Just Try Harder Differently

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Teenager with long red hair face down in a yellow beanbag chair

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Imagine this. Two teens. A brother and sister, Irish twins (Happy St. Paddy’s Day, by the way), Kelly and Colin, both of whom would benefit from more independence and responsibility. Their parents want them to get part-time jobs, and they do too, at least they say so. But neither one has taken any real steps toward that end. It’s been all talk, no action. The parents are getting tired of this. They keep repeating themselves, “You need to try harder.” Is this just a case of two lazy teenagers?

Lazy by definition is when one is “averse or disinclined to work, activity, or exertion; indolent.” Sure, maybe these two are lazy, but then, aren’t we all? Douglas Lisle, author of The Pleasure Trap, explains that our three basic instincts are to pursue pleasure, avoid pain, and to conserve energy. So if we can fulfill our needs by exerting less energy, we are going to do it.  Therefore, let’s assume there is some laziness going on here, but that it’s not the source of the problem. In which case, “Just try harder,” just isn’t going to cut it.

Colin is a really smart kid, and he has the SAT scores to prove it. His verbal abilities are out of the park. He has a fantastic memory for facts and details, and he tends to think in an orderly linear fashion. Conversely, he does have some trouble seeing the forest through the trees, and he has difficulty brainstorming. When the subject of getting a job comes up, he assures his parents that he is going to start looking soon. He brings it up on his own, in fact. It seems he wants to grow up just as much as they want him to.

Kelly, also independently, says she wants a job. She even has lots of ideas, some more realistic than others. She’ll start a dog walking business, work at the bakery downtown, have her own online stationery business, get a job at a recording studio. Of course, intermingled with these dreams are still others that aren’t job related. She wants to start a running club, learn a new instrument, and make cakes, big towering cakes. Unlike her brother, Kelly doesn’t have any trouble brainstorming. She’s a girl with vision, but the details, eh, not so much. Although fearless, she doesn’t have a real sense of what would be involved in pursuing any of these goals. And she doesn’t stick with any of them long enough to find out.

So what is really going on here? Both these kids are telling the same story, “I want a job,” and neither one of them is acting on it. Yet, clearly, they have different roadblocks. As it turns out, it’s not just a story they’re telling; they really do want to get jobs and grow more independent. It may not look it, but they care, a lot, and underneath it all, they are disheartened by their own inaction. Colin’s trouble is that he is intimidated by a goal without a clear path. He’s not sure what jobs he should consider, where to look, or how to get one. And he is certainly not comfortable jumping in blindly. Kelly, on the other hand, would gladly take the leap, but in which direction? It’s overwhelming. As soon as she considers going down one path, it feels like she’s abandoning another. She doesn’t want to close any doors. She realizes, however, by not opening any, they might as well all be closed. She feels stuck.

Kelly and Colin do not need to try harder. They need new approaches. Colin would benefit from a parent or friend, sitting down with him, helping him envision this process of looking for a job. If he could break down the steps to the point that he can actually see himself doing them, he might feel much more confident. Given how verbally-inclined he is, writing the steps down could be even more beneficial. Also, since getting a job is very much out of his comfort zone, it’s reasonable for a more experienced person to help him get the ball rolling. Maybe they could brainstorm and suggest some real possibilities so that Colin has a concrete target at which to aim, allowing him to imagine concrete steps to get there.

Kelly has the passion and the confidence, but she needs sensible feedback and help prioritizing her goals. Her parents, a mentor, or friend might help her realize that starting her own business would be quite involved and require a lot of self-motivation. Perhaps, working with and for other people would enable her to learn things she wouldn’t learn otherwise…skills that she could apply to her own business in the future. She needs to see that pursuing one goal seriously will open her up to more opportunities than it closes. And perhaps deciding which goal to begin with matters less than just beginning. Her new approach may be to simply start with the most accessible option. Didn’t that little bakery have a “Now Hiring” sign in the window?

As a teacher and mentor, I’ve learned pushing isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, there in front of this young person I’m working with, is a big heavy wall. It may be constructed out of fear, or lack of vision, or too much vision. Regardless, no amount of pushing will get them through it. The only way forward is to help them take it down brick by brick, then use those bricks to lay a path instead.

[Photo Credit: Kai Abis, PLC alumnus]