My son has a Snoopy the Dog book that says this on page one: “Just like Snoopy, what you can achieve is limited only by your imagination. You can be anything!” As a parent, this message – that our kids can do anything if they dream big and work hard – is deeply alluring.
But as a psychologist, I find this well-intentioned message distressing. Why?
Telling kids that they can do anything obscures the critical role of chance in success. As Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman puts it: “Success = Talent + Luck. Great success = A little more talent + A Lot of Luck.”
So skill, and the hard work needed to cultivate a skill, is a key part of success, but luck plays a critical role, too. By luck, I mean all of the varieties of random chance, including opportunity, genetics and circumstances of birth, like poverty.
Despite this hard truth, society often ignores the influence of random chance on success. And herein lies the problem.
When some kids don’t achieve their dreams, those who don’t recognize the role of chance in determining life’s outcomes may blame themselves or stop trying. On the other hand, those who do succeed may overestimate their own role in it, and see those who have average resumes as inferior or less deserving.
It’s simply a statistical fact that not everyone can grow up to be a Supreme Court justice or a best-selling author. Our futures are shaped by many forces beyond our control. Then too, most of us will be average; that’s the definition of average, after all.
But so what? Why do we mourn the idea that our futures are not limitless? Why do so many of us dislike the idea of having average kids?
This is not to say that we parents shouldn’t encourage our kids to dream big and work hard, just that a focus on achievement per se ultimately does kids and ourselves a disservice.
When we create a mindset that high achievement is better than being average, that high achievers are more special or deserving, we diminish our kids’ ability to value both themselves and others.
With a Perspective, I’m Dr. Erica Reischer.
Dr. Erica Reischer is a psychologist, author, and parent coach in Oakland. She is the mother of two.