oneself, he or she has gone along way in helping that individual.
I'm hoping to get into individual private counseling in the coming months, and I'd like to give prospective clients an idea of who I am and also some suggestions for approaching whatever challenges they would like to overcome. The main focus of my blog will be adolescence and ways to approach issues that seem to come up a lot for them. Some of those issues could be related to mental health like dealing with anxiety and depression, while other issues have more to do with performing well in areas of their lives such as school. It's a natural extension of the work I do on a daily basis as a school counselor.