After Race To Nowhere

I was honored that The Educated Mom asked me to share my perspective on the impact of Race To Nowhere, a documentary that I helped bring to Princeton nearly three years ago. I tried to share the big take-aways. And I tried to do so making clear that by no means do I have all the answers. It’s a daily slog. I catch myself, sometimes, falling into the race to nowhere.  But, I catch myself! And there’s the rub. I think what the film (and articles and essays an books and interviews like it) has done is about making us more conscious. And I think that has the potential to be quite powerful. Therein lies the hope.


This morning, like so many others, my day began with a chance encounter with a friend at small world coffee. That’s just how it works in my little university town. She, my wise friend,  alluded to “the mix of emotions that commencement implies.”

After a roller coaster of four years worth of challenges and accomplishments — academic, athletic, artistic, personal, familial, community, national and international milestones — inevitably follows Intense joy, and a kind of immeasurable mourning. When weeks of sleepless nights, a heightened baseline of beer consumption, and the enormity of the perceived precipice of “the rest of your life,” enter the equation, the result is a sensation that is so particular I can still access it twenty-two years after it was mine.

I think about this year’s graduates, many of whom I was fortunate to know when I worked on campus, and I am proud of what I saw in them. Students I know won awards, and championships, and fellowships, and acceptances to all kinds of prestigious programs. Therein lies joy! Others I worked with struggled with illness or losses, bumped up against their academic or athletic or other limitations, doubted themselves, or made big mistakes. There was pain. In my office, I tried to create a safe place — where we could “treat both those imposters just the same,” and the greatest satisfaction came from the encounters that were heaviest and lightest. (Knowing that there would be a lot of mundane stuff in between.) What is clear when you work in a university context is that the best thing parents of university students can do–within reason–is step away and let their  (almost adult) children manage their affairs themselves. To let go of the need to do it  (whatever it is) for them. Often, to not know what is going on. (Fighting words in the land of  in loco helicopterus?) To let them own their own successes and failures. To figure out who they are and who they want to be. To decide for themselves what to have for breakfast. When to turn out the lights.

The world is in some ways a different place for this Class of 2013 than it was for my college cohort.  The pace is faster, they’ve grown up under a kind of pressure I don’t believe we experienced, and they are both more and less connected than we ever could have been. But  commencements have and always will be both an end and a beginning. Commencement plays out in a language expressed in caps and gowns, diplomas, inspirational speeches, hugs and tears and laughter. On the surface it looks quite uniform and ceremonial.

At the senior athletic awards dinner I attended, teams were recognized for championships. Standout performers were bestowed with medals and honors, their records and times and victories deservedly applauded. As they should be.  But to me, the really revealing moments were much less public. Student-athletes, coaches, and parents shared  knowing glances recalling their mutual sacrifices and the unglamorous hours no one else witnessed. Former players (some of them silver-haired and not quite in fighting shape) looked at their beloved coaches and mentors — not loving them because they are legends (though some of them are), but because they are theirs. Truly elite human beings struck the balance of self-respect and humility whether the storied hero or the team manager. Parents who lost a child found comfort in a community that embraced that child in her too short but richly lived life. Traditions were carried on with reverence for the origins, banners were passed gracefully, quietly, knowingly. If you knew where to look, like TigerBlog did, you could spot humor, passion, fun, and love. Where collegiate athletics are reputed to be replete with ego, I felt immersed in character.

I think this has been a season of particularly sage advice as far graduation speeches go.  Arianna Huffington. Ben Bernanke. Oprah.  But my favorite commencement charge this year will have come from the Princeton Varsity Club dinner, from one of the soon-to-be graduates. She described the intensity with which she had approached her sport from a young age, playing “every game as if it were her last.” Obviously, her strategy  “worked,” namely, she was standing before a crowd of hundreds of Ivy League student-athletes, she “got in” and made it through, so she had “won” by prevailing cultural standards. But, here’s why I think our speaker is really onto something. She challenged her audience of super successful, talented, driven peers to try something different… to “play every game as if it is your first,” bringing all the wide-eyes innocence, enthusiasm, and appreciation that one tends to possess at the outset. Yup. If you do it that way, even the endings can feel like beginnings. Commencement every time!

Imagine how our classrooms and playing fields would be invigorated if our kids could encounter them with just that carpe diem. Not because of what test score they’ll get… which will determine what schools they can consider…  which will determine what job they wil have… which will mean (?)…. Not because this Little League team is the feeder for the travel team, which is the ticket to a scholarship…. But… because wow, what a great feeling to knock the cover off the ball. That’s it. That’s the best advice I’ve heard in a while. That is what it means to be present. What a gift.

A little post-script.  For her last collegiate at-bat, our speaker hit an out of the park home run. And I’m not talking about the speech. But yes, that was a home run too.

Ben Bernanke reminded us yesterday that we don’t need to know the ending of our stories — he said that’s what makes life interesting. I’d  go so far as to say that the work we really need to do, for ourselves, and with our kids, is to be better at not knowing. Better able to go up to the plate and be interested to see what happens, not hell-bent on the left field line. It’s subtle, but it’s a shift. Being invested, and present. Just not so pre-determined that we get in our own way. The athletic director called it “the pursuit of excellence instead of perfection.”  So, I’m hoping this Class will enjoy this day. Reaching graduation probably hasn’t been perfect for most. But it is excellent. Maybe it helps to think of it as a day that marks a dividing line between what we know (what came before) and what is yet to be known. And in that way, Commencement is like so many other days that will begin with a cup of coffee and a little bit of wisdom from a friend.


Redefining Safety

A widely circulated essay by Kevin Cao, a high school senior who is choosing U. Va over several Ivy League schools, wisely counsels, “It’s not about where you go, it’s about what you do while you’re there… And how happy you are…

I would bet that one is cheering louder for Kevin than Carly Keyes.Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 5.49.15 PM

The daughter of a Princeton alum, Carly Keyes grew up thinking that there was only one definition of success — becoming an Ivy League student-athlete. Blessed with talent and determination, Carly was also plagued by perfectionism, and by the burden of what she perceived to be others’ expectations for her. Having attained the goal of playing NCAA soccer at Penn while studying at Wharton, Carly paid a high price for the relentless pursuit of achievement for achievement’s sake. She battled depression, and alcoholism, but through treatment realized not only that she could be well again, but she could thrive. She discovered that her true passions were writing and music — and that the University of Michigan was a better fit for her to express and follow her passions. In fact, Carly’s story shows us that maybe “safety school” needs a whole new image.  “Safety” doesn’t mean “not good enough.” To the contrary, maybe it means “where it’s possible to be your real, full self.”

Watch Carly’s video here:

And then I hope you’ll read the interview I conducted with her, below….

Why did you decide to make the video, “Deliver Us From Ego”?

I really wish that someone, someone (someone like me, now, actually!) would have sat my 17 year-old self down and asked, “ What do you really want out of college?” I wish someone would have gotten me to really think about what that meant. After everything I’ve been through, I realized I could use my experiences to help prevent other kids from making monumental mistakes. 

How early do you think you felt pressure about athletics and academics?

There was pressure from the beginning of my high school career, but the mindset started when I was 8 years old in swimming — only a blue ribbon was good enough. I guess I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t feel pressure to succeed at athletics, and the same in school – getting a 98 on a sixth grade math test and being disappointed. There was a constant, unspoken pressure. I knew that people seemed impressed that my Dad went to Princeton, and somehow I started to want to have that same impression. It’s just how it was, kind of like, “The sky is blue. The grass is green. You should go to an Ivy League school.” Fast forward a few years, the only thing I thought was “good enough” was going to an Ivy League school.

 What do you think would have happened if you had told your parents, coaches, or teachers that you didn’t want to go to the schools in the “bible,” or didn’t want to play college soccer?

Had I known what I know now; had I cared about what school would be the right fit for me rather than what school would look best on an eventual resume, I’m not sure what would’ve happened. I can remember feeling like my parents would be disappointed in me if I didn’t go “elite.” 
I know, at the end of the day, my parents just want me to be happy, but I believed those top 25 academic and soccer programs were the only road I could choose. I had blinders on.

How did you come to the realization that you weren’t where you needed to be and weren’t doing the things you really loved? How did you find your way to a different school, different major, pursuit of music instead of soccer?

 During the second semester of my freshman year at Penn, I realized I didn’t like any of my classes, and wasn’t enjoying the way soccer made my body feel. There was constant pain. 
I left the team, and thenI was lost and miserable. I developed an extreme case of depression. I struggled with alcoholism. After my sophomore year at Penn, I decided to transfer to the University of Michigan to see if maybe a fresh start at a new school, around people I knew well, would make a difference. It took two more years and a couple trips to rehab to figure out who I am and what I really want out of life. I got sober on November 3rd, 2010, and I like to think that that was when I began to recover from my perfectionism, too.

What did you discover once once you got released from the pressures that were weighing on you? 

My love for music helped me embrace my identity as an entertainer, a writer, and a lover of all things artistic. At Michigan, I am a film critic, journalist and columnist for the Michigan Daily, and I am looking to pursue entertainment journalism after I graduate. I also want to write books and screenplays and share my story with others. I’ve realized the silver linings within personal struggles, and how sharing them can empower other people.

So, what would be your advice to parents of young kids — parents who might, with really good intentions, be creating their own “bibles” of the right schools, or the right teams?

I wish someone had told me that I was perfect the way I am – not based on where I went to school or how many games I won. I wish someone had told me that being good enough to play a Division I sport could be an amazing accomplishment by itself, that the name of the school or your GPA wouldn’t define me. I wish someone told me I was “enough.” 
It’s important to inspire your child to be great, to live up to their potential, to make something out of themselves. I mean, Lebron James, you know that someone in his life was there by his side, encouraging him to be great. But there’s a fine line between support and encouragement and pushing someone to unhealthy limits… it’s different for everyone, but not THAT different. If you are an Ivy League alum, and you really want what is best for your kid, I would sit your kid down at an appropriate age and have a firm talk with them. And I mean FIRM. Explain that just because you went to an Ivy League school, that doesn’t mean you are expecting him or her to do the same. I wish my parents had explained to me that they just want me to be happy. I wish I had known that their only expectations for me were to do my best academically and athletically. I wish I knew in high school that I should select a college based on what was best for me (all the parts of me) and not just my ego. That’s what I’ll be telling my own kids to do.

What was it like to let go of everyone else’s expectations? What is your life like now? What do you envision is the path ahead of you now?

To let go of college soccer and Wharton, to admit that I’m an alcoholic – I had to surrender to win, which went against everything I’d ever been taught. I thought giving up the battle (of perfectionism) was a sign of weakness… but it was really the only thing that was going to free me from my misery. 
It wasn’t over night, but eventually, things in my life have fallen into place. I’m where I’m meant to be at the University of Michigan.  I’m who I’m meant to be, expressing myself as a musician, a journalist, and a writer. You know what? The student newspaper at my “first choice” – it didn’t even have an Arts section. I never would’ve found my path had I kept listening to my ego and living out of the fear that I’m not enough if I’m not an Ivy League student-athlete. I really am a “recovering perfectionist.” The mindset doesn’t vanish overnight. I still struggle to make the right decisions when that voice asks me what I’ve done today to prove that I deserve a spot on this planet.  So I just live my life one day at a time. I do the best I can. I still listen to my head, but I spend time listening to my heart these days, too.

So, I present Kevin and Carly here, hoping not that any kid chooses (or doesn’t choose) any particular school;. Believe me it should not be lost on anyone that in these stories the “safety” schools are two of the finest institutions anyone could imagine by any standard — hardly safety schools by most family’s standards, yet not on the Ultimate Short-List. The Short-List is really just too short as an absolute. But anyway, the particular schools aren’t the point for my purpose. I hope that every kid finds– sooner rather than later– the wisdom to listen to the heart when it comes to college or anything else.

Music To My Ears

Having advised hundreds of students at this point, I rarely remember someone’s story because of the grades they had or the numbers they generated. I remember the ones who had something unquantifiable. Well, maybe they came to me because of a number or a grade (in which case probably not a good one), but that’s just not what “stays in the picture.”

So, for example, I remember the seemingly quite shy freshman who mentioned, just before she left, that she was creating a little charitable organization, to try to bring music to sick kids during their hospital stays.  “Tell me more about it,” I urged her, because I sensed something about it was much more important than whatever the logistical issue was we had been discussing.  It’s called Music Is Medicine,” she told me. And she came alive. Leora was kind enough to keep me updated on her work, and she shared a song and the story delightfully with my Ivy Advisor colleagues when they visited our office.  Later, she was also kind enough to come and sing for a young friend of ours who is challenged every day by a rare disease, and Leora could not have been more enthusiastic about supporting Derek’s Dreams.

So, I’m thrilled that Leora has been chosen by the Video Music Awards to be honored when she appears as Darren Criss (from GLEE)’s date at the VMAs!!!  Look out, celebrity music world. I think Leora Friedman has arrived.

And this is what can happen when a young person is motivated by the sincere wish to do good in the world, and has the talent and vision to pursue what she believes is important. And, that has nothing to do with a grade.

Humanity in Medicine

During the years I spent as a pre-med advisor at Princeton, I was often fascinated by the discrepancy between students’ (or parents’) perceptions of med school admissions committees and the reality of the people who constituted such committees. The perception was of a monolithic, untouchable machine-like presence on-high, crunching numbers, requiring perfection, and spitting out rejections. But the truth, as I encountered admissions deans and staff members, more typically involved not just human beings, but actual mensches, for lack of a better word. Sometimes incredibly accomplished and brilliant physicians, yes, but also lovely, thoughtful people who cared deeply about the humanity of their schools and their profession, and who had an abiding interest that went way deeper than GPA and MCAT scores. Kings and queens among these humanitarian physicians could be found at some of the most esteemed medical schools, and certainly included those who were the architects of the FlexMed program at Mt. Sinai, and Bob Witzburg, MD, and colleagues engaged in “holistic review” at Boston University as well as others.

So, yes, there is lots of nervous talk about the “new MCAT” and the “changing requirements” of medical schools, because those conversations are all abuzz out there. But if you’re really interested in the soul of medicine– in the humanity of the profession — I think you are well advised to pay more attention to these really brave perspectives about what matters most.

(Re) finishing

Apparently, several runners violently diverted just shy of the Boston Marathon finish line last Monday returned in humble determination to complete the race course today. They did so, I imagine, through shock, and loss, and grief, and other emotions yet to be named. They returned to fulfill personal promises, to honor fellow runners and fans who are now cruelly unable to do so, and to send a signal to the universe about the indefatigable nature of the human spirit. Today’s improvised sprint to an altered but never-erased finish line becomes the start of a marathon we will all run now — a long journey to recover from a collective injury we could not have anticipated. It is, in fact, a call for resilience.

I’m picturing these runners now. They put on their game faces and their sneakers, and they ran. It’s what you do when you are running for your life, or for someone else’s, or for all of ours.

Resilience will be a regular theme in this blog as it develops.  And it’s all I can think about today.

Going Deep

How can you develop a more fully realized claim on the path you are choosing?

The “prescription” for any student contemplating next steps is relatively straightforward — it involves asking yourself hard questions. Self-assessment can lead to a more nuanced and authentic raison d’etrefor pursuing a career goal; i.e. becoming a physician. And no matter what direction you are heading, greater self awareness won’t hurt. Have you exposed yourself to other options and considered other paths? Ask yourself what other specific, varied paths you could follow. Have you encountered obstacles that challenged your resolve but yet you persevered? Ask yourself how you have confronted your own vulnerabilities and what you know about your capacity to rebound. Can you distinguish between your own desires and the expectations of others? Ask yourself whose dream it is. Have you had recent exposure to the realities of the profession your are considering? Ask yourself if you can envision yourself walking in the shoes of those you are observing. Are you developing passions and relationships that will provide balance in your life ? Ask yourself if you are cultivating the habits of mind, heart, and being that will replenish and sustain you for the long haul. The choice to become a doctor (or to follow other ambitious paths) can be a choice to dare greatly. There is nothing wrong with developing an early passion, or holding fast to a long-held dream. But if you dig deep in your current self, you will likely find much richer story lines – and your most compelling truths.  Hard questions are the best medicine for getting to real truth. Most importantly, deep inquiry will increase your self-awareness and self-confidence – and you won’t be the only one who notices. The full article, Going Deeper, will appear in the May-June issue of Pre-Med Life Magazine.