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The Good Student Trap

Book Excerpt From Chapter Six

By Adele Scheele, Ph.D.
Courtesy of Kaplan Books
Thursday, May 6, 2004; 5:19 PM

Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire
-William Butler Yeats

College is an experiment in hope. It's also a risky investment of anywhere from $25,000 to $125,000, not to mention at least four years of our lives. Whether it's a matter of graduate or undergraduate school, a two- or an eight-year program, we give up a part of ourselves to go to school. In return for our time and money, we expect a new identity and a ticket to the outside world.


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_____Adele Scheele, Ph.D._____
Excerpt Beating the Good Student Trap (Kaplan Books).
Excerpt Once Burned, Twice Shy (Kaplan Books).

Great Expectations

We come to college with the unspoken anticipation of all that will be done for us. We expect to be made acceptable, valuable, knowledgeable, and finally professional and employable. By graduation, we presume everything will be dazzlingly clear: We will find our calling, brilliantly catapulting us to a guaranteed successful career. This wish, seldom even conscious, lies deep in our hearts. Yet we believe it will happen.

I've counseled thousands of people who once had faith in this magic. All of them had been keenly disappointed when the expected alchemy never took place. It took them years to discover that such a transformation doesn't just happen. You've got to make it happen. It's fine to believe in magic, but you must be the magician. You are the only one who can turn yourself into what you want to be-even if you don't know what that is. You'll want more for yourself than just achieving a prestigious degree or acing a difficult job interview. You'll want to participate in making your life as artful and fulfilling as you can through learning, creating, belonging, contributing-and loving the whole process.

Learning System Dependency

The odd thing about life is that we've been taught so many life-less lessons. We've all been conditioned to wait for things to happen to us instead of making things happen. If you think you have escaped this conditioning, then think again. Most of us learned as early as junior high that we would pass, even excel if we did the work assigned to us by our teachers. We learned to ask whether the test covered all of chapter five or only a part of it, whether the assigned paper should be ten pages long or thirty, whether "extra credit" was two book reports on two books by the same author or two books written in the same period. Remember?

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what's expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here's what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it.

Survey Responses: Who Talks to Teachers?

In our "Undergrad-itudes" Internet survey, we asked the question, "What were your expectations about college before you went?" Here's how the respondents answered.

What we were really learning is System Dependency! If you did your work, you'd be taken care of. We experienced it over and over; it's now written in our mind's eye. But nothing like this happens outside of school. Still, we remain the same passive good students that we were at ten or fourteen or twenty or even at forty-four. The truth is, once learned, system dependency stays with most of us throughout our careers, hurting us badly. We keep reinforcing the same teacher-student dichotomy until it is ingrained. Then we transfer it to the employers and organizations for whom we'll work.

All that changes once you find that studying history or art or anthropology can be so much more than just jumping through hoops. Your academic pursuits can lead to new experiences, contacts, and jobs. But so much disappointment has resulted from misusing college, treating it as school instead of life. It's time to retrain ourselves to approach school in the same positive, productive, active way that the most successful people do. Rather than learning to know the subject matter in our heart, we've learned it by heart. And that makes all the difference between feeling alive and feeling fraudulent.

College can yield all that you wished for. It will be a time for exploring horizons that you never imagined, a time to discover who you are and what your interests and strengths are. College can be a time for accomplishing goals. It's a time to fall in love with ideas and make life-long friends. If you follow the advice in this book, college can be a time for learning how to develop skills that you will need for the rest of your life and that will serve you far beyond your major or your degree.

Career Qs

Q. My parents demand that I major in something that will guarantee me a job. What is the best major?

A. Choosing a major without considering your own skills and passions is a big mistake. But if you are interested in technology, America's fastest growing industry, know that you are in a boom time. According to the Information Technology Association of America's 1996 workforce study, we aren't even able to fill 90 percent of the available jobs in writing software, operating computers, managing computer networks, not to mention maintenance or sales. To make matters worse for the industry, our majors in math and computer science are considerably falling down in enrollments to support the nearly 200,000 information-technology jobs that are available. And that number does not even include small-sized firms or even government agencies. The report warned, "It's as bad as running out of iron ore in the middle of the Industrial Revolution." Talk to a career counselor to find out how you can make technology work for you.

As a career strategist, I've coached and interviewed a great variety of people. They were teachers, bankers, artists, entrepreneurs, executives, and free agents who wanted to be or who already were successful at what they do. From mapping their lives, connecting the dots of their innate or found passions, I have discovered that people who are successful in their careers were also successful in school. They cared about what they could do, for the others they joined in the process, and for the significance of their efforts. They saw their work as their identity-far more than just a salary or position.

And, in just the opposite way, those who were stuck or frustrated in their careers were carrying over a negative mindset evident even in their school days. I found that these people were holding themselves back, afraid to become involved in their subjects or with their teachers. Not only were they unaware of their self-sabotage, they thought quite the opposite-that they were in fact being "fair" by waiting to be recognized and directed. They were living out a false sense of being "moral."

I call this mindset the "Good" Student Trap. But good in this case is defined as only waiting passively for good grades, nothing much else. We strive to do only what's expected, even doing it exceptionally, but we wait and wait and wait-first for our teachers, then our professors, and later for our bosses to grade, direct, praise our work and then promote us automatically up to the next level.

Getting Recognition or Not

Look again at school to see what it teaches implicitly. One professor leads a class of any number of students, all equal in nonpower status. They take instruction and assignments from the one, ultimate authority. How then do students get attention and recognition? Achievers learn to get the desired attention by doing good work along with building relationships. The polar opposite, the students who were branded failures, also get attention-through poor behavior, but without any lasting rewards. Most of us, however, are overlooked-and do nothing about it. If you doubt this, think back to your earlier days at school, say, in junior high school, when you were first learning about group and peer pressure.

Remember the lessons in system dependency? They boiled down to this hard-and-fast rule:

If we do our work well enough, we will be taken care of.

But nothing could be further from the truth. If we don't take ourselves seriously, learning what motivates and excites us, becoming apprentices to masters and then masters ourselves of our crafts, then we'll lose our purpose, our identity. School is a process of starting this discovery.

Learning to Stay With the Flock

System dependency is not the only damaging thing we learned in the context of school: We learned our place. Think back to the life-shaping lessons we learned in junior high cafeteria. As seventh graders, we couldn't eat with eighth graders; they wouldn't let us. We'd be labeled brain-damaged if we invited our teacher to sit with us. But we didn't sit with all other seventh graders either-just the ones who looked like us, acted like us, and came from families just like ours. We locked everyone else out and were locked out in turn. We learned to think that this was ideal; a mistaken ideal.

Here's an example of how wrong and dangerous an ideal can be. In seventh grade, you wouldn't be caught dead going after the attention of your teachers. You'd be labeled a brownnoser!

So which students were recognized and rewarded by being mentored, given support to go on, and opportunities to explore? The answer may surprise you. Only those engaged students who were active in clubs and activities as well as their class work. The key lies in their creating a learning environment that also included building relationships that regular students didn't know even existed. Yet most of us were falsely lulled into a false self labeled "good" by fulfilling the expected curriculum. The alternative was being "bad" by feeling alienated and losing interest or dropping out.

Seventh Grade, Part Deux?

Why make college a sequel to junior high just with older students and tougher assignments? Instead, reframe it so that it resembles being alive in a responsive world which needs your contribution. The longer you sit waiting for life to choose you, the more you become invisible. The passive "good student" attitude blocks you from growing motivated and connected to new ideas and networks of people. Doing only what's asked of you even though you do it perfectly is the grossest misunderstanding of what college is all about!

Fear of Failing and How It Can Ruin You

Right. You do have to get good grades on tests. Colleges demand a decent GPA from high school in the first place as proof you can perform. In this way, high academic standing is a prime indicator to future employers of your ability to perform on the job. Similarly the standard for measuring performance in college is The Test. Yet nobody likes taking exams. They always create anxiety. They are not always fair. They don't seem to measure accurately what you really know about your subject. And we don't often learn or remember anything in the process. But we have to live with them-a lot of them.

So what's the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we'll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we'll fail even before we do-if we do. Mostly we don't even fail; we're just mortally afraid that we're going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we're not failing. If we don't do as well as we wish, we don't get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they'll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does. When we're afraid, we lose our curiosity and originality, our spirit and our talent-our life. But there are ways to cut short fear and reclaim yourself.

Editor's note: Author Adele Scheele , Ph.D., is an internationally known career/life strategist and change management authority. This updated excerpt of her book, The Good Student Trap, was first acquired in May 2003.


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