When “achievement culture” goes awry

“I feel like I’m on a treadmill all week long
And the only way to shut it off is to black out.”

You’d think these were the words of an over-worked Wall Street banker.


They were the words of a high school student.

The pricey Mandarin tutors, volunteer activities and industrial sports complex had given this student a message.

You’re not doing enough. You aren’t enough.

High-achieving (and “at-risk”) kids

The trope about kids these days is that they’re coddled.

They get participation trophies. They’re shielded from criticism. They’re overly connected to their feelings from years of therapy.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Particularly for “youth in high-achieving schools.” (Not my definition, we’ll explain below.)

The data is particularly jarring for this group of kids.

Their parents make good money and are well educated. They live in affluent neighborhoods with great schools. These families represent the top 20% of US households, beginning at $130,000 of annual income. At these schools, the students on average test in the top 25% of all US students.

(Said differently, their parents are RadReaders.)

Now you may be thinking that we’re talking about the elite private schools in NYC (Avenues) or LA (Harvard Westlake). But the data captures students in public and private schools in just about every state in the US ranging from Maine to New Mexico.

The troubling news for these youth in “high-achieving schools?”

They are considered an “at risk group.”

This is according to a 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Right alongside other “at risk groups” including:

Kids living in poverty and foster care.

Kids whose parents just immigrated to the US.

And wait for it:

Kids with incarcerated parents.

You read that correctly. Your neighbor’s kid who’s trying to get a rowing scholarship at Dartmouth is statistically as likely to suffer from clinical anxiety, depression and prone to substance abuse as a child with parents in jail.

Are the parents the problem?

“The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”

In my own parenting, I often come back to this quote from Carl Jung.

As parents we have our insecurities.

We have visions for our lives (which may be falling short).

And we genuinely want our kids to be happy.

But somewhere along the way, friendly soccer scrimmages turn into Ivy League Hunger Games, creative projects morph into college admissions tomes and students get pitted against one another for the coveted spots at prestigious colleges.

Personally (and thankfully), we’ve got some time before our girls head to college. But I’ve been devouring Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s new book Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — and damn it’s terrifying.

As I read through the book (and full disclosure, I’m only 1/3 through it) all I could think of was the following.

The kids and parents are feeling the same thing.

Wallace interviewed countless kids (and parents) from across the US.

One teenager said:

“I wish my parents knew that it was ok for me to get less than perfect grades sometimes. It’s ok not to be exceptional at everything.”

(We have a podcast episode Why do we fear being ordinary?)

Another said:

“It felt like my worth was tied to my grades.”

(One of our most common questions: Who am I without achievement? and check out my Twitter bio 👇)

And yet another:

“We live in a community where your grades, how you look, your weight, what your house looks like — everything has to be the best, to be perfect, and to look effortless.”

(We recently explored the paradox of the perfect life.)

So what’s really going on?

The fears begin at the economic level. It’s a scary and competitive world out there. This puts our scarcity mindset on overdrive.

No one can afford a house.

AI is taking jobs.

The middle class is being eviscerated.

We’re just one health crisis away from being bankrupted.

There’s a pervasive (and very real sense) that there are fewer and fewer guarantees in today’s America.

As such, Wallace argues that parents are weaving together “individualized safety nets” in an attempt to:

Maximize their children’s personal achievement and happiness, while constantly anticipating any potential obstacles to success and well-being.

So the computer science bootcamps and the college admissions consultants are just an insurance policy against a fraught tomorrow.

But here’s the thing, insurance ain’t free. (FWIW, the sellers of insurance are usually the ones making all of the money.)

And even if you’re insured, you have to go out and do the thing.

The “safeguarding of status”

Putting aside the economic concerns parents have for their kids, there’s another force at play here.

Good ‘ol status games.

And while no one wants to say it out loud – it feels great if your kid scores 3 goals.

And not as great when they’re warming the bench.

Intellectually, many of us reject status. But since status is relative – we feel its effects all the time.

And the elite have another benefit: resources.

Yes, they have the wealth and the time to dedicate to vigilantly protecting that status.

Never Enough describes the research of Melissa Milking and Catharine Warner on status safeguarding, which they define as:

The decades-long project of ensuring that our offspring don’t suffer a generational decline in standing. [This safeguarding] involves mapping out optimal school activities, hobbies , and social and emotional skills that we hope will improve our children’s life chances and eventually happiness.

And then there’s the scary fact that when you have more… you have more to lose.

According to researchers Fabrizio Ziliboti and Matthias Doepke:

The slope of potential societal decline is steepest at the top and well-off parents can feel especially compelled to safeguard against a drop in their child’s socioeconomic status.

The “smoke detector” principle

So the combination of economic insecurity and the loss of status create a combustible mix.

Psychology professor Randolph Nesse calls this the smoke detector principle.

Our brains have been wired to feel stress even when our survival isn’t at risk.

When the smoke detector goes off when we burn a bagel our evolutionary alarms go off. Even though we know we’re clearly not at harm.

(It’s the same physical stress reaction that we feel when our boss sends us a Slack message on a Saturday.)

Nesse argues that this “biological tripwire” generates false-positives – especially in the competitive academic environment that surrounds our kids.

He continues:

“Our brains aren’t great at distinguishing between a real threat, like someone with gun, and a perceived threat, like our child getting cut from the A team, denied a scholarship, or rejected from their first-choice college.”

Ultimately, it’s about happiness

If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d pick happiness.

Amy Chua

I suspect most of us would agree with that statement.

But there’s a problem.

That button doesn’t exist.

To be continued in a few weeks…

Here’s how we can help you

For instant Access, Enter your Details Below:

🔒 Privacy Protected by our “Zero Spam” Policy

For instant Access, Enter your Details Below:

🔒 Privacy Protected by our “Zero Spam” Policy