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Redefine ambition: Cal Newport calls for Race to Somewhere

January 11, 2011

Cal Newport just posted an amazing post at Study Hacks:

The Race to Somewhere: How to Make the College Admissions Process the Foundation for a Life Well Lived.

Cal’s thesis is that often the response to the student stress epidemic, as portrayed in Race to Nowhere, is that we can solve this problem by reducing students’ ambitions to get into the best colleges, since they take on excess stress to play the hyper competitive admissions game. (“There’s more to life than Harvard,” is the quote he cites from a guidance counselor).

Cal rightly points out that this approach isn’t new and it has not produced any real reduction in student stress. Can you imagine what the Chinese Mom, profiled in the WSJ article this week “Why Chinese Moms are Superior” would have to say to this guidence counselor? I think it would start with “No, there’s not.” (Note to self: blog about this article, too).

Instead, Cal urges us to redefine ambition. He coins the term “Relaxed Superstar” to describe focused students who are intent to change the world, and enjoy their lives in high school.

Here’s a quote:

For these students, this philosophy led to a radical new approach to the college admissions process. For example, they ruthlessly culled their schedules down to a small number of things, but then immersed themselves totally in these select worlds, bringing the activities to fascinating, impressive places. This strategy not only got these students accepted to elite colleges, but allowed them to do so why still enjoying their lives. In fact, these relaxed superstar are probably some of the most happy teenagers I have ever encountered.

That is, we should reject the survival mindset that leads to stress and depression, but at the same time, we should also reject any call to reduce ambition. Students and their parents should instead embrace the college admissions process as the perfect opportunity to develop a skill crucial to leading an interesting and happy life: figuring out how to pursue exciting ambitions in a sustainable manner.

I’m in agreement with Cal here. I don’t want my students to be less ambitious and somehow settle for understanding less than what they are capable of, or somehow settle for a college that won’t push them to continue to grow. I want my students to be more ambitious. I want them to find their own interests, explore them fully, and take action today to change the world. If they do these things, they will also become more interesting to colleges that are interested in enrolling dynamic students with a passion for learning and a drive to change the world (which, if I’m not mistaken, is just about every college in the US).

But I do want to quibble with Cal a bit. I do think that we can help students to increase the nuance with which they view the college landscape. There is more to education than Harvard. The most important lesson I think students need to understand is that if, at college, they can find just one mentor, one professor who takes a genuine interest in them, and helps them to grow as a scholar, those student’s futures will be practically unbounded. It really doesn’t matter that much if you go to a large university or an elite ivy league institution—if you learn the skills to connect with adults, when the 400 person lecture is over, and you walk against the flow of traffic down the stairs to speak to the professor, your world can change dramatically when you utter the words “professor, I was wondering about this idea you mentioned in lecture, can we talk about it in your office hours?” This one question could lead to a research opportunity, a presentation at a conference, graduate school and beyond.

To me, this is the real power of ambition—helping my students to realize that they truly are in charge of their own educations, and they don’t need me, my school, or any particular college to help them achieve success. If they are willing to find a mentor, their future is limitless.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2011 10:59 am

    The “finding a mentor” you mention is FABULOUS! In undergrad at Duke, I met weekly with Ron Butters, professor of linguistics and English, to write poetry; we met for 3 years. For post-grad work, I spent a summer at UVA with Fred Damon studying the gift exchange of the South Pacific through economic anthropology. In grad school at Emory, I met 1-2 times a week for 2 years with Frank Pajares to discuss self-efficacy, motivation, and mindset; we reviewed articles and chapters together so that we could learn each other’s reading and thinking styles. Now, I have several mentors via blogs and tweets. All invaluable!

    • January 11, 2011 12:21 pm

      Bo,
      I totally agree. I need to write more about how I think having a mentor is the key to thriving in high school, college and beyond. I did write a bit about it, and how to try to foster some of those relationships as a teacher, a while ago in a post on my weekly feedback process.

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