It’s that time of year when parents who have 12th graders are in a stir about helping their kids write personal statements for college applications and pleas to help them abound in my daily conversations as a story-whisperer.
Although I’ve always said I’m interested in designing these kinds of statements of self, statements of self that can make or break a young person’s entrée into the next stage of their becoming, the older I get, the more I question what a young person can really say about their life at 17.
What I recently remembered by helping out a youngster I adore is they need our help to deepen into those statements.
When my nephew reached out to help him edit his essay, I went from hope to a narrowing of my own expectations.
The young man is clearly brilliant with an easy writing style. He wove beautiful descriptions of moments with a larger idea, seeded in him by my sister, a therapist. The essay was showing off, performative, in its style, saying “see, what you wanted me to integrate, I have.” The substance meant to explore the notion of the “hedonic treadmill,” the idea that we are endlessly searching for more and more in outside achievements that are a false horizon. The truth that my nephew had come to in his own short years was what mattered was the connection of small moments with friends. Happiness was not to be bought or achieved, rather it was to be recognized in daily experiences of awareness and presence.
The summation is mine.
“I respectfully disagree,” he said, when I told him what was missing was the thesis and framing.
He needed to say what he meant. Not merely imply it.
Here I was in the very same daily bind I'm in with adult learners and corporate communications. Yes, you do need to synthesize your insights into a thesis statement or your audience will very likely miss the point of whatever it is you are saying.
My nephew is Hermes like, masterful at spinning a dance of obfuscation, to make sure that his intention is reached over the possibility of a lesson learned. He rejected the archane function of a big idea and tight statement of meaning in a conclusion. He insisted he wanted to create a journey in a lyrical juxtaposition of scenes- so that the reader might discover whatever meaning they understood in these scenes to be the meaning of the insight. “Ok,” I conceded, sad that he couldn't get the bigger lesson and grateful to have adults as my students and not teenagers.
And yet, what I understood more deeply, was what my nephew was really trying to communicate was an “F- You!” to the stress of college applications. He’s saying right out the gate to his parents, "this life that you want me to work like crazy to enter, that you work like crazy to live in, is not what happiness means to and for me." And for this, I’m proud of him. He’s always stood up for his truth.
I realized after the fact, that what my nephew was trying to narrate in a statement of self was the same theme that I work so hard to understand in my own life. It was in fact the theme that my father, his grandfather, whom this young man never met but is so much like, also tried to share with me.
We go chasing after developing these sophisticated professional selves—all achievement, pomp and circumstance. This is what we are taught is success. And yet as we get there…we realize it’s a lie.
We find ourselves workaholics, addicted to the success of dreams, organizations, projects, that are not our own. If and when we stop, there is a vertigo—a drop of a sense of self—in a vast quiet—to ask what have we been doing the last few years? The answer is work. During that time, so much of the sleeplessness, the listlessness, this foreboding sense is of failure.
And the realization is not that we are not enough.
Because we have worked so hard to become the most optimized version of our highest Self, we know we are enough.
We know we can land the solve and win.
What is not enough is the broken ideal that work is enough. That we can dedicate our lives to a larger ideal that is not what is in our hearts.
In this sense we are mercenaries selling our skills to a cause that offers us the capacity to serve, but in that, we may find ourselves betraying some part of our deeper values.
I’ve become obsessed with how we betray ourselves and what kind of light can come with working with our redemption to renew our lives, especially at the mid point. (Stay tuned to hear more about how this theme of betrayal reveals our Power Story).
Part of that redemption begins with what my nephew suggests…which is slowing down the moments that bring us joy, rest, real nutrition that feed us from the inside out.
And as simple as it is, what my nephew knows now…is what I know now. Only he is at the beginning. And I am in the middle. What I know is he will forget what he knows now, the fallacy of the hedonic treadmill of chasing rainbows, as he called it in his essay.
Isn’t it something that the truths we know for sure as teenagers, what we know for sure about what we love, who we are, what brings us joy, for the most part, they remain.
What changes is that we create a stronger and stronger connection to an inner Axis of Selfhood that can sustain the challenges and crises of which life and change are made.
My nephew called me back the next week and asked me: can we make this better?
This time, I remembered my job as a coach—to hold open a space for the person in front of me to see the potential I see. Any coach knows this is our gift. We literally see the potential of our charges before they can see it.
I’d been lucky enough to experience this kid’s magic. I saw it in him from the time we invented bed time stories. I'd story spin. He’d compose the score to go along, when he was three and four years old. I saw it in him recently when I recognized him in a moment of reverence. This kid is trying to do what the grandfather he resembles was trying to do…understand the beauty and power of the gifts they were given so that ultimately they can share their brilliance with the world.
A 17 year old feels this but can’t say it. So I held open the question so that he could find himself in it, enriched.
Goodness…we need mentors to become.
I’m so angry that I rarely got that.
And I’m so glad that I can gift it now.
That’s all to say, these statements of self that your 12th graders are crafting, they are not frivolous. Your kids are right there in them, looking for themselves, looking for you, looking for meaning, looking for their futures, looking for the light seeded within them.
Help them. It’s your job.