The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
Jennifer Wallace is an accomplished journalist who frequently contributes to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. A graduate of Harvard, Wallace began her professional career at CBS “60 Minutes,” and is currently a Journalism Fellow at the The Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Jennifer’s new book is entitled Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It. Jennifer joins the podcast to discuss the concept of “mattering” and the origins of the toxic achievement culture — and how those caught in its cycle can begin to step off the hamster wheel.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
Tom: Jennie, welcome to the show.
Jennifer: Ah, thanks for having me.
Tom: Well, I really enjoyed reading your book, and I’m not going to say this to flatter you, but in all sincerity, when I finished reading this book, I had the thought to myself that every parent and every teenager in America should read this book.
I feel like the kinds of problems and questions that you raise are just, they’re so epidemic. So, thank you for doing that work. It was well received on my end and in my family.
Jennifer: I really appreciate that. And I think you gave me the highest compliment. My real big goal in this was to help families contextualize what they’re going through in their homes instead of personalizing it. So, I wanted parents to realize, you’re not imagining this. Childhood has completely shifted from when we were growing up. And everybody is feeling this pressure.
Tom: Well I’ve got a lot of questions I want to ask you about the book itself.
But before I do that, I want to ask some questions about you. First of all, are you a parent yourself?
Jennifer: I am. I have three teenagers. 17, 16, and 13.
Tom: So in doing the reporting and investigating for this book, you are very much a subject matter as well as the author here, right?
Jennifer: Very much. This was me-search, not just research.
This was a book that I needed to write for myself to make sense of this landscape, this hidden parenting landscape, and to know what I could be doing in my house.
Tom: So I could imagine you could, in interviewing parents, you could very much see yourself in asking those questions. You could probably see some aspects of your own children in the teenagers that you interviewed.
I was curious, did you see some of yourself in the teenagers that you interviewed?
Jennifer: Yeah, very much. I mean, growing up, I would say that I was definitely a high achiever. Some people would call me an overachiever, but I always found that insulting. But as I was writing this, I was thinking back to being 12 years old and throwing pennies in fountains and my wish would always be to know everything about everything.
Which I think is pretty telling when other people were wishing for a car. I was wishing to know everything about everything. So, I’ve had that curiosity and that drive has been around forever. But what’s different I believe from when I was growing up to now is that my entire life wasn’t defined by my achievements.
They were important to me and they were an important part of my life. But they didn’t define my childhood. Like, I see it in so many children today, that it’s singularly defining them now and in the future.
Tom: How would you describe your own mindset as you were preparing for college, applying for college? Like, what did the world look like through your eyes then, if it’s different from the way kids are looking at it now?
Jennifer: Oh, my gosh. I did not look at college as… In any way defining who I was or who I was going to be, you know, Frank Bruni has the best title Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. And I think that there is this misnomer out there today, and it’s understandable, that parents and kids are relying on a brand-name college, a highly selective college, a highly rejective college as a kind of life vest in a sea of uncertainty. We’ve given the college brand such a level of importance. The research doesn’t back it up.
The research doesn’t back up that we should be putting as much energy and time and thinking into where a child goes to college. There are so many other factors that lead to a fulfilling, successful, meaningful life.
Tom: Do you remember that moment when you received your college acceptance letter? I assume you, like me, probably got it in the mail.
Jennifer: There was no emails. Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t remember. And I’ll also tell you, nobody was recording it and no one was putting it on social media and we weren’t having big parties and, you know, my family didn’t feel like they were defined by it. And my, you know, my school wasn’t plastering it in the school newspaper in the school bulletin, my local newspaper wasn’t running it.
So I wasn’t walking around in a sweatshirt with its name on it. I was busy worrying about my summer job and spending time with my friends and getting better at tennis and all of these other things that were occupying a more balanced life than what I’ve seen.
Tom: Now I know you as a, as a journalist and writer, was kind of journalism and writing a focus for you as an undergraduate or is that something you came to later post-graduation?
Jennifer: So, I was an English major and in high school I, you know, was very strong in, in the humanities and in writing. Those were sort of my strengths. And so when I graduated, I went to work as an assistant to Ved Mehta at the New Yorker and he was writing a book about William Shawn’s New Yorker and that was fascinating.
And he was, uh, blind. And so I would sit with him every day and type his words. He would sort of dictate them. And what I learned in sitting with him for hours at a time was that… Writing a book, writing in general, is not about waiting for a whim or when the mood strikes. It’s not a romantic practice. It is a practical work, just like laying down bricks or building a house, writing, you sit at your desk, you put in the time, you put in the hours, you hope it comes out the way you want, but it improves through the rewrites.
So it was, it was sitting with Ved Mehta and seeing the work and the practice of writing that inspired me. And then I, I went over to Doubleday, and I became a very young associate editor. And just the pace was a little too slow for me. So, I decided to go to television and sort of stretch myself and try that out.
And so made my way over to CBS and luckily got a spot at 60 minutes and spent much of my, well, at the beginning of my journalism career there for close to 10 years, I think it was eight years in the New York office and then two years freelancing when I moved to London. And I got to, I mean, it was an extraordinary time to be there.
Jennifer: It was Don Hewitt, who was the, you know, created 60 Minutes, but also created the whole you know, TV news magazine format, and Mike Wallace was there, and Morley Safer was there, and Ed Bradley was there, and Steve Kroft was there, Leslie Stahl. They were giants, and working among the giants was humbling and exciting, and oh boy, did I learn so much in my time there.
Tom: I want to turn now to your book, Never Enough, and I want to ask you how it came about.
Jennifer: So three things happened in 2019 that caused me to want to invest the time into researching this topic. So the first thing was my son was in eighth grade and about to enter high school and it struck me that I have four years left of him at home to instill my values to give him the tools and the scaffolding and I wanted to know what should I be focusing on at home to prepare him for adulthood. So that, that was one thing that was in my head. The second thing that struck me was the Varsity Blues scandal hit. And if you remember that, that was when parents from the East Coast and the West Coast were charged with conspiracy and bribing to get their kids into a highly selective college.
And I thought, why are, how have we gotten to this point where parents are now willing to go to jail to get their kids into a selective college? I wasn’t buying the idea that parents just wanted a bumper sticker on the back of their car. As a reporter, I felt like there was something deeper here. There was a deeper story and I wanted to find out what that deeper story was.
And then the third thing, um, was in 2019, I wrote an article for the Washington Post that was reporting on two national policy reports. One by the National Academies of Sciences and one by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. that found that students who were attending what researchers call “high achieving schools.”
Those are competitive public and private schools around the country where kids go off to four year colleges, where the schools have, you know, a lot of resources, offer advanced classes and extracurriculars. Those kids attending those high achieving schools were now officially an at-risk group, at risk for higher rates, anywhere from two to six times.
Higher rates of clinical levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. My kids were going to one of those high achieving schools. And so I wanted to know, 1) how we got here. And 2) what I could do in my home, what schools can do, and what we could do at the community level to buffer against this excessive pressure to achieve.
Tom: Yeah, I was shocked to hear that news of labeling these high achieving kids as… officially at risk, like that terminology. And the way that I heard about the report from the National Academy of Sciences, where I previously worked, was sitting in the pews at church the pastor actually referenced your article and said “News to everyone sitting here on the Philadelphia mainline this is full of at risk youths,” And it was just a penny could drop in that setting, so I’m not surprised at all that that was kind of the take off point, because I think that was a, just a wake up call for families that thought they lived in a place where their kids would be safe and be able to have a good future for them, when in fact, they were put in, as what you, as you called it, the gilded pressure cooker, which I thought is a great, great term.
Tom: Your book has many great terms, and stories of interviews that you’ve done. Can you tell for our listeners who haven’t read the book one of the stories of one of the teenagers that you interviewed of what it was like for him or her to be in the gilded pressure cooker?
Jennifer: Oh my gosh yes, so I opened the story with one teenager that I interviewed several times over the course of three years and the first time she and I met was over zoom and I was asking her, we were comparing bedtimes and wake ups and she said to me. Oh, you know, I’m not I’m not a night person I really love getting my sleep and I and she said, you know, I go to bed before midnight most days. And then, you know, when I have a paper or an exam, I wake up before five and I knew that she was a varsity athlete. And I said to her, how do you practice on five ‑ And she was a state champion. How do you practice on five hours of sleep? And she tightened her ponytail on the zoom, and she said to me without any irony, “Oh, those are the days I run practice laps with my eyes closed.” And I thought to myself, Oh my God, what an image. That number one, this girl thinks that she’s not even working hard with the five hours of sleep.
And that two, running your practice with your eyes closed is some solution. I fell in love with every student and family that I interviewed. They were remarkable. They were so honest with me. And we kept in touch over the course of the three and a half years of research. One student talked about how the pressure in his public school in Washington state was so extreme that friends wouldn’t share notes with each other.
If they missed a class. Another boy told me about how there was rampant cheating in the school. Cheating is, is very prevalent in these communities. And so the school administrators passed out a sheet asking students to please, you know, say yes or no if they’ve seen students in the past week cheating, but not to write down the names.
And one student and a few of his peers wrote down the names of their quote, “math rivals” in the class, even though they had not cheated, just so that they could try to take away any teacher recommendations and make them less competitive for the top colleges that they were going for. So they sabotaged their, their classmate.
Tom: Sounds like a really nasty, nasty experience.
Jennifer: In the name of achievement, what are we doing?
Tom: After the break, Jennifer and I talk about what healthy achievers look like, the messages kids do need to hear, and how those caught in the cycle of toxic achievement culture can take the first step off the hamster wheel.
Abby: You’re listening to the Templeton Ideas Podcast from the John Templeton Foundation. If you’re enjoying this episode, check out templeton.org/news for more awe-inspiring perspectives from scholars, journalists, and colleagues. You can sign up there to get our newsletter in your inbox or follow us wherever you are on social media.
Abby: Now, let’s get back to our conversation.
Tom: Stepping back a little bit, what would you say are the primary messages these high achieving kids in achievement culture, what are the messages that they’re hearing?
Jennifer: Absolutely. Just to be clear, this is not an anti-achievement or anti-ambitious book. I am ambitious. I’m an achiever. I love it. But as we talked about earlier, it’s only one part of my life.
I’m also an ambitious friend and I’m an ambitious parent and I’m an ambitious community member. But for these kids, the ambition and the achievement was directly coupled with their self-worth. So if they achieved and they got the accolades, they felt good about themselves. When they fell short, when they failed, when they had setbacks, it was a devastating response.
They, they, so toxic achievement culture to me is this tight entangling of self-worth and achievement. And what I attempt to do in the book is to unravel that and untangle self-worth and achievement, because that’s where we’ve really gone wrong and set these kids up for anxiety and depression, when you believe that you matter and that you are valued and that your self-worth is fully dependent on your external achievements, that is a very tough life and a tough road.
Tom: If there’s a recipe, if one could call it that, for parents and for society at large, for sort of making children into, well adjusted, happy, fulfilled, even successful, depending on how we want to define people.
What are the key ingredients that are missing from the recipe that we’re kind of playing out in a regular basis now?
Jennifer: Oh, exactly. So let me step back and tell you, in this book, I went in search of the healthy achievers. I wanted to know, what did they have in common? What did their parents focus on at home?
What were their behaviors like? What were their mindsets like? What were their relationships like? As I was searching for a framework to present my findings, I came across the answer to your question. Which is a psychological construct called mattering. Mattering has been around since the 1980s. It was originally conceptualized by Morris Rosenberg, who brought us the idea of self-esteem and what he found in the ‘80s and what researchers have found since then.
is that feeling valued for who you are at your core by your family, your friends and your community and being depended on to add meaningful value back to your family, to your friends, to your community, that acts like a protective shield.
So the kids who were doing well in these pressured environments. Had this high level of mattering, protecting them. It didn’t mean that they weren’t anxious or depressed sometimes. They had setbacks, they had failures, but they were not, these failures and setbacks were not an indictment. They used mattering.
It almost acted like a buoy that would lift them up when they fell down. Um, the kids who seem to be struggling the most were 1.) The kids who felt like their mattering was contingent on their performance, meaning they only mattered when, and the other group of kids who seemed to be struggling were kids who felt valued, but were never depended on or relied on to add meaningful value back to anyone other than themselves.
And so what that did is those kids lacked social proof. That they mattered. So if I were to, you know, the two things that are missing, kids are not feeling valued for who they are at their core, and they are not being relied on to add meaningful value back. Those are the missing ingredients.
Tom: What messages do you think kids need to hear to help counteract this sort of toxic soup that they find themselves in?
Jennifer: Oh my gosh I think the number one message and for parents it means giving this message every day that your worth is your worth and it does not ride on your accomplishments and one very wise mother that I interviewed makes this point to her kids whenever they have a setback or a failure. When they come home down, she will reach into her wallet and take out a 20 dollar bill. And she’ll hold that $20 bill up and say to her child, do you want this money?
And the child will say, yes. And then she’ll say, okay, hang on. She’ll crumple it up, throw it on the floor, dirty it up, and then very dramatically dunk it in a glass of water. And then she will hold up this soggy, dirty $20 bill and she will ask her child, do you still want this money? And the child will say, yes.
And she’ll say, like this $20 bill, your value doesn’t change whether you are cut from the team or you fail a test, your value is your value.
And I’ve done that with my kids and I’ve made a point to, at home, try to drown out some of the messages of our toxic achievement culture and correct the lies that they hear day in and day out. Like where you go to college is equals your worth. It’s insane. It’s, I don’t know how, well, I do know how we got here because I looked into it, but it still surprises me as someone who’s been studying it for three and a half years, how we got here.
Tom: Do you see kind of at the heart of some of the struggle and suffering – Do people have the wrong goals or is it they’re going after those goals in the wrong way? Because I think it shouldn’t be this way.
Jennifer: Right. I think there are a few things going on. I think we increasingly live in a more materialistic society and Tim Kasser, who is one of the leading researchers on materialism has found in his research and others have found this as well that our values impact our well-being and where we live, our local communities can activate certain values.
And when we are living in high achieving communities, those materialistic values really are activated. And what Tim Kasser and others have found is that materialistic values are linked with poor mental health and increased substance abuse disorders. So I do think it’s the goals. And I also think it is that our kids are getting the message, and this is one of Suniya Luthar’s research papers is titled this, I can, therefore I must.
Jennifer: When you have all of these opportunities, when you have all of the APs that you can take, when you have access to the travel soccer team, when you have access to all of these things, tutors, coaches, these kids feel like they have to do it. They, they feel compelled to take advantage of all of their advantages.
In the book, I call it the encore effect, which is this particular mental burden that kids who are growing up in these affluent communities feel to replicate their own childhoods, right? How you grow up becomes almost like a baseline of what you want for your own family. And one student I interviewed who was in high school said to me, you know, I asked my mother once, I wanted to be an architect, where would I live?
And his mother said, you could live anywhere. And he said, I Zillowed our house. I know how much my private school is. And I know the average salary for an architect. And I can’t raise my kids the way you raised me on an architect’s salary. So this backs up into an even bigger story of why my kid’s childhood was so different than my own.
And those are macroeconomic forces that are at play now. In the seventies and early eighties when I was growing up, life was generally more affordable. Real estate was more affordable, healthcare was more affordable, food was more affordable, higher education was more affordable. Parents could be relatively certain that their kids could make some wrong moves and still end up okay.
But we are seeing now a first generation that’s not doing as well as their parents. We’re feeling and absorbing this steep inequity. We’re seeing the crush of the middle class, hyper competition, globalization. And in the words of Tom Curran at the London School of Economics, parents have become social conduits.
We are absorbing these macroeconomic pressures and it’s coming out in our parenting. So it’s a long answer to your question, but it’s both the goals, and the pressures that we are putting on ourselves to hit them.
Tom: If a parent or a teenager, or even a teacher, administrator, or coach, reads this book and says, I want out, I want to get off the hamster wheel, tell me, what’s that first step?
Jennifer: This is going to sound counterintuitive, but this is the first step. So decades of resilience research find that the number one thing you can do for a child in distress, the number one intervention, is to make sure the primary caregivers, the adults in that children’s life, that their well-being, their mental health, their support system is intact.
Because the child’s resilience rests on the resilience of the adults in their lives. And the adults’ resilience today, and there’s, you know, we are, it’s not just our youth who are struggling. The adults in their lives are struggling as well. And it’s not that we’re not responsive. Suniya Luthar calls us the first responders to our children’s struggles.
Coaches are first responders. Teachers are first responders. Parents are first responders. We need to make sure our support system is intact and resilience rests on relationships. It is not the take a bubble bath or take a trip, take a walk. Those were all great ways of reducing stress. But our resilience is primarily based on our relationships.
And unfortunately, what I saw in these communities, it’s not that the adults in these communities didn’t have friends. It’s that they didn’t have the time to invest in their friendships so that these friendships would be a source of support when needed. So Suniya Luthar and I had a conversation about this and I said, so are you telling me put on my oxygen mask first?
And she said, no. That’s not what I’m telling you. I’m not asking adults who are overstretched to add one more thing to their to do list. I am telling you to find one or two people in your life that you can rely on, that you could be vulnerable to, who can notice when you are struggling, when you were gasping for air so that they put the mask on for you.
And that to me is so profound. We have lost that. We have lost that in our pursuit of materialistic values, of career success and social media success and image success. Um, we have really shortchanged what tons of research shows actually gives us the meaning and fulfillment and wellbeing that we want. Actually, just one little aside.
I found this so interesting that researchers believe that we pursue materialistic goals. We pursue the big job, uh, getting into the right college, all of that in order to be worthy of relationships. And so what I’m here to tell you is that we need to communicate to our kids that they are already worthy.
And this is not to say that, that, you know, mattering that they already matter that, that they’ll rest on their laurels. What I found in my research is that the kids who felt like they mattered for who they were at their core, they took greater risks, academic risks. They went for bigger goals. They failed and they tried again.
So if we’re looking for this long term motivation, this healthy, clean fuel, it’s in mattering. And as the adults in their lives, we need to shore up our own mattering so that we can help our kids with their mattering.
Tom: There are a lot of anxious high school students, maybe even one of yours, that is looking squarely in the eyes of college decisions right now. Of where to apply, where to visit. I’m wondering, based on this research you did, what kind of criteria could they use that could put us on a better path?
Jennifer: So I have a rising senior who is applying to colleges, and I had him read a section in my book called “Reject the Premise”, and it laid out all of the research that we have, decades worth of research, on what actually leads to career success, financial wellbeing, and emotional wellbeing.
And it is not a college rank, it is not whether it’s a big school or a small school or a private school or a public school. And I think most of us know this intuitively, right? So the conversations that we’re having in our house now are about fit and about what do you want to do when you get onto that campus because what the research shows is really that whether a child matters on campus, if they feel valued by their classmates, by their professors, and if they are relied on to add value back, is what is going to help a student thrive in college and beyond.
So the conversations we have in our house are, number 1.), we don’t look at the rankings. Because, you know, I think U. S. News and World Report, if there’s one sort of bad guy in this story, it’s them, you know, and, and I’m so pleased by all of the press that’s coming out, just showing like how artificial these rankings are, schools are pulling out from being ranked, and I think more and more should be doing that.
So we don’t talk about rankings in our house, and we talk about fit, and we talk about what will you do on this campus? Is this a place where you feel like you could thrive? So, those are the conversations I’m having at home.
Tom: Is there a question we can kind of ask ourselves to kind of take a temperature, like a barometric pressure on how we’re doing that you think would be a good, a regular check in with self? Am I a slave to this achievement culture or am I pivoting away from it?
Jennifer: I mean, the question is, do I feel like I matter for who I am at my core and am I being depended on by others. Do I have social proof of my mattering? I have really gone deep into this mattering research and I have co-founded with colleagues and leading experts in the field, something called the mattering movement. Where people can go and take their mattering metric and look for areas in their life they can tweak to feed their mattering. I have some toolkits for parents and for teachers and educators. So the, the mattering movement is, is the action arm of the book for people who want to go deeper than a 230 page book will get you.
Tom: I’m thinking about listeners who aren’t parents and who wouldn’t be able to maybe implement this in their households. What kind of advice do you have for say, let’s bracket not parents. How do you show someone that they matter on their sports team in the classroom or in the workplace?
Jennifer: It doesn’t take much. It’s, it’s not a huge shift. I was doing a Zoom call with some executives at Resy, the online restaurant reservation company. And one young man, probably in his early thirties, said to me, is there something you could do when, something you could say to yourself when you’re really feeling low? And like you don’t matter? And I said, I think the best thing to do actually is to turn that lens outward and make someone else feel like they matter. Go to the cafeteria in your building and thank the man or the woman who makes you the warm lunch and say to them, you know, your smile, and this food is so delicious. It always makes me feel so good. And I’ve been having a hard week, but your smile and, and just knowing that I have the comfort of your food means the world to me. That will make you feel like you matter, unlock mattering in someone else.
Tom: Jennie, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. It was a real delight both to read your book and to talk to you about it.
Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me on Tom.
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