Never in my life before the age of 22 was I called an overachiever.
I graduated in the 50th percentile of my high school class. In college, the prestigious summer internships I wanted didn’t consider me, so I worked at a bank’s internal temp agency for two summers, doing pretty remedial work. Then as a college senior, I didn’t get a job offer from any of my top choices for my first employer, and plastered the many rejection letters on my dorm wall in a collection with my roommates.
But now, almost 25 years later, things turned out okay. I started five organizations, became a CEO, wrote six books and speak to audiences around the world.
An outside observer today would probably wonder how this is possible given my impressively unremarkable younger years. But I believe my early failures and leisurely pace were features, not bugs. By the time I hit the professional world and knew what I wanted to do, I had the drive, energy and experience with failure required to prevail in the long run.
I believe strongly that many parents, kids and educators today have completely lost sight of the fact that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Over the past two decades, our society has placed far too much pressure on the first leg of the race of life.
As I have been touring colleges with my middle child, I’ve felt anxiety as I’ve listened to the student tour guides who serve as exemplars. Everyone is a double major with a minor, has an internship, and is involved in several clubs and extracurricular activities.
It’s easy to see where this comes from: kids today are shuttled from activity-to-activity while being pressured to be great at everything. They have been conditioned to believe getting a B is a failure, even in topics they don’t enjoy and will never pursue further. They are certainly not encouraged to take any classes that put their perfect GPAs at risk, even if they’re passionate or curious about them.
This environment has created a generation of students Yale professor William Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep.”
Being an excellent sheep doesn’t get you far in the real world. As this crop of objectively talented students graduate, they are experiencing record rates of burnout and mental health issues in their 20s. Scholars had to invent a term for this disastrous new phenomenon: the quarter-life crisis.
Today’s youth have sacrificed so much of their childhood and worked so tirelessly during their school years, believing that reaching the professional world would be the reward for all their exertion. However, as older generations know well, getting to the real world is only the beginning.
Years of weeks stuffed with marathon study sessions and extracurricular activities that are more about resume-building rather than genuine interest have demolished people’s physical and mental capacity and taxed their resilience. Plus, many members of Gen Z aren’t prepared for embracing feedback about things they don’t do well, inevitable setbacks/failure, and working more than 40 hours a week. This is a stark contrast from their parents, who were raised in a very different culture and left university full of energy and ready to do whatever was asked of them to learn and grow.
In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins shared the story of a 1910 race between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, who each aimed to be first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s team handily beat Scott’s team and returned intact, while Scott’s team lost the race and suffered many casualties in the process.
Scott’s approach was logical: his team would travel 50 or 60 miles on clear days and then rest on stormy ones. The problem was they often overexerted themselves when they had a run of several clear days in a row.
In contrast, Amundsen built his strategy around the concept of the 20-mile march. No matter how good or bad the weather, his team only marched 20 miles each day to keep an even pace. They opted for a measured, consistent approach and ended up with the better outcome.
The lesson of the 20-mile march that Collins extrapolated to organizations is clear: teams and companies that tend to finish first in the long run focus on consistency and playing the long game. Parents and leaders would do well to learn the same lesson. Having high standards is crucial, but so is focusing on the big picture and recognizing sprinting full out through the early stages of a race often means running out of gas before the finish line.
Likewise, kids encouraged to spend the first quarter of their life pushing themselves to their limits will end up much like Scott did: battered, burned out and watching someone else plant a flag at their dream destination.
Quote of The Week
“Life is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself accordingly.”