by Kevin Kreiger ’84
Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go to the making of genius.
Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.
— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Let’s be honest, folks. It’s hard to imagine most people actively choosing professional passion if it involves living on the street.
I’m fortunate to never have known what I’d call existential poverty — no roof over my head, no food from day to day — the nightmare where our very lives come into jeopardy. But when I was younger I endured years where I was deeply in debt and couldn’t keep up. Had it not been for a very understanding landlord, things might have gotten ugly.
One person suffered even more acutely than I did: my Mom. She had to witness her child in a horrible phase, and could offer no material aid thanks to financial problems of her own. All she could do was watch and offer moral support. To this day, I doubt that I can ever really understand the depths of her helplessness and despair.
So as a long-term College and Career Counselor, I very much get why parents can become so intense when it comes to their kids’ futures. We’re driven by two powerful, and sometimes conflictual instincts:
- To ensure that our offspring are equipped to fend for themselves
- To protect them from suffering
And it’s here, perhaps — in the way we each define suffering — that some of the most pronounced differences in notions of success emerge.
Which is to say: We need our kids to succeed. And we tend to greet perceived threats to that with all the ferocity we can muster. The “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua gave a face to in 2011 is nothing more than a culture-specific version of this primordial impulse. Her daughters were going to succeed no matter the cost — up to and including the sacrifice of a harmonious relationship with them. There was simply no other option.
While I may not agree with Chua’s approach, I do understand her intent. It’s all about goals. And the question this raises lives at the center of my work:
How do we define, respect, and implement each individual’s true goals?
As I write this, I keep thinking of classic stories that have shaped our world — cautionary tales from Macbeth to The Great Gatsby to Citizen Kane. Each protagonist ascends to great heights, racks up power and wealth. And yet each is miserable, forsaken, lost.
Why do we hear this particular tragedy over and over again? Most cultures encourage us to believe that money will solve all our problems…. or at least provide enough insulation to allow us to comfortably ignore them. And while again, I’d never suggest we opt for starvation over physical comfort, too many recent studies are refuting the long-held causal relationship between wealth and happiness.
Take it another step. We have only to refer to pervasive reality TV scenarios like Real Housewives of [Wherever], and the incomprehensible discontent of all those wealthy, beautiful women who actually have what the vast majority of the population is so desperate to obtain. Or try googling “lottery tragedies” to see the startling percentage of major winners whose lives have subsequently imploded. It’ll blow your mind.
How is all this possible? Sort through it carefully and you end up with a simple distinction….
…. which of course is anything but simple. Is our overriding concern mere security? or is there something deeper at play? And while yes, I’m creating an artificially exaggerated disparity, the emphasis we choose here says a great deal about our fundamental attitudes toward success.
Now I’m not suggesting you run to the extreme and go join a commune. What I’m seeking is to challenge the way so many people think about this critical question, in the hopes of shedding some light on the less obvious variables in the equation. My core assertion:
It’s not so much what each of us hopes to become.
It’s who, and the ways that all-important personal dimension shapes our choices.
In introductory meetings, I always ask clients about their true aspirations — those early-life passions we so frequently neglect. My target, in essence:
Where’s the love? What makes you come alive?
The initial responses often circle predictably safe, conventional areas like law, business, and medicine. And just as often, I know I’m not hearing the whole story.
Not shockingly, we learn a lot in that session. This is the client’s truth, as opposed to some
preprogrammed familial/societal vision, and thus has the possibility to emerge with a whole new level of conviction. And as we’ve discussed, conviction is one of the great secret weapons of the most successful individuals.
This is the genesis of any strong sense of mission: that focused declaration of, in essence, why you’re here. Make no mistake — it’s not an easy thing to generate. But if you’re sincerely after anything more than a simple paycheck in your life, it is so worth the effort.
 Overview: Arthur Brooks, “A Formula for Happiness”
Let me ask you to travel back about 10 years with me.
Alex was a particularly impressive scholar-athlete. She had strength across the boards, from humanities to sciences to math, and truly enjoyed them all. She was an accomplished artist. And she was also, paradoxically, quite shy. In our first meeting, when I asked about professional aspirations, her mother immediately stepped in and announced: Chemical Engineer. While there was no displeasure on Alex’s face, my alarms quietly went off.
As we moved through our initial one-on-one sessions, playing with possible colleges and avenues for essays, she began to drop her guards. At an appropriate moment, I slipped on my Fairy Godfather hat and popped the question:
Poof. I’ll sign over Paris Hilton’s bank account to you. The only condition: you can’t take the money, throw on a bikini, and move to Maui. You have to choose a career. But money is no longer a factor in that choice. Do you still take the same path?
She hesitated, a bit uncomfortable. Then, almost in a whisper, she said it:
I want to be a Dreamworks animator.
Ahh. There was the mission statement, and there was the love: what a young woman dreamed about late at night once all her obligations were handled. By 10th grade, Alex confided, she’d capitulated to the academic juggernaut, and stowed her beloved pens, paints, and computer drawing programs.
The look in her eyes nearly killed me. She was too young to be crammed into such a cage. And yet, she was my student, not my daughter. The realpolitik of the job said war with parents was never an option.
Still — I couldn’t bring myself to sit idly by. The dynamic screamed for some out-of-the-box thinking.
Eventually, we discovered two solutions which would support her admissions goals, respect the confines of my mandate, and at least wedge the window to her creative side open a bit:
1. Since as a general rule I always counsel against essay topics that largely rehash what’s already central on a student’s school record, art suddenly became a strategically valid angle. To make the most of this, of course, it would behoove Alex to quietly re-engage that part of herself.
2. While Alex had no objection to Chemical Engineering, neither did she display any major enthusiasm. It felt counterproductive to lock her into so cut-and-dry an arena. A week of research yielded gold: several prestigious schools had recently unveiled programs in Digital Modeling for Nanotechnology. The innovative, high-visibility aspects pleased Mom, and we couldn’t have asked for a happier marriage of engineering and art. It was a perfect win-win, and would officially allow her to continue developing her more aesthetic passions.
At the core here, the issue came down to a distressingly common phenomenon:
Conflicting definitions of success
For Alex’s loving but highly pragmatic mother, security was paramount. All she could see was the rocksolid, well-renumerated career whose appeal no one can fully deny — that drive to make sure her child would be equipped to survive a harsh and unforgiving world. The potential for economic suffering trumped luxuries like the heart’s desire at every turn. But that attitude was grounded in the kind of fear we discussed last time: a culturally pervasive, semi-conscious litany of what-ifs and nightmare scenarios that left no space for the soul of a gifted young woman to express itself. The question, for me, was not where
Alex ended up working; it was allowing free rein to all her potential so she could chart her own destiny as truthfully as possible.
It’s my strong contention that we ignore those deeper voices in ourselves at our grave peril. We run a significant risk of repression and frustration that will, more often than not, generate very real trouble later. Among some of my peers who were pressed too intently into lives they didn’t truly want — including some of the most visibly “successful” ones — I’ve observed unsettling patterns of existential disharmony: depression… marriages crumbling… even substance abuse…. in short, all the hallmarks of serious midlife
crises. And I’d argue that much of this pain could have been avoided had the individuals been given a greater voice in the shaping of their lives early on.
I will also contend that, in our relentless pursuit of academic perfection and security, we risk disempowering young people’s higher potential no matter their ultimate professional destination. Even if Alex had ended up a straightforward Chemical Engineer, isn’t it obvious how the ongoing cultivation of her creativity would only make her more effective? It’s safe to venture an assertion here: the great scientists are great not because of their analytical muscle and empiricism, but because of their capacity to reframe existing knowledge and generate new ways of seeing things.
To whit, pop quiz: who spoke the following sentence?
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Surely some great artist. Michelangelo? Beethoven? Baudelaire?
Try again. It was an obscure 20th century physicist by the name of…. yup…. Albert Einstein.
Please allow me, thus, to propose a gentle personal inquiry:
- Is the definition of success you hold as fully-fleshed as it could be?
- Are there unexamined assumptions about financial security, prestige, and social acceptability that might be guiding your decision-making process?
- Are you doing everything you can to fully empower yourself in the pursuit of your true potential?
I will obviously never suggest something cavalier like wiping out the retirement fund so your child can be a starving artist in Budapest. But it’s a fair bet that, for many of us, there are neglected pathways that may produce rich possibilities we haven’t examined. I’d also argue that we have very little to lose in undertaking some healthy exploration of those untapped resources.
A baseline concept to which I keep returning:
PASSION IS CONTAGIOUS
Mob psychology, American Idol, and professional wrestling are pretty good clues. By extension, however, the converse holds equally true: if you’re less than enthusiastic about your pursuits, you can’t reasonably expect anyone else to get excited about them either. This applies nowhere more than with the people behind the desk in Admissions and in Human Resources, who spend their days slogging through an onslaught of candidates. Bore them, and you’ll be getting a whole lot more rejection letters than you bargained for.
I know this may sound radical, especially to those who subscribe to the prestige principle, but the underlying query here is pretty straightforward, folks:
How can you hope to create a vivid, compelling college or job application —
or for that matter a vivid, compelling LIFE —
without engaging your heart?
So how do we spell SUCCESS? As in the kind that might, ironically enough, get those all-powerful denizens of H.R. to consider your candidature seriously? Consider trying what Mozart said up top:
More about Kevin: Kevin Kreiger ’84 has served as an independent admissions and career counselor for 18 years. He is an ardent believer in a counseling process that cultivates the whole human being, and helps foster empowered, self-aware individuals. It’s also his privilege to do extensive volunteer counseling and educational work with scholastically-challenged inner-city communities, mainly with author Dave Eggers’ 826 organization (www.826LA.org).
His first collection of poems, KAIROS, is appearing July 2016 from Tebot Bach Press. His plays have been read or produced in venues including the French National Theatre/Dijon, U.C. San Diego/La Jolla Playhouse, the Theatre at Boston Court, and the Fountain Theatre.
You can find more about him at www.counsel-ink.com.