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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Sound the Alarm

As a boy, I loved to watch Father Knows Best, a TV program showcasing your typical sitcom family of the 50s. One of the more memorable episodes involves a short-wave radio that teenager Bud is refurbishing. When he finally gets the contraption working, he finds himself listening to a conversation between two boats located over a thousand miles away. The signal is bouncing off the ionosphere—making him privy to a conversation between the “Betty Anne,” a 34-foot cabin cruiser and other vessels nearby.

Soon, the entire Anderson family is drawn into the action as the Allen family aboard the Betty Anne heads into a horrible storm. The Allen’s think the turn in the weather is nothing more than a rainsquall. The Coast Guard sounds a warning of an impending storm. But the two parties can’t hear each other due to local interference.

The Andersons, beneficiaries of the signal bounce, can easily hear everyone involved and can’t figure out why someone doesn’t help the Betty Anne or radio the Coast Guard. As the Allens are about to be tossed into the violent sea, the Andersons anguish over their inability to offer help.

Completely pulled into the teleplay, I shouted into the TV: “Call the Coast Guard! You know the Betty Anne is about to capsize five miles off Shark Island. You can save the Allens! Just make a phone call!”

Finally, after ten minutes of tortuous inaction from the Andersons and constant coaxing from me, Mr. Anderson realizes that he can phone the Coast Guard. He makes the call, saves the Allen family, and I stop yelling at the TV.

I walked away from that teleplay vowing that if I were ever in a position where I could spot an upcoming disaster (one that I could foresee but others couldn’t) I’d shout out a warning. Today, I feel as if I’m watching just such an impending disaster, so please allow me to offer up a warning.

As you observe young people working their way through school, you can’t help but take notice as they approach certain critical junctures. Early on, they decide whether school is their thing or not. They decide whether grades and studying is their thing or not. And finally, they decide whether math, science, literature, art, or philosophy is their thing or not.

There was a time when the subject you chose to master at school, or for that matter, how many years you attended, didn’t exactly seal your financial destiny. When I was young, there were a variety of jobs available for people who barely limped through high school. Manufacturing positions paid good money and offered a solid career path to individuals who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. In fact, blue-collar positions paid, on average, more than white-collar ones. The joke at the time was that factory workers made more than lawyers. Advanced education seemed more of a luxury than a strategic choice.

Circumstances have changed to the point where the data are now crystal clear. While we still have a strong manufacturing core, contemporary firms produce high-tech, high-cost items, built by people who’ve done well in school and have had plenty of it. As a result, on average, American employees make more money with each year they spend in school—all the way through a PhD.

So, when youngsters say, “You know, school isn’t my thing.” It’s our job to let them know of the disaster that might lie just beyond the horizon. It’s our responsibility to explain that when they distance themselves from school, they might be choosing a job pool and income level they won’t like—and it could last their entire life.

In a similar vein, when a youngster says, “I know that school matters, but it isn’t easy for me. I don’t test well. Grades aren’t my thing,” alarms should go off in your head. Grades matter a great deal and according to recent research, most people can learn to get good grades if they’re taught how to study. Learning how to learn doesn’t call for rocket science.

I’ll never forget the day I graduated from high school and our friend Harry Roller sat me down and prepared me for college by teaching me how to succeed in school. He told me to go to every class and do every assignment. You read the reading assignment beforehand. You leave class and head straight to a quiet place in the library where you don’t study with noisy friends. Instead, you sit down in that quiet spot, review your notes, and prepare for your next class.

Reading is a science in itself. You take a short walking break after fifteen minutes. At thirty minutes you take a three-minute break. At sixty minutes, a five-minute break. You start a chapter by reading the questions at the end and pouring over the headings, charts, and models, then you read the chapter. And so forth.

We know how to maximize learning. It’s not a mystery. So when young people say grades aren’t their thing, teach them how to earn good grades by helping them improve their study techniques. It’s hard to imagine an investment that has a greater rate of return than learning how to learn.

And now for the final danger sign. Say your kids agree that both school and grades matter. Unfortunately, they find math and science to be puzzling. It’s not long until they explain that they don’t like math. Eventually they suggest that they don’t “do” math. After all, they aren’t nerds. With time, they come to frame their disdain for all things quantitative as an asset—sure they’re bad at math, but hey, they have social skills that give them an advantage.

For others, math and technology is their thing and they see literature, art, and the like as weak and without scientific underpinnings.

While it’s wonderful to find a passion, it’s sad when young people turn this love for one field as a reason for not exploring others. Not only does this narrow framing cut them off from important parts of life, it makes them vulnerable.

I used to sit on the admissions committee of a popular master’s program. Demand far exceeded supply so we could only accept a fraction of the applicants. About once a year, one of the local candidates who had been turned down would corner me in the hallway and plead his or her case.

“I scored nearly perfectly in the verbal section of the qualifying exam and I won two writing awards. Sure my quantitative score was only average, but my verbal skills more than make up for it.” Or: “Did you see my quantitative score? I’m a gifted scientist. Sure, my verbal score wasn’t all that great but . . .”

You can see where this is going. I would point out that the students who were accepted scored high in both areas of the test. To be admitted, you have to be able to play with both sets of blocks. It was sad to watch these eager applicants as they realized for the first time that doing well in only one domain simply wasn’t enough to earn them a place on the roster.

Of course, all of us are acquainted with people who’ve found ways to work in careers they love, and some of them earn a good living. There are always thousands of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to let your young family members and friends know the impact of school, grades, study methods, and a balanced skill set.

We’ve looked out into the future and like the Anderson family, have observed what could easily be an impending disaster. It doesn’t involve boats heading into a storm; nevertheless it could be disastrous just the same. Allow the next generation of youngsters to dismiss the importance of school, disregard grades, and turn up their noses at whole branches of knowledge and they may face a tumultuous future. I feel it’s my duty to sound a warning.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

20 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Sound the Alarm”

  1. I’ve commented on several of your articles but this is the first time my comment has been negative. Education should not be about “getting good grades in school” but about learning! If learning in school is not working well, there are other ways to learn.

    I do agree that students should not limit themselves by being good at certain things while ignoring others, and I agree that one who is not “good at math” can become somewhat good at math, but a different approach might be needed.

    Learning is something I’m passionate about. Grades – not so much. (And I have a master’s degree, always had good grades, and have 2 kids in public school with straight A’s.)

    1. I couldn’t agree more–it is about the learning. I spent ten years in college and enjoyed every minute. I love to learn more than just about anything.

    2. I wanted to clarify – when I say, “I’ve commented on several of your articles but this is the first time my comment has been negative,” I am referring to Kerry Patterson articles specifically. I have saved, shared, and loved several of the heartwarming tales!

  2. Thank you, Kerry! Whenever I get the chance I point out that my grandmother was a school teacher w/an 8th grade education. My Aunt was a schoolteacher w/a HS education. I could have been a teacher w/two years of college (at the time). Today? BA at minimum. And if you want a good salary? You need a masters!

    I was one of those kids who loathed (and didn’t much see the point of) school. In 1980 – w/2 yrs of college – I managed to talk myself into a job that normally required a BA. It was a good fit. I’m reasonably bright and a good ‘hands on’ learner (a good thing because there have been times I’ve really had to scramble), and I rose through the company to a position of high responsibility (and earnings). That could not happen today. With an electronic application process – no BA, no interview.

    And now I will get off my soapbox and back to the ‘thank you’. Until right this very minute when I read your article I had no earthly idea how to study! now that you’ve laid it out, it’s like a smack in the head. Being as I’m 3 yrs from retirement, i’m not going t oget all that much practical use from it myself, but I sure will pass the info along to others…

  3. Thank you for this article. You have described exactly what happened to me in High School. I lost interest in certain subjects and even dropped them – because I wasn’t understanding things right away, as I did English and German. It was frustrating because my teachers expected me to pick up on Math and Geography, just as quickly as my older brother and sister had done. I wanted to find my own niche and so went off to school for Graphic Design. I did well in school and was hired after a placement, but was not prepared for the highly competitive, cut-throat industry that is Advertising. I shifted gears again and now work as an Administrative Assistant at a Hospital. I truly love learning about Anatomy, Medical Terminology, and wish I had kept up with Science and finished Biology. Perhaps I would have been a good nurse. It seems my course has been set. However I will certainly sound alarm bells if I notice my daughter heading away from streams of knowledge as I did. Your tips and my own experience have prepared me for future conversations.

  4. I have to say that I disagree with some of the points in your article.

    1. Grades are not a measure of learning, they are a measure of how well you play the game. I know many students who have gotten good grades but who miss out on so much learning. Tough times may be ahead, but I would put my money on the kid who learned regardless of their grades, rather than the A-student. I know the two are not mutually exclusive, but as a former teacher I will tell you that many of your best-scoring students care FAR MORE for the grade than the learning.

    2. There is a sea change coming in education. It’s no longer a winning proposition to spend all that money on education. There needs to be more options, because these days you can’t afford the cost of an advanced degree – sometimes even an undergraduate one! – on what you make coming out of school. Unless they can resolve that problem, I will not be pushing my children into college. If they want to go, and they understand the lifelong financial commitment they are making, that is their business. But I won’t force them.

    I think there is worth in teaching your children to learn, to work hard, to study, and to achieve. Those values will serve them well no matter their path. And I like the idea of not limiting yourself to one area of study (though let’s be honest, most people do because they have an aptitude/preference in one area – it’s the rare folks who “do” both). But I think your emphasis on grades and further education don’t reflect the changing nature of what lies ahead. And that’s the warning I am sounding.

    1. I agree that there is indeed a change coming and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some people go too far in debt–a point I didn’t make and probably should have pointed out.

  5. My dayghter posted in Facebook this wek that it was going to cost her $300 to retake her Engish which she passed in grade 12 but the mark is not high enough to be excepted into Nursing. She also sent out “Do it right the first time”. My husbund posted “Is it wrong to say I told you so?” (maybe not the best way to have the conversation) Sometimes we can see the disaster coming, shout the warning – but some people just need to learn for themselves.

  6. What a great article (“Sound the Alarm”). I wonder how many heads would shake if you applied the concept to organizations, the shaking arising from people who have felt like a prophet in their own land.

    I was an internal consultant for a major state agency that went through what was widely considered an unnecessary reorganization. Everyone knew the reorg was politically motivated and most did their best to help. But many folks saw it moving in wrong directions, including me, and we tried mightily to prevent, or at least minimize, some of the bad decisions that were being made.

    At one point, in a meeting of the implementation team, of which I was a key member, I raised a sound objection to one of top management’s decisions, citing its conceptual flaw and recommending a better option. There was general agreement, but the team leader turned to me and said, “Dave, the emperor is by definition clothed.” Now that I’m retired, I look back on it with some humor; at the time I was mortified.

    This is but one of many situations in which I felt like a prophet in my own land. I imagine in your long consulting career you’ve had similar experiences.

    Thanks again for the great article and the continuing series of newsletters.

  7. Thanks, Kerry!!! This is exactly what I needed today. I had a similar conversation with my 15 year old son last night. He didn’t appear to be to receptive of my advice. I have printed your story and will read it to him tonight. I hope your words make more of an impact on him than mine did.

  8. Thanks for your article, Kerry. What saddens me even more is the emphasis placed on extra curriculars – particularly sports. I think extra curriculars are a good thing, but they seem to have taken priority over academics (at least in our part of the country). Kids scramble to fit their homework in around all their other nightly obligations. It’s tough to practice good study skills in an noisy gym or on a dimly lit bus. Even our sports no longer seem to have a season. If you’re not playing in a club in the off-season, your chances of playing in-season are considerably less. This kind of time commitment to one activity also keeps our kids from being able to try new activities and become more well-rounded. Our society’s future will be much better served by raising up a generation of well-educated, thoughtful contributors than by a hoard of spotlight grabbing superstars. As parents, it is our obligation to develop our child’s character and instill in them the priorities that will serve our organizations and country best in the long run.

  9. It’s interesting that I should come across this article today. I just finished two hours at my son’s High School doing mock interviews with Seniors for Career Week. It was such an interesting experience and I was glad I had a chance to do it. Most of these kids have no clue. The first boy was in a nice black suit with one of the best resumes, but he wanted a job as a custodian. I told him to aim higher. Another kid showed up half asleep in a hoody and a t-shirt and wanted a teller job. No resume, no job experience, or even any volunteer work. I told him to aim a bit lower and in a more creative field. The girls were definitely a big step above the boys. Kids this age really need a lot of exposure to different careers and options available to them. One wanted to be a medical examiner because she liked to watch CSI, but didn’t realize it would take about 12 years more schooling. With school as expensive as it is, we need to invest a LOT more on the front end to make sure that kids are starting off on the right path and getting the best bang for YOUR buck and also that they are getting a well-rounded education. I totally agree with an earlier poster about extra-curricular activities. The demands on kids have gotten way out of control and parents need to be willing to step up and say no, my kid wants to be in your program, but not if it’s going to be every single night of the week and every weekend. Moderation in all things, including moderation!

  10. @megan – you are so right, our higher educational system in the US has been a bunch of rent-seekers instead of social gateways to a better life.

    Why does business in the US require a college degree or more for most of their jobs? Because they can, and universities are more than happy to use their status as creators of “licenses to work” to extract our childrens’ future earnings. Do we really want to feed this beast?

  11. This article could not have come at a better time. Both of my daughters (4th and 7th grade) are struggling with math and reading comprehension – low test scores. Grades are important but I am more concerned with teaching them how to study and absorb the information they are reading and receiving in class. I like your suggestions on how to approach reading chapters/studying for tests.

  12. Thanks Kerry. Great points – I would also add a pointer to the research of Carole Dweck -if people haven’t heard of her they could start with this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGvR_0mNpWM#t=1525 Her work focuses on our mindset and the importance of teaching kids to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed ability mindset.
    Like your example above I have spent most of my life having a fixed ability mindset around my quantitative abilities -“I’m good at verbal but not as skilled numerically” “useless at stats” “can’t do excel”. After reading Carole’s research and applying it with family and clients I realised I needed to put it into practice myself. So “I am working on my numerical skills” “I am improving in my understanding of stats as I look more closely” etc.
    Massive difference for me – and as the research shows for many groups Dweck has worked with.

  13. This was a great read! I couldn’t agree more about the points that were made. A student needs to apply themselves and do what it takes to “learn and excel” at every level while a student – if they want to have a better future/career opportunities later in life. There, of course, are always those who by luck or other fortune do not have to “learn or excel” as much as others to have a better future; but for the most of us, this is what it takes. And learning doesn’t stop after you earn the degree. It is a lifelong adventure. I will be sure to pass this article on to many others who have children, especially my own daughters, one of whom has 3 children and the other who is mid-way in obtaining her doctorate degree in order to become a professor at the college level.

  14. This article was thought-provoking, and reminded me of my 21-year-old daughter’s recent decision to drastically switch majors and colleges. Our daughter (I’ll call her Julienne) was in her sophomore year at prestigious New York school that enticed her as a freshman with a generous scholarship offer. Julienne had spent a great deal of the eight years leading up to her high school graduation as a rising local talent in musical and Shakespearean theater. She started in community theater productions and advanced into semi-professional theater, working with some of the region’s top adult talent. She declared her major as performing arts with a business minor, desiring Broadway, but also wanting eventually to help shape other young talents in her own theater group. Her talent garnered local print recognition, as well as accolades of some jaded theatergoers from Broadway’s golden age (late 1950s-60s). It seemed she was destined to make a career from her natural abilities.

    But then, not quite halfway through her first sophomore semester, Julienne shocked her mother, me, our family, and friends by announcing she wanted to pursue a career as a college professor in mathematics and applied physics! Julienne had been an honor student in high school, and we knew she had ability in math. She had tutored middle schoolers in math part-time while attending college in New York. What we didn’t know was that Julienne had met some math professors and students and on weekends was working on proofs with them at Carnegie Mellon in Washington, D.C. But we weren’t prepared for this drastic a switch, and grilled Julienne thoroughly to see how deeply she felt about this change and the challenges it posed.

    During our conversations, Julienne confided that she found theatrical performing “too easy,” and despite the fiercely competitive nature of that business, she wanted something more personally challenging. She said that too many of her peers were looking for “the easiest, highest-paying job they could find.” Julienne found that work attitude reprehensible. What good would come of her, or her generation, if everyone took the easy way out? Didn’t this country become great because of people who took up the challenge of difficulty, or the unknown, and worked at it? She showed us a YouTube recording of a famous astrophysicist who gave a convincing case for math for all high school students, because of the problem-solving skills the discipline of math puts into the brain. He pointed out that those skills can be applied to any job, not just those of scientists and engineeers.

    I was dumbfounded that this realization came from the mind and voice of our own one-time Broadway ingenue. Of course, to my wife and me as parents, the proof of the desire is in the doing, not just the speaking. But Julienne is now working hard, successfully meeting the challenges of the new path she has chosen. She is writing her own personal “proof.” She also has taken up mountaineering and photography, and even performs now and then. And her mother and I couldn’t be prouder.

  15. I have been an avid follower of Vital Smarts for some time, yet this is the first time I can wholeheartedly recall disagreeing with an article. In fairness, I follow Vital Smarts content for the value I find in learning to hold crucial conversations. This article seems to stray from the subject of how to hold a conversation, but rather purports a very specific viewpoint regarding the content of a particular conversation. It is that content which raises concern.

    While my scientific education, including a Bachelors and a Masters degree from highly reputable universities, holds personal value, it has by no means been a road to a secure career or minimal financial security. I believe we must be more honest in our discussions, particularly with those making early choices regarding their careers, about the dirth of available jobs in many scientific and technical fields. There is simply a larger supply of educated and competent individuals than are positions available which value such expertise.

    My expertise is as a biologist focusing in the environmental and marine sciences. However, in interacting with other scientists, I have found similar career difficulties faced by those in a wide array of fields. A recent opinion piece from a well regarded engineering organization highlighted some of these issues: “The STEM Crisis is a Myth” (http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/the-stem-crisis-is-a-myth).

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