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Our Obsession with Early Achievement Is Hurting Kids

According to Rich Karlgaard, the author of "Late Bloomers", our society's obsession with early achievement is doing kids wrong. He's right.

No two kids are the same. They have different strengths, weaknesses, and passions, many of which don’t become clear until later in life. This is obvious, but it’s also not. Kids are put under an enormous — and often debilitating — pressure to thrive at an early age. To ace tests. To prepare for the SATs. To go to the best college. To specialize. It’s all led by the insidious assumption that early success is the only success. This is making kids stressed and anxious and it’s creating bad habits that morph moms and dads into the helicopter-, snow plow-, lawnmower-, and drone-parents that clear obstacles to help their kids succeed at any cost.

Parents would be good, per Rich Karlgaard, to exercise more patience. In his new book Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, Karlgaard, a an successful entrepreneur and author who didn’t achieve his potential until later in life, looks to several years of studies as well as interviews with neuroscientists and psychologists about why most people don’t achieve success until later in life when they’ve had a chance to understand themselves and their strengths and weaknesses. The pressure of our test-centric, early-achievement-oriented society, he argues, is setting kids up to be neurotic messes who follow paths that might not be right for them but which they’re guided down anyway.

“The conveyer belt [of standardized testing] is designed to reveal the skills of people who have rapid algorithmic processing skills, and logic puzzle solving skills,” says Kaarlgard. “Then comes along the kid who has great artistic skills or mechanical sills. Rather than their strengths being revealed, their weaknesses are revealed. Then we typecast them for their weaknesses rather than their strengths.”

Fatherly spoke to Kaarlgard about late bloomers, how parents need to think differently in order to help their kids truly succeed, and why fostering resilience in kids will help them be their best selves.

Besides the fact that you were a late bloomer yourself, what inspired you to tackle this subject? 

There was a story called “Silicon Valley Suicides,” about an epidemic of suicides among high schoolers. I said, “I have to get off my butt and write this, even if I’m coming into this from the outside.”

Because compared to when I went to school, today, school is much more narrowly focused and rigorous around standardized test scores and on the belief that every kid should go to college. Educated families and upper middle class families believe that not only should every kid go to college, but they should go to the most elite college they can get into. We created this incredible competition, starting in kindergarten and  even pre-school. New York, for instance, now has pre-schools that charge nearly $50,000 a year, all to give kids a ‘head start’ with the idea that 15 years later, they are going to get into Princeton or something.

It’s an extraordinary pressure and produces a lot of anxiety. There are unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide among teens and young adults, because kids and young adults are treated like cogs in a machine, rather than kids who have a variety of gifts, passions, and motivations.

What’s one thing you learned about late bloomers that can help parents understand to exercise a bit more patience?

Most people don’t come in to full functioning adulthood until their mid-20s. So you may be a prodigy in a particular field, but you’re still not really a fully functioning adult.

There was also an enormously important study that was published in 2015, led by Dr. Laura Germine from Harvard and Joshua Hartshorne of MIT. They asked a simple question: What decade of our lives do we cognitively peak? The answer, which was really intriguing, was: it depends on what kind of cognitive abilities you’re talking about.

The early, rapid synaptic processing speed, working memory — things that allow you to do really well in a standardized test or make you a great software programmer, really do bloom early, in your teens and 20s. The whole set of attributes that allows you to become managers, executives, leaders, better communicators, however, starts occurring in our 30s, 40s, and 50s. There are even attributes that support what we might call “wisdom” in a neurological sense and those happen in our 60s and 70s.

We have this unfolding life, and yet we’ve got this social construct that the window opens when we’re about 16 or 17. If we don’t get through that window to go to an elite college with great grades, etc, then Google or Goldman Sachs isn’t going to think we’re worthy of hire.

Yeah. So many kids are being drilled to become great test takers to prepare for a future where they’re maybe not even sure what they’re going to do.

I got into Stamford when it had a 25 percent admissions rate for junior college transfers; today it has a three percent admissions rate. You really have to be a winner. You have to get A’s or better in advanced placement courses. You have to light up the SATs. You have to demonstrate some kind of leadership in an extracurricular. And so these kids are doing this and these college admissions coaches are charging thousands of dollar a day to coach families how to maximize your chances of getting into that kind of a university. What is the end product?

Carol Dweck, a renowned psychologist who teaches freshman psychology at Stanford, wrote a best-selling book called Mindset, where she delineates the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. She says she’s seeing people with fixed mindsets at age 18. They’re getting into Stanford and, in her words, are exhausted and brittle and don’t want to mar their perfect records. A reporter from the Washington Post was quoted in the book. She had a conversation with a 10th grader and was telling the student to try different courses. The 10th grader said, “I’m afraid to. I might get a B.”

That’s so sad. High school isn’t supposed to be about gaming the system. It’s supposed to be about learning.

I wanted to give parents and others permission to be empowered to step away from this conveyer belt if it is not serving their kids well. If their kid is an early bloomer and they are doing well on this, and they’re doing well without being pushed, that’s fine. I love a world where we can have early, middle and late bloomers. Nothing against people like the founders of Google or Facebook. But if your kid is not thriving in that kind of a regime and they’re leaving scary notes on Instagram, plan B shouldn’t be to double down. Plan B should be to say: Well, what’s best for our kid here?

I think that the unintended consequence of this early pressure is that kids think they are loved only conditionally. They are loved only when they get A’s, and not so much when they get B’s.

Did you see that phenomenon in your research?

Well, one of my college roommates is a clinical psychologist in Pasadena. A lot of parents work in downtown LA in professional jobs. A lot of what brings families in is a troubled teenager. So I recounted a conversation that he had: a parent came in and said the kid is not doing well in school, he’s hanging out with friends that nobody recognizes. So my friend Jeff has a conversation with this young man and determines that these aren’t bad kid at all he’s hanging out with. It’s a car club. It’s kids who like to tune cars. The parents weren’t even aware of it because the kid was too ashamed to mention it. So my friend Jeff brings this information to the parents and the father particular reacted poorly when Jeff said, “Maybe college isn’t the right thing for him next year. Maybe he should get a job at a Lexus service center and go to college later.”

The father leaned against the table, and he slapped the table and he said: “My son is going to USC. I went to USC. That’s what we do in this family.” The dad just wants bragging rights in his peer set.

The theme of your book — or a key message — is that parents need to recognize that not every kid’s path is the same. Not every kid will go straight from high school to college.

The conveyer belt [of standardized testing] is designed to reveal the skills of people who have rapid algorithmic processing skills, and logic puzzle solving skills. Then comes along the kid who has great artistic skills or mechanical sills. Rather than their strengths being revealed, their weaknesses are revealed. Well, that’s the kid who can’t sit still in school, or is the trouble maker, or class clown.

Then we typecast them for their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Suppose you are the world’s greatest marathon runner. Along comes a test that measures you for how well you throw the shot put. All distance runners are pretty skinny, right? That kind of test isn’t going to reveal their strengths. It’s going to reveal almost their absolute weakness.

So what can parents do? Go against all of the conventional wisdom of what it takes to eventually have a financially independent kid and say “fuck it?” That’s hard.

It’s very tough. It’s particularly tough in educated professional families in big urban centers like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Dallas. They set the standard. Where I grew up in North Dakota, my friends there don’t feel the pressure as much. The kid who got straight A’s going to North Dakota State to become a civil engineer who plans to stay there to build dams, bridges, and power plants, they don’t feel the pressure that they have to go to MIT.

It’s almost like they’re saner, back there. But a significant percentage of the professionally educated population is subject to those extraordinary pressures.

Patience is key for parents. But late bloomers also need to learn to be resilient because really learning their strengths and weaknesses takes time. Parents can have a hard time understanding that.  

Yes. None of this should let parents or young adults off the hook. I start the book out by saying: it’s not your fault if you were the kid whose weaknesses were revealed rather than whose strengths were discovered. Because it could be for a variety of reasons: poverty, illness, or simply that your gifts are elsewhere.

But you need to have curiosity, hard work, and a certain kind of peripheral vision for opportunity. You can’t be blind to opportunity. Good luck may be staring you in the face, or at a 45 degree angle away, and you’re not seeing it because you’re not looking. You have to have that skill.

What’s the big takeaway here? 

You can achieve [great things] when you feel like you are pushed by others, but it’s generally not sustainable. Being pushed carries the risk of burnout, anxiety, and depression. There is no clinical definition of late bloomer when I wrote this book, so I proposed a couple of definitions, and one is someone who blooms or comes into their own later than expected. They often do so in an unconventional way, and surprise people around them that didn’t see it coming.

But the other thing I want kids to know is that your best prospects for blooming are when you find yourself at an intersection that taps into your biggest native gifts, passions, and even your sense of purpose. And then you feel pulled. When you feel like you’re pulled to some higher destiny, you’re being pulled to your best you. Then, hard work doesn’t burn you out. Then you just start getting the things you need.

I know that sounds a little less than tangible, when I describe it in that way. But when it happens, you know that it happens. That’s how people bloom. And not just once. That Mass Gen study suggests that over the arc of our lives, our cognitive abilities are going to evolve. Surely, our passions will evolve simply because we keep running into new things, and we may redefine our sense of purpose or may even have a different purpose. We can bloom more than once.