I recently had a fascinating conversation with an extremely successful
engineer. When queried, he explained to me how he acquired such a
stunning skill set. As a young professional, he always volunteered for
the tough jobs, the new experiences, while many of his co-workers
settled into the routine (and rut) of the same thing every day. He
commented that, at the end of a decade, instead of having 10 years of
experience, they had 1 year of experience 10 times. Read that again. Now
think about it.
As a college consultant, I often see high school profiles with exactly
the same problem—students with a consuming activity that runs along
unchanged and shallow throughout the high school career. A similar
problem happens when students take a shotgun approach and attempt tons
of activities without doing anything very well, again staying
superficial. Both problems can be solved by going deeper. It is always
better to do less and do it very well. But even when you do less, you
need to go deep.
Some consuming activities, by their very nature, demand inordinate
amounts of time and resources. To be successful, students must invest
countless hours on a daily basis. Some examples that come to mind are
music, where the top-flight performers spend 4–6 hours in the practice
room daily; debate, in which students are constantly researching and
refining their cases, traveling to weekly meetings and frequent
tournaments; and sports, where athletes have multiple practices,
training sessions, and games per week.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all good things if they are held in the
proper balance with academics, family commitments, and the rest of life.
But there are problems if we continue on year after year with just one
new piece of music to learn or one new debate topic to research. These
students are, in essence, repeating the same experience they had last
My first area of concern in the above scenario is lack of personal
growth. Being human, it is all too easy to run on the well-greased skids
of the familiar. Finding our strength and sticking with it is efficient
and comfortable. But it is also boring in a life or in an application to
a top college. From a college admissions standpoint, if you’ve seen one
debater, you’ve usually seen them all.
I am not advocating a new set of activities every year. We do not want
to encourage our children to be Serial Joiners—students who randomly
join a whole new group of activities each year and drop their old ones
like last year’s fashions. Rather we want to encourage intensity—to take
our student’s interests or passions to a deeper level with each passing
year. We want to stretch them in new ways, open up new possibilities,
perhaps find a new vision or an unknown talent.
Being a Parent
It has often been my job as a parent to make life uncomfortable in order
to train my student to embrace the unknown, accept the difficult, or
create the new. I firmly believe that this is a habit that can be
trained and cultivated.
As a Youth Development Specialist, then a parent/teacher, now a
consultant, I have always wanted my students to do more than just
participate, blindly following the lead of others. Not much
soul-searching happens when you are just a part of a crowd. Repeatedly
over the years, I have watched a magical transformation take place when
the young person attempts to create something totally new. The miracle
happens within the creative act itself. I have never been able to
predict the outcome of this risk-taking, but I always see students
walking taller, developing a quiet confidence, learning to take
ownership of their lives. In this undertaking there is always the
possibility of failure, but if they are not failing or encountering
difficulties on occasion, they aren’t stretching far enough. Set the bar
too low and they’ll never discover who they could have been.
I encourage you to set aside an uninterrupted afternoon and take a hard
look at your child’s activity schedule and brainstorm together for ways
to go deeper. Perhaps it is time for the musician to open his own
teaching studio and share his joy with other youngsters. Let him job
shadow a music teacher or professional musician. You will be amazed (and
surprised) at what he will learn. Perhaps your musician loves the
elderly or has a grandparent at a nursing home. Why not play routinely
for these shut-ins or, better yet, organize other friends and have a
whole program once a month? Your student might enjoy the other end of
the age continuum better—how about taking his instrument into elementary
classrooms, explaining it, giving its history and playing for tiny
children? He could present programs in music history to local civics
groups. Another idea would be to use his talents to organize a
fundraiser or take an entrepreneurial path and create a chamber music
group to play for profit. He could learn to conduct or compose, write
for a music magazine, or take classes in pedagogy or music history.
What if you have an athlete? We must be honest and realize that very few
athletes will ever make it to the big leagues, so we need to think
ahead. If your child is totally sold on sports, let him job shadow any
and every profession that might be tied to sports: coaches, trainers,
sports managers, physical therapists, maybe even a doctor specializing
in sports medicine. Take AP classes in chemistry, biology, and math and
work hard in them. Maybe he can work summers in a PT clinic or volunteer
in a sports camp for inner city kids.
Many debaters have aspirations in politics or law, yet are so busy they
let their school work slide, making it impossible to get into schools
that would prepare them well for these fields. This type of student
needs to write well. Period. And please be aware that debate briefs are
only one, very limited, type of writing. They need to excel at all types
of written communication as well as verbal communication. They should be
taking tough classes in English, history, economics, and political
science. Think about job shadowing attorneys, economists, or
politicians. Summers could be spent in law offices or working in
political campaigns. Perhaps this type of student could volunteer to do
research for think tanks, professors, or lawyers. They can write thought
pieces for local newspapers or Public Service Announcements for local
radio stations. They could organize Get Out the Vote drives, campaign
fundraisers, and literature distributions. Many teens are quite capable
of holding precinct chairmanships or being in charge of large events.
Debaters can teach others about their passion through coaching or taking
the responsibility of organizing a new tournament (coordinating other
students or adults to help). As you can see, the possibilities are
Speaking Vision into
There are a few students who will naturally take the lead in challenging
themselves and expanding their world, but more often it will take the
wisdom of adults to speak vision into the lives of our young charges. We
can paint, with broad brush strokes, a picture of what the future might
look like, as well as explain the skills it will take to get there.
Perhaps you have a budding scientist with weak math skills, a future
congressman who is a lousy writer, a prospective professor who is afraid
of public speaking, or a teacher with poor organization skills. The
solution is a no-brainer. Fix it, whether it means hiring a tutor,
requiring a daily tracking of time use to fix organizational or time
management problems, or jointly planning a huge event to take their
skill set up a level (or two or three).
As we begin to think through all the possibilities, we want to follow
our student’s heart (their intense passions or interests), but we also
want to challenge their pre-conceived ideas of who they are and what
they have to offer the world. Going deeper will help accomplish this.
Perhaps your science geek unexpectedly finds that he is also a capable
administrator. This opens up all kinds of potential careers. On the flip
side, if he discovers that his personality is not at all suited to
administration, he can save himself a lot of heartache in midlife by
pursuing other options that are more in keeping with who he was created
to be (think Peter Principle). Either discovery is a valuable one.
When we encourage these stretching experiences, we are giving our child
the rare gift of insight into themselves. They might find holes that
need fixing, unexpected strengths, a new way of thinking, possibly a new
career direction, or deepened empathy. Whatever they discover, good or
bad, they will come away enriched.
Kids on Loan
I encourage you to see them, not as children, but as soon-to-be adults
on loan to us briefly from God. We have so little time to equip and
empower them. Give your student a life filled with experiences, not one
experience repeated throughout their lifetime.
I have personally found this type of mentoring to be an intense job, but
one filled with daily delight as I watch understanding begin to dawn,
skills improve, or a personal vision snap into sharp focus for the young
adult walking beside me on the journey. Activities with depth give me
the opportunity to train in the midst of the activity and share insight
accumulated through the years. Quite honestly, this season of taking
them deeper was one of the highlights of my parenting experience. Don’t
miss out on the fun!
Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years,
helping them develop public speaking, leadership, and interview skills,
as well as prepare effective scholarship applications. As Oklahoma State
University’s first Truman Scholar (the American equivalent of the Rhodes
Scholar), she went on to receive a B.S. in Human Development and an M.S.
in Family Economics. She spent a decade with the OSU Cooperative
Extension Service as 4–H and Youth Development Specialist and Resource
Management Specialist before she became a home educator in 1993. A
former OCHEC Trustee, she has also been a support group leader and
conference speaker. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar
Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through
High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping
homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges, including her
own two homeschool graduates, who are now attending top colleges. She
can be reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com.