By Mel Levine, M.D.
Today's teens - whether or not they have learning difficulties - face many challenges as they transition to young adulthood. In his new book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, Dr. Mel Levine offers sound advice and insight that can help adolescents and "startup adults" - with an assist from parents and educators - to spring from the starting gate of adulthood. Following is an excerpt from chapter 13 of the book.
The ages between eleven and twenty teem with tales of trial and error. Teenagers have to shape and reshape the ways they think and act in response to the upheavals in their minds and bodies. They continually inspect and evaluate relationships, including with their parents, their brothers and sisters, their friends, and their teachers. Life is in a state of flux. As if that's not enough of a roller coaster, disappointments in oneself are common - the failed science quiz, the college rejection letter, the three newest acne lesions, the failure to make the field hockey team, or a loss in the city championship football semifinals. Amid such day-to-day turbulence, how can a teenager spare the time and energy to look ahead and prepare for life after adolescence? How can an adolescent get ready for the startup years of adulthood? How can she feel she's moving forward on the right track? It can very be hard, but it has to happen.
Teens can take five forms of action to avoid spinning their wheels on the trip to work-life readiness:
Adolescence is hilly terrain. A fifteen-year-old can have a terrific time with a friend and then be incensed with that person thirty-six hours later. A teacher can make a ninth grader feel like a winner, while another teacher blasts away at the foundations of his ego. Parents can say and do nice things on one occasion only to come across as arbitrary and mean-spirited at other times. The challenge is learning how to react to these heavy crosscurrents.
The ability to manage stress ought to be considered a basic skill. Depressing interludes, aggravating setbacks, rejections, and nasty conflicts are leitmotifs that recur throughout life. But teenagers can't let such daily defeats wipe them out or immobilize them; they must learn to withstand and rebound, a capacity called resiliency. Some kids lack coping skills, so they are apt to react to stress by ignoring, denying, or overreacting. A student who is failing geometry tells everyone (including himself) that he's doing okay: he just can't cope with the cold reality of his situation. Such denial almost never works. Other unhealthy copers put down anything they're not good at: "History is stupid, it's completely useless." Still other stressed-out teenagers love to universalize their personal problems: "None of my friends did well on that test," or "No one else likes Mrs. Simpson," or "I don't mind that I wasn't invited; hardly anyone wants to go to Susan's party." Still others explode, fall apart, or develop physical symptoms like lost appetites, headaches, or disillusionment and depression. These are all signs of failed coping.
People are better off when they acknowledge their stress and engage their problems. Then the sufferers can react more directly and work to heal the wounds. Adolescence is when both good and bad coping patterns become established. In the future, making derogatory comments about a supervisor behind her back won't make that manager vanish from one's life. Making believe you're doing well at a job you're really messing up is likely to have catastrophic consequences. When a kid has a problem, he can start by admitting it. Then he can discuss his stress with someone, a really good friend or an adult who can use some crafty techniques to help him cope with the challenge.
I frequently encounter a teenager whose patterns of reacting to problems are more problematic than the problems he's reacting to. Such maladroit coping skill can return to haunt him during his startup years.
Positive reacting, first of all, demands slowing down and thinking things through. Some of the worst reactors are people who do or say the first thing that enters their mind, kids who explosively tell off a teacher, and adults who do the same with a boss or collaborator.
To avoid establishing bad patterns, adolescents have to groom their inner reactions. When something goes haywire, how sad does it make you feel? If it makes you feel blue, how long do the doldrums last? Can you bounce back and sink that rebound shot? There's nothing abnormal about feeling low, but are you so depressed over something that you become emotionally paralyzed? That incapacitating pattern can be habit-forming, so adolescents have to work on overcoming their anxieties, recovering from bad moods, anger, and serious disappointments or losses.
Sometimes kids have to tune in to an internal voice or cheering section that can give them reassurance when they feel they are sinking into a black hole of despair. That voice might say, "Okay, Jared, this too will pass. You've had these kinds of defeats before, and they always work out. You have to keep going. You can't let things like this wipe you out." This is called self-coaching or verbal mediation, and it's one great way to cope. Kids should rehearse this kind of script and be encouraged to talk to themselves - honestly.
From time to time, I have lunch at a cooperative market not far from the campus of the University of North Carolina. Many of the employees there are startup adults, and quite a few of them appear to be struggling in life to establish an identity and a pathway. Recently I overheard a manager say he had just interviewed a job candidate who obviously had a lot of personal problems. I could not resist chiming in, "I thought that was a requirement for working here." He laughed and said, "I don't mind them having problems as long as their issues don't interfere with their work." A startup adult can't let problems interfere with the way she performs. When she comes to work, she should leave her troubles behind her. That takes some practice, but adolescence is a great time to practice separating preoccupations from performance.
Finally, a person must know how to react in a healthy way to positive events and victories. Overdoses of adolescent success are sometimes far more damaging than chronic failure. I've known some kids who were superstars in sports or extremely popular or securely atop their classes academically, and they let their success inebriate them. They became some of the fallen idols described in chapter 3.
Becoming acquainted with oneself is often a highly confusing teenage mission. It can be almost impossible for some adolescents to distinguish between who they actually are and who they want others to believe they are. In their quest for identity, teenagers constantly test out different ways of coming across to others and to themselves. They are in search of an image that feels right for them. In chapter 7 I described the building of inside insight. This quest for self-identity plays a huge role in adolescent development.
Throughout high school and college, students seldom get any respite from performing and being judged - academically, socially, and often in other arenas as well. Their teachers, their parents, and their classmates are constantly checking out how they're doing. The relentless pressure to impress can make it hard for a person to get to know himself. So much energy may be channeled into performing that there's not much left in the way of resources for exploring the inner caverns of one's true self. The growth processes described under inner direction (chapter 7) have to be built up like muscles to endure a successful landing in the startup years.
How can adolescents get to know themselves? In chapter 7 I dealt with the search for themes that reappear in different guises as a child grows up. Kids need to look back to find themes that repeat themselves. A high school or college student may discover that she has always savored activities connected to the arts or that she has always felt most fulfilled when helping someone in need. It's those recurrences that provide important clues about who someone is and where he ought to be headed.
In perceiving their own uniqueness, adolescents can start to differentiate themselves from the pack. Most of all, they need to find what Po Bronson in his book What Should I Do with My Life? calls their "sweet spot." The discovery of this often-hidden inclination fosters long-term career gratification. As Bronson put it, "Educating people is important but not enough - far too many of our most educated people are operating at quarter-speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing too little to the productive engine of modern civilization, still feeling like observers, like they haven't come close to living up to their potential. Our guidance needs to be better. We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot. Productivity explodes when people love what they do." Adults are more likely to love what they do when they learn what they love as kids.
An awareness of what really matters to a person is closely tied to the act of self-finding. Adolescents must become active believers in their beliefs, feeling profoundly what is important to them. Not all teenagers have causes that inflame their thinking or points of view that burn like hot coals within them. But those who do should blend their values and beliefs with their career plans. A student may become a veterinarian or a park ranger because she is adamant about wildlife conservation. Another may go into law or politics out of an intense conviction about the civil rights of minorities. Someone may become a policeman because thieves and murderers really stir up his outrage. A desire to ease the burden on other people or a belief in religion may influence the way a person approaches any career. When teenagers find out what they believe in, they can determine the ways in which their values can influence their chosen careers.
The chapter on instrumentation described the skills that enable a person to get off to a good start in a career. Adolescents should be aware of abilities they are lacking so they can decide whether to work on their deficiencies or start to think about roads to take that work around their shortcomings. Equally important, kids need to know what kinds of things they are mastering well and how they want to keep building on those assets.
I believe strongly that success is like a vitamin; no one can grow up well without it. Every teenager must find what she's good at and do it well, enjoying the satisfaction and the recognition that it brings.
Athletes and artists attain motor mastery. There are kids who savor mastery in one or more academic subjects they really enjoy (as opposed to just getting good grades to break into a college). Some very popular students achieve a kind of social mastery, although popularity alone tends to wear thin when your friends disperse and go their ways in life. If you have no other kind of mastery to feel good about, that can be a terrible let down during the startup years.
There are different kinds of creative mastery, such as designing dresses, making ceramics, or writing songs. There is also the mastery of a subject or topic. For example, a kid may know a lot about trucks or computers or audiovisual equipment or archeology. Expertise is like a dietary supplement; it helps a mind grow and thrive. A person feels validated and important when she knows more about something than anyone else around her.
Every kid should be on a diligent mastery quest. Each individual must find the realm of accomplishment that feels right and fits right. And it's best to have more than one kind of mastery, without having so many that none of them ever fully ripens. Eventually areas of mastery can guide a person toward a career that's just right for her kind of mind.
A kid and his parents should realize that no one should have to master everything he comes up against. Sometimes an adolescent is expected to be elegantly well rounded, impressive at each and everything he tries to do. Being too unflawed might even pose lethal dangers; if you're good at everything, how do you find the right good thing to do with your life? That's why some very well rounded kids may come to a crash landing during their startup years; it's as if they can't figure out what they do best.
Not being able to master certain things teaches you how to deal with failure and a sense of inadequacy. That's something everyone has to experience sooner or later-the sooner the better. Dealing with weaknesses can make someone a stronger and tougher person. Maybe that's why so many people who barely remained afloat in school come into their own as notably masterful and powerful adults.
Although raspberry sorbet and marinara sauce are both delicious, it is not a good idea to mix them together. Compartmentalization involves keeping the different parts of a life separate enough so they don't compete or interfere with each other. But figuring out how to compartmentalize is hard. Many teenagers and grown-ups have never met this challenge.
First of all, the adolescent asks herself, "What should I put in my compartments?" The answer is the different activities or parts of life that are important to her. The diagram below portrays one teenager's compartments:
|family life||social life||schoolwork|
|my dog Reggie||religion||computer games/TV|
|football||things I worry about||job at the pet store|
Using this diagram, Ben can think about how and when he will tend to each compartment and, most of all, how he can make sure that he deals with or thinks about them mainly one at a time, although he may see important connections between them.
Some students have trouble hitting the books because their social compartment overflows into the others all the time. One high school senior admitted, "In the middle of my work I start thinking about girls, and then it's all over." Unfortunately, for too many kids, family life and schoolwork deteriorate because there's so much social excitement in their lives. Grades go down, family arguments flare up, the dog doesn't get fed, and that socially obsessed teenager quits his job at the pet store.
There's a trite old saying that admonishes everyone to "work hard and play hard." The truth is that there's enough time to do both well if activities are not allowed to interfere with each other. That's why adolescents need to concentrate on getting their interests and responsibilities tightly compartmentalized.
I can't believe how often I ask a teenager what he wants to do when he grows up, and he says, "I have no idea" or "I never think about it." This is usually followed by the unreassuring comment, "And none of my friends do either." That's an unacceptable answer. A kid needs to have some idea or else the future is just an ugly blur.
In past generations it was common for kids to do what their parents did; observing their parents provided teens with a preview of what their adult life would be like. In many parts of the world, most students attend vocational high schools, where by age sixteen they have acquired a clear notion of how they are to earn a living someday. This practice is based on the flimsy assumption that by age fourteen or fifteen a kid can be certain what he'll want to be doing as an adult. That's just plain wrong. Nevertheless, it does help a kid think through his future so that he is less likely to be ambushed by reality at age twenty-two.
I tell kids that they must have an idea of what they are likely to be doing when they grow up, but that they can change their mind hundreds of times between now and then. Many people do. But to have no view of the future can lead to anxiety and hard times in the early twenties. Every time a teenager comes up with a fresh new idea of what she wants to do, she is actually trying that ambition on for size. She lives with it for a while and then either keeps it up on her screen, modifies it somewhat, or deletes it and uploads another possibility.
Teenagers, including college students, should shop for future work. In recent years, internships or apprenticing opportunities have become increasingly available. These experiences enable a student to test the waters, to spend some time assisting (and hopefully observing carefully) people in their daily work in a specific career. Summer internships can give students opportunities to preview some options. I have known resourceful teenagers who have designed their own internships, volunteering for a local newspaper or a political campaign, helping out in a welding shop, or doing clerical work for an Internet company. While on the job, an adolescent should engage in active spying, keenly observing the permanent workers, thinking about what it might be like to have their activities and their lives. They also can decide if the daily subject matter interests them while getting a taste of some of the drudgery.
While kids need to have some fun during vacations, at least a part of every teenage summer ought to be spent amid a cadre of working adults. Such experiences should be seen not solely as a way of harvesting credentials to get into a prestigious college, but also as an indispensable means of shaping the way teens think about work. It can help them become keen interpreters of their future world (chapter 8).
In planning ahead, kids can think about the numerous roles that come up within a career. Someone who studies business may end up selling real estate, running a restaurant, operating a car wash, or becoming head of a major corporation. A person interested in religion could become a clergyman, a teacher of religion, a writer about religion, or a missionary in Tanzania. The good news is that a teenager doesn't have to decide on the exact job, just which areas look like strong possibilities. Most students entering medical school have no idea what specialty they'll end up in, but they're really excited about becoming physicians.
How should teenagers ponder what they want to do with their lives? They need a combination of approaches. First, they should follow their instincts and passions. Second, they should think back over experiences that have most interested them. Third, they should consider adults they know or have learned about and ask themselves if they'd like to be like any of them. Finally, they should try to find out as much as possible about work that attracts them. Someone interested in health care should visit or volunteer at a local hospital. A person who wants to do something in aviation should talk to some pilots and visit an aircraft maintenance facility.
Some kids become too negative too soon. A student might declare, "I'd really like to be a doctor, but I don't think I could get into medical school," or "I'd give anything to be a policeman, but I'd never be able to pass the examination," or "I want to study to be a curator at a zoo, but those jobs are too hard to get." Those kinds of statements slam the doors for promising people, doors that would stay open if they had the courage to dream. Adolescents should focus intently on what they want over what they think they can get. There's a good chance they'll end up getting much more than they ever thought they could - and enjoying it more too.
From Ready or Not, Here Life Comes by Mel Levine. Copyright ©2005 by Mel Levine. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.