Adolescence has always been one of life's trickiest curve balls, but in today's society, says motivational consultant Judy Zerafa, "the frustrations and anxieties are heightened.
"Teen-agers want the same thing as adults -- to be loved and to be secure. But many of them tell me how hard that seems when they don't know which is bleaker -- the economic talk or their love life."
So when Zerafa gives her standard pep talk to teens -- as she did last week at Woodrow Wilson High School -- she tells this story to put their fears in perspective:
"If you ever feel afraid of failure, think about Abraham Lincoln. As a young man he was fired from his job, then started his own business and went bankrupt. He ran for elective office nine times before winning. But no one thinks of him as a failure."
The story "always makes an impact," claims the Michigan mother of three -- and step-mother of three more -- because it addresses teen-ager's "number one fear, failure. So many teen-agers are crippled by a stifling sense of self-doubt. I tell them there is no disgrace in failing. There is only disgrace in never having tried."
Teen-agers need motivational training, she says, "as much as they need other kinds of education."
Zerafa's career as a teen cheerleader started about eight years ago when her then 12-year-old daughter came home despondent because she thought she didn't have a chance in the cheerleading tryouts. "She wan't even going to try out, because she felt since we weren't rich and she wasn't beautiful or popular, she'd never make it. I was crushed to realize my child felt that inadequate."
After coaching from her mother -- with such positive-thinking advice as "visualize yourself in the uniform" -- Zerafa's daughter made the cheerleading squad. The next year she brought her best friend home to learn "Mrs. Z's secret technique," and that girl became a cheerleader. Over the next few years, the dozen or so girls who paraded through her living room all made the squad.
This experience proved "a lifesaver," says Zerafa, 41, "when the bottom fell out of my life four years ago. I had been working on commission for a travel agency, booking group tours. When the airlines were deregulated I lost $12,000 of business in four days, which was basically my year's income.
"I'm in a merged family (her second marriage with children ages 11 to 20), and I'm responsible for the mortgage, which is about $12,000 per year. So I was pretty upset. My daughter suggested I write my cheerleading secrets."
When Zerafa advertised her 19-page "Steps to Becoming a Cheerleader" and "How to Become Popular" in Teen magazine ($2.25 and $3 each) in 1979, she sold 120,000. She also started getting "floods of mail" from thousands of teens around the country. About 60 percent were from girls and about 40 percent from boys, with the central question "What should I do with my life?"
After answering about 2,000 personally, Zerafa realized she could never respond to each. "So I decided it was a mandate. I'd write a book."
The result is Go For It (Workman Publishing, 156 pages, $3.95) a synthesis of Zerafa's "think-positive" philosophy geared to teens. To get it published she called a New York publisher, arranged to meet an editor and took $385 from the family's savings account -- leaving just $15.
When the editor was not interested, she got the name of "the best agent in New York" from an executive secretary. Her "positive persistence" melted the agent's originally icy reception, she was accepted as a client and -- with no money left for a hotel -- returned home that night.
Her basic message to teens:
"You need to define your goals and figure out a step-by-step plan for reaching them. Most of all you need determination and belief in yourself. And if you fail along the way -- which everyone does -- you need to pick yourself up, look for the lesson, and try again."