Tell Kids the Truth: Hard Work Doesn’t Always Pay Off

This article below if from the July 1, 2019 edition of Time Magazine.  As a quasi-perfectionist, this article really spoke to me and I have seen so many children and adults in my office dealing with the same struggles.

In short, the article says “the humbling, brutal, and messy reality” is that we can try our best and yet still fail and accepting this/teaching our children this can actually help yourself/them become more resilient.

Worth a read!!


Tell Kids the Truth:  Hard Work Doesn’t Always Pay Off

By:  Rachel Simmons

A star athlete at the college where I work recently stopped by my office.  After committing a few unforced errors during a weekend match, she was riven by self-criticism.  “I can’t stop beating myself up,” she told me.  “I’m at peak fitness, and I practice hard.  How is this happening?”

This student, like many I teach, believes she should be able to control the outcomes of her life by virtue of her hard work.  It’s a mentality verting on invincibility:  a sense that all-nighters in the library and hours on the field should get her exactly where she needs to go.

I study and write about resilience, and I’m noticing a troubling spike in students like this athlete.  Their faith in their own sweat equity confers a kind of contingent confidence:  When they win, they feel powerful and smart.  When they fall short of what they imagine they should accomplish, however, they are crushed by self-blame.

We talk often about young adults struggling with failure because their parents have protected them from discomfort.  But there is something else at play among the most privileged in particular: a false promise that they can achieve anything if they are willing to work for it.

Psychologists have sources this phenomenon to a misapplication of “mind-set” research, which has found that praising children for effort will increase academic performance.  Developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, mind-set education has infiltrated classrooms around the world. But a 2018 analysis found that while praising effort (“You worked hard!”) over ability (You’re really smart!) may benefit high-risk or economically disadvantaged students, it does not necessarily help everyone.

One possible explanation comes from Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar, who argued in a research paper last year that for teens in wealthy, pressure-cooker communities, “it is not a lack of motivation and perseverance that is the big problem.  Instead, it is unhealthy perfectionism, and difficulty with backing off when they should, when the high-octane drive for achievements is over the top.”  This can lead to physical and emotional stress.  In a 2007 study, psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch determined that adolescent girls who refused to give up impossible goals showed elevated levels of CRP, a protein that serves as a marker of systematic inflammation linked to diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions.  A 2014 study my Luthar and Emily Lyman showed a correlation between the perfectionist tendencies of affluent youth and their vulnerability to substance abuse and feelings of inferiority.

The humbling, brutal, messy reality is that you can do everything in your power and still fail.  This knowledge comes early to underrepresented minorities whose experience of discrimination and inequality teaches them to brace for what is, for no, largely beyond their control to change.  Yet for others, the belief that success is always within their grasp is a setup.  University of Chicago professor Lauren Berlant calls this “cruel optimism,” when the pursuit of a goal harms you because it is largely unachievable.  The college-admission game promises a meritocracy that rewards hard work with entrance to the ivory tower, yet admissions scandals and ultra-thin acceptance rates make such a promises impossible to keep.

Instead of allowing our kids to beat themselves up when things don’t go their way, we should all question a culture that has taught them that feeling anything less than overwhelmed means they’re lazy, that how they perform for others is more important than what actually inspires them, and that where they go to college matters more than the kind of person they are.

Then point is not to give our kids a pass on working hard.  But fantasizing that they can control everything is not really resilience.  We would be wise to remind our kids that life has a way of sucker-punching us when we least expect it.  It’s often the people who learn to say “stuff happens” who get up the fastest.