I spend most of my waking hours sitting across the table from a high school student. Typically, they have big dreams. And most of them have the determination and pure grit to do what it takes to achieve them.
What distinguishes the students I see succeed is less about smarts and talent than it is about 5 qualities that each of us has the CHOICE to possess.
They’re interested in others.
They can laugh at themselves.
They get back up again.
Successful students are curious.
Educators are well aware of the need for curiosity in learning. In an article I read from Empower 2017, a conference for educators, developmental psychologist Wendy Ostroff said, “The best, deepest learning happens when you’re generally curious.” In Ostroff’s talk, she cited studies that show that pre-K kids (between 2 and 5 years old) ask 76 questions per hour on average. But once children enter formal school, that number drops dramatically. K-1 students ask around 2 to 5 questions per hour, and by 5th grade, questions are virtually absent.
Ostroff advocates modeling curiosity to help students cultivate curiosity. Show them how it’s done. So if I am curious and demonstrate and model curiosity as a parent, this helps my child developcuriosity and learn how to nurture their curiosity and use it to learn new things.
The same article talks about curiosity flowing naturally from the subjects we’re most interested in. This is why one of my first tasks as a college planner is to get to know the student across from me and find out what makes them tick, and then tailor my coaching and even the teaching examples I use, to their interests. It works.
Successful students are curious.At home, this plays out in finding out what makes my sons tick and encouraging them to go deeper on those topics, on their own. When my son Joe asks a question about how he can translate his passion for athletic shoes into a career someday, even if I know the answer, I say, “That’s a really interesting question. I wonder how you could find the answer to that.” And I try to really praise him when I observe him demonstrating curiosity, pursuing the answers to his own questions and finding success in nurturing his own curiosity.
Successful students are teachable.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It’s attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni. Opportunities to learn are all around us, but we must be ready to receive the teaching. It starts with humility. In order for me to be teachable, I have to admit that I don’t already know it all.
Some of the students I find to be the most teachable are athletes who are used to paying attention to what their coach has to say. They’re coachable, teachable. They come to the table with an attitude of openness that I have something to offer them that they don’t already know. They’re receptive to new information.
In trying to cultivate teachability in my own sons, I often ask the question straight out, “Are you teachable?” When I’m less patient, it comes out as, “Are you ready to listen, or not?” But on my best dad days, I’m frequently reminding them, gently, that others have lessons to teach them that could benefit them – even those they don’t agree with on everything.
Successful students are interested in others.
Being interested in others goes hand in hand with curiosity, teachability and humility. It’s about maintaining a sense of wonder about the world around me, appreciating that others are different from me and understanding that these differences can enrich my life.
A friend of mine marvels when he asks a teenager, “How are you today?” and the student responds, “I’m doing well. How are you?” It’s sad, but he says that his observation is that this is rare. Much more common is that a teen will respond with a one-word answer, “Good.” With no reciprocal “how are you?” question. Maybe cultivating interest in others simply starts there.
I love working with students who have a passion for working with people who are different from them in some way, whether it’s volunteering or simply extending their friend group beyond people just like them. I love to hear a student describe they’ve pushed past apparent differences to discover something unique and special about another person, and to empathize with their perspective or situation. Empathy is key to cultivating interest in others.
Successful students can laugh at themselves.
Wow. This one takes courage. Not just for students, but for all of us. I’m working on this one. When I screw up, my first instinct if often to berate myself for the mistake and then shut down and not want to talk about it. I find that the most successful students can laugh at themselves. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re okay with being human and understand that making mistakes and doing dumb things is part of getting better.
At home, this is really tough. Because when my son does something unwise, it triggers fear in me as a parent. Fear can lead me to amp up and try to simply avoid the screw-up from ever happening again, instead of pausing to empathize with my son, “Wow, I’ve sure done that before and it was no fun.” Even make a joke about it, and then ask, “What would you do differently next time?” Or, “What did you learn?” Certainly, I require him to experience the consequences of his own actions. But I try to let the consequences themselves do the teaching, and come alongside him to go easy on himself and laugh at himself as he learns from his own mistakes.
I’ll pick on my wife here, because she said I could. Our son Jack loses things. Keys, paperwork, his wallet, pretty much anything not attached. He inherited this trait from my wife. She admits this openly. And through her being willing to laugh at herself, tell a joke on herself in front of our two sons when she’s just spent an hour looking for the glasses that were on her head the whole time, she gives Jack permission to laugh at himself when he does the same thing. So what used to be a source of family tension has become a private joke between them. Now when Jack loses his keys, he’s much more able to be patient with himself, laugh at himself and say jokingly, “Mom, why’d you pass these genes on to me?!” To me, that’s a good example of cultivating the ability to laugh at yourself.
Successful students get back up again.
This is key. The most successful students I see are those who get back up again. It starts with being willing to risk failure. It involves expecting that failure will happen as you try anything new or outside your comfort zone. And it involves being willing to get back up again and keep getting up until you succeed.
I work with students to improve their ACT test scores. In many cases, they’ve already taken the test once, and they didn’t earn the score they’ve hoped for. But they’re willing to try again. They get back up again. There’s nothing more rewarding than celebrating success with a student who’s achieved their goal after multiple attempts. The hard-fought victories are the sweetest, and they teach the student priceless lessons about what they’re truly capable of.
Resilience is essential to success in high school, in college and in life. We do our kids no favors by padding their egos when they deliver less than their best result and letting them stop there.
Listen to the story of any successful entrepreneur or athlete. One of my favorites is the podcast, “How I Built This”. The path of great companies like Whole Foods, Five Guys, Rolling Stone, Barbara Corcoran is littered with false starts, failure and in some cases, not going to or dropping out of college. But they didn’t stop. They got back up again. And their resilience ultimately earned them success. It’s the same in the students I see succeed. They’re willing to risk failure. And they get back up again.
There are a hundred other qualities I observe in successful students, but these five are among the most common that distinguish students who succeed. These qualities have nothing to do with GPA or an ACT score. And they’re qualities that all students, and all of us, can develop the mental, spiritual and psychological muscle to use well.