Dismantling Toxic Achievement Culture | Jennifer Breheny Wallace

Jennifer Breheny Wallace

We all want the best for ourselves and our kids. As parents, it’s maybe one of the most universal human drives. We want to thrive and succeed, and see our kids, or kids we care about, do the same. 

But what if, what’s become the dominant achievement-focused definition of success, is actually harming us, and them? Whether it’s rooted in grades, sports, relationships, admissions to the “best” schools or jobs, or rising up a certain ladder that we’re supposed to want to climb, or just existing in an achievement-obsessed society, the relentless pressure we put both on ourselves and our kids today is real, coming at us from all directions. 

And, according to a mounting volume of research, and, c’mon, if we’re really being honest, a collapse of happiness and peace-of-mind, and the rise of anxiety and angst, this has been a wildly failed experiment.

So riddle me this – if pushing ourselves and kids to constantly achieve, achieve, achieve is so destructive, why do we keep doing it? Why do we hide or downplay the toxic effects of pervasive pressure culture? The truth is, ignoring this crisis just makes things worse. Skyrocketing anxiety, depression, loneliness and substance abuse in youth, from the most affluent and supported to the most in need, screams that our model of success is broken.

So what’s a better approach? That’s where we’re headed in today’s eye-opening conversation with my guest, Jennifer B. Wallace. Her new book, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It, offers research-driven solutions drawn from interviews with families struggling to find balance amid our achievement-crazed culture.

As a parent herself, Jennifer understands the pull to help our kids succeed. But she also reveals the unintended harm in our current definition of success. Her message invites us to re-examine our values and connect more deeply as families and communities to cultivate healthy, resilient youth.

Excited to have you join us as we explore alternatives to the toxic achievement culture harming our kids.

You can find Jennifer at: Website | Instagram | Episode Transcript

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Episode Transcript:

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:00:00) – Surveyed 500 young adults ages 18 to 30. And I asked them, what do they wish their parents knew about any pressures they may have felt in high school? And their responses were quite hard to read as a parent, one student said, I wish they would have understood that grades are not everything. They’re pressure to be an overachiever was the catalyst for my depression and anxiety issues. Another student wrote to me. It felt like my worth was tied to my grades, and one student wrote, I wish my parents knew that it was okay for me to get less than perfect grades. Sometimes it’s okay not to be exceptional at everything. 1 in 4 kids feel like their parents love them more when they are successful, and no matter how high they reached, the bar would just get higher. It was never enough.

Jonathan Fields (00:00:56) – So we all want the best for ourselves and our kids. And as parents, it’s maybe one of the most universal human drives. We want to thrive and succeed and see our kids or kids that we care about or who are in our care do the same.

Jonathan Fields (00:01:11) – But what if what’s become the dominant, achievement focused definition of success is actually harming us in them, whether it’s rooted in grades, sports, relationships, admissions to the best schools or jobs, or rising up a certain ladder that were supposed to want to climb, or just existing in this achievement obsessed society with relentless pressure that we put on both ourselves and kids today, it’s real and it’s coming at us from all directions and according to a mounting volume of research. And come on, if we’re really being honest, a collapse of happiness and peace of mind and the rise of anxiety and angst that we all see around us, this has been a wildly failed experiment. So riddle me this If pushing ourselves and our kids to constantly achieve, achieve, achieve is so destructive, eventually to our state of being of mind and often health, why do we keep doing it? Why do we hide or downplay the toxic effects of pervasive pressure culture? The truth is, ignoring this crisis just makes things worse. Skyrocketing anxiety and depression, loneliness and substance abuse in adults and youth from the most affluent and supported to the most in need screams that our model of success is broken.

Jonathan Fields (00:02:29) – So then what’s a better approach? That’s where we’re headed in today’s eye opening conversation with my guest Jennifer B Wallace. So in her new book, Never Enough, When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What We Can Do About It, she offers research driven solutions from scientists and labs all over the world to extensive interviews that she’s done with families struggling to find balance. Among this achievement created culture. And as a parent herself, Jennifer understands the pull to help our kids succeed. But she also reveals the unintended harm in our current definition of success. And her message really invites us to reexamine our values and connect more deeply as families and communities to cultivate a healthier, more resilient approach to living well and succeeding in the world. Excited to have you join in as we explore some different strategies and practices and alternatives to this achievement culture. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project. I remember back in 2019 catching a piece in Washington Post about how kids in sort of like high achieving schools were listed as being at risk.

Jonathan Fields (00:03:52) – And what caught me by surprise was that did not surprise me in any meaningful way. And I was wondering why it didn’t. And of course, I realize you wrote that piece and had gone deep into some of the research around it. Curious what brought you to being even curious about, you know, like diving in at that moment in time?

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:04:11) – Yeah. So I have three teenagers, and at the time in 2019, my oldest was about to enter high school. You know, ever since he was little, I was noticing how different my children’s childhood was from my own, how our weekends were fractured, how much more homework there was, how much more intense middle school felt. Everything just felt so high stakes in a way that that was just such a contrast to my upbringing. And in 2019, before I wrote that Washington Post article, the The Varsity Blues Scandal hit, and I was thinking, how did we get to the point where parents were now going to jail to get their kids a spot at a highly selective school? And I wasn’t buying the narrative that parents just wanted the bumper sticker.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:05:03) – It’s all about the logo. Felt like there was something deeper. I was seeing it in my community. It was status seeking that was driving so many of the people that I knew there was something deeper there. And so when I wrote that article, it was in part to raise an alarm bell, but also to start digging into solutions and what we can do to buffer against this. It was surprising to me that they are considered an at risk group, but that’s sort of what got me interested the shift in my childhood to my children’s childhood.

Jonathan Fields (00:05:42) – Yeah, And both of us having raised kids in New York City, it’s interesting because there’s a potential to say, well, this is a phenomenon that may be exclusive to a particular set of people in a particular location, and especially in New York City. It’s legendary how kids get tracked for the right college in preschool when they’re three years old. You know, it’s and people are fighting and lining up and trying to donate to get into the places. But what was fascinating to me is that it really isn’t exclusive to sort of like this one bizarre universe.

Jonathan Fields (00:06:14) – You were seeing this all over the place.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:06:16) – Before I set out to write the book, I reached out to a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I wanted to do a survey, a national survey to see if this in fact, this achievement pressure that I was feeling in New York, if it was really being felt everywhere, because I didn’t want to write a book, if it was just about the East Coast and the West Coast, I wanted to know sort of what parents were feeling. And so the researcher said to me, okay, we want to get a sample size of a thousand so that we can really notice patterns. But then pretty quickly, the numbers clocked up and over 6500 parents filled out that survey. And I heard from parents from Alaska, from Washington State, Maine, Ohio, Wyoming, Texas, Florida, literally every state. And I asked them how much they agreed or disagreed on a scale from 1 to 4 with these statements. One was others think that my children’s academic success is a reflection of my parenting.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:07:20) – 83% of parents felt like their kids success was a reflection of their parenting, as seen by other members of the community. When I asked parents how much whether they agreed or disagreed on a scale from 1 to 4, I feel like I am responsible for my children’s success and achievement. 75% of parents felt that way. And then I asked them, I wish today’s childhood was less stressful for my kids. On a scale from 1 to 4, how much did they agree? 87% of parents agreed with that statement. So on the one hand, we feel this tremendous responsibility to make our children a success and an achiever. And on the other hand, we feel caught because we want their childhoods to be less stressful. So I think a lot of parents are feeling caught in this. They’re caught in a system. These pressures that parents are feeling are what I was hoping to get out with the survey is that these pressures are bigger than any one family, any one school, any one community.

Jonathan Fields (00:08:24) – Yeah, I mean, it’s so powerful, especially when you have over 6000 people literally distributed from all over the place.

Jonathan Fields (00:08:31) – I don’t want to lose this this designation that you sort of mentioned in that 2009. Based on Sunil Luther’s research also. Which is at risk. What does that actually mean.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:08:42) – At risk when it comes to these high achieving students, as the researchers call them, or students from these high achieving schools? It means that they are 2 to 6 times, depending on the study, 2 to 6 times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. So we’re not talking about occasional sadness. We are talking about clinical levels of anxiety and depression. And it is because of a, quote, excessive pressure to achieve. So what I found in speaking with the researchers who have been studying this population since the 1990s, is that what used to act as a buffer in a child’s life? The relationship with the parent, the relationship with the teachers, relationships with peers, relationships with coaches, these relationships are now too often added sources of pressure. So instead of home being a place to recover, kids are getting the feeling, rightfully or wrongfully, that their parents love feels conditional, that they love them more when they achieve.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:09:53) – Coaches are part of a $20 billion sports industrial complex where adults are now perversely incentivized to have young kids specialized because they need salaries year round, not just that one season. We have this multibillion dollar tutoring industry telling us that we need to be pushing our kids harder and harder and also peer relationships that used to be buffers against the stress these kids now feel pitted. I heard often in my interviews pitted against each other that instead of being happy that a friend got an award, one boy I interviewed who was so honest, the kids were so honest, as were the parents that I interviewed. One young guy said to me, you know, instead of saying, Oh, wow, good job about my friend. I think I should have worked harder. That should be me up there. You know, as I said to Sonia Luthor, the one of the world’s leading researchers on resilience and these high achieving kids, I said to her, where is all this pressure coming from? And she said to me, Where is it not? It’s coming from every direction.

Jonathan Fields (00:11:05) – So I’m wondering when you because as you just shared, you know, when you’re doing this survey and then eventually you actually go out and have like hundreds of of interviews to follow up on that, to say like, let’s go deeper. And it sounds like you talked to quite a number of kids, also, not just the parents. Did you have a sense when you’re sitting down with these kids that they were yearning to say these things that they were saying to you, but there was no other outlet for them to say it?

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:11:33) – Yes, that is such a good question. Yes. I actually surveyed with the help of another researcher at Baylor, 500 young adults ages 18 to 30. And I asked them, what do they wish their parents knew about any pressures they may have felt in high school? That was an open ended question, and their responses were quite hard to read As a parent. I have a couple here. One student said, I wish they would have understood that grades are not everything.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:12:05) – They’re pressure to be an overachiever was the catalyst for my depression and anxiety issues. Another student wrote to me. It felt like my worth was tied to my grades. And I’ll read one more. One student wrote, I wish my parents knew that it was okay for me to get less than perfect grades. Sometimes it’s okay not to be exceptional at everything. What I saw in the survey and what I heard when I was on the ground talking with kids is that they knew their parents loved them. But so often they said, My parents are happier, they love me more. The mood at home is so much better when I’m achieving. So we all have this through evolution, this negativity bias which has served us well. That’s how we were able to survive all these years. But this negativity bias, especially in the teen years, works over time. And even if a parent is not sending this signal by what we focus on, what we ask them about, we are sending these messages. Over 70% of the young adults I surveyed, and most of them were between 18 and 25.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:13:18) – They said that they thought their parents valued and appreciated them more when they were successful in work and in school. More than 50% went so far as to say they thought their parents loved them more when they were successful with 25% of. And saying they believed this a lot, the highest measure that the survey allowed. So 1 in 4 kids feel like their parents love them more when they are successful. So what the kids that I surveyed were telling me is that they felt like their value and their worth was contingent contingent on their success at school contingent, their social popularity contingent upon their, you know, making the A-Team of sports and then being the one making the most goals on the soccer field. I mean, there was always this, and no matter how high they reached, the bar would just get higher. It was never enough. Whatever they were doing, it was never enough.

Jonathan Fields (00:14:21) – Yeah, I mean, that’s the title of your new book, Never Enough. It’s sort of like you can never hit that point where you, quote made it.

Jonathan Fields (00:14:30) – And what’s interesting is made it here. We’re almost talking about just like feeling like you’re embraced and loved and seen and accepted. It’s not even like you’ve made it like you’re number one at what you’re doing or you’ve hit a certain amount of money in the bank or have you gotten into the college? Those are definitely bars that have risen almost obscenely, but we’re talking about just feeling like you’re appreciated and seen as a human being, which is genuinely heartbreaking.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:14:56) – It is. That is a human need. That is a universal human need. And that need is going unmet. It’s going unmet in the students I met. And it’s also going unmet in a lot of the adults I interviewed. They also struggled with feelings of being feeling valued and that, you know, their value was how well they were molding their kids into success and how well they were molding their own own lives into this very narrow definition of success that we’ve come to embrace as a culture. And it is harming our kids, but it’s also harming their parents.

Jonathan Fields (00:15:36) – Yeah, I mean, because you have to imagine also if these kids were sharing with you what they were suffering, it sounds like in no small part, on some level of silence that’s got to show up in the relationship between the parent and the kid in all sorts of stressful and disconnecting ways as well.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:15:56) – Absolutely. And it also shows up in the substance abuse disorder that kids were talking about. I mean, more than one student said to me, you know, parents think it’s peer pressure that’s getting us to drink. It’s not peer pressure. It’s achievement pressure. It’s feeling like I’m on this treadmill all week long, and the only way to shut it off is to black out. These kids were not talking about dabbling socially in a beer. They were talking about drinking to black out. That was the only way they could shut it down.

Jonathan Fields (00:16:30) – As you described. I don’t think there are many parents who basically show up and say, I don’t want the best for my kid. And granted, that gets defined in some pretty warped ways these days as part of what you’re saying.

Jonathan Fields (00:16:44) – But, you know, I don’t get the sense that we’re talking about parents having any sort of mal intent. Right. I think most parents are like, I really I want the best for my kid. I want them to be happy. I want them to feel loved. I want all I want all the things for them. And yet we don’t necessarily we don’t have a really good guidebook of how to provide that. One of the things that you talk about is this sense of parental anxiety. So some of this is multigenerational. Take me into that a little bit.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:17:13) – I heard this on several occasions with families. One father talked about it as generational trauma with the lowercase t, you know, I talk about in the book as unpacking your psychological attic and the messages that you were given in your childhood from your parents, your school about around achievement and really looking at those messages, unpacking them so that you do not pass those unwanted messages onto your own. Kids and parents talked about how, you know, it was several generations back that this narrowing definition of success, you have to look a certain way.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:17:52) – You have to go to a certain school, you have to do certain activities. This is what it means to be successful. And they talked about how that pressure weighed on them. It sometimes led to anxiety and depression. Other times it led to a substance abuse disorder where the parents, several that I spoke to who were extremely high achieving, talked about how they turn to substances to alleviate that pressure. That does not go away, that they are only as good as their next deal, that they are only as good as the next achievement. So in the book, I talk about unpacking our own psychological addicts and I talk about the importance of our own. Own resilience as parents. One of the biggest takeaways for me in this book is and as you said, I am not blaming parents. I am right there in the trenches. I wrote this book as much for parents as I wrote it for myself. Researchers call it me search when you write for yourself. So this is just to be clear, there is zero judgment in this book.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:18:58) – So one of the biggest surprises to me in researching this book is that the number one intervention for any child in distress is to make sure the primary caregivers, most often the parents that their well-being, that their support system, that their mental health is intact because a child’s resilience rests on their caregivers, resilience and caregivers. Resilience rests fundamentally on the depth and the strength of their relationships. So we are often told in our culture, you know, by the multibillion dollar self care industry that just by this candle put pour yourself a cup of tea, get in the bubble bath and you will bounce back and you’ll feel the resilience. Those are nice things, you know, going for a walk, really nice, getting sleep, necessary drinking a hot cup of tea. Very nice. But that’s not going to give you resilience. Resilience according to decades worth of research, resilience is found in the depth of your relationship. And it wasn’t that the parents I met in these communities didn’t have friends. They did. What they didn’t have was the time and bandwidth to invest in their friendships so that those friendships could be sources of support when needed.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:20:21) – As the researchers Sonia Luthor calls parents first responders to our kids struggles as a first responder, we need to be supported, just like we want to give our children that unconditional love. And we also need that unconditional love ourselves. We need 1 or 2 people outside of the home, outside of our marriage. Our marriages are already strained and overtaxed because of our one person villages. So what the research really finds is that you need 1 or 2 other people go to people that you could turn to when you’re distressed, that you could be vulnerable to, that you could show up and feel valued. And that was very powerful to me. It made me much more intentional about my friendships, much more intentional about carving time every week. The research finds it just needs to be one hour of deliberate time. We don’t need tons of time every night going out. We need one hour of deliberate time where we show up with our warts and all and we are loved and accepted. And that is what makes us resilient.

Jonathan Fields (00:21:33) – I mean, it’s so powerful. And at the same time, what’s fascinating about this is that the minimum dose needed is like you just it’s about an hour a week that’s objectively not a lot as something that will literally be instrumental in your ability to be a resilient human being, especially in the context of the level of achievement pressure that adults put on themselves and the level of status preservation that we tend to pile on to not just the kids, but then ourselves. I think that starts with us, right? But if you are somebody where you have a certain definition of success and maybe you’ve achieved a certain level of status, part of the sort of the societal baggage is. But if I actually share what’s really going on with that 1 or 2 people, even an hour a week, they’re going to see that like this thing, you know, that from the outside looking in is, quote, success or quote, status. Maybe it’s not entirely real. And that’s terrifying.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:22:39) – It is. I think there is a lot of as researchers would call it, perfectionistic presentation among high achieving people that we live in a very hyper individualistic society that we have been raised to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:22:58) – I don’t know if you’ve ever tried that. It’s literally impossible. I’ve tried it. I don’t even know how it became a thing because you literally cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. But we, you know, especially men have been conditioned to believe that they need to get it together on their own. But what I have found among the healthy strivers that I met both parents and kids, was that they possessed the skills of interdependence, not just independence, interdependence, which is defined by me as relying on others and having other. Others rely on us in healthy ways. And what that does is it gives us social proof that we matter above and beyond our achievements. And that is something as a parent that I have worked to instill in my own kids since researching this book, this idea of healthy interdependence, I model for them. When I reach out for support, I show them like, I’ll give you an example. My daughter was writing a paper and she considers herself and she is a very good writer and she was discouraged to see all the feedback from her teacher.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:24:10) – And so I brought her over to my computer and I pulled up a first edit from a very seasoned science editor at The Washington Post, my first article for them, and there were red marks everywhere. And she was like, Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that they let you write for them. And I said to her, I know at first I was a little embarrassed to need so much guidance and support, but then I looked at it another way. I said, this is an editor who is investing in me. She is making me better. And so I try to model that healthy interdependence. I have a lot of big takeaways from my own family, but one thing that I have instituted in our family is a mantra Never worry alone. I got this from Ned Hallowell, who’s a psychiatrist. And, you know, I think it’s true of parents and it’s true of our kids that if there’s one thing that we can remember when we are down, when we are feeling depressed, is to reach out and never worry alone.

Jonathan Fields (00:25:10) – And also, like very intuitive. And yet on the surface, we don’t necessarily take action because we layer all sorts of fear of judgment, fear of being outcast, all these different things on top of it. So we’re like, Ah, I’ll just go it alone. It’s interesting to the notion of I’ve been having increasing numbers of conversation around the role of knowing that and being a part of a collective and how that how critical that is in the human experience and how we have come up with generations of this ethos of the rugged individual and how it’s creating a lot of harm and how like that was never actually how humanity existed. And it’s a very modern and very Western overlay that is often wildly dysfunctional and harmful. And yet it has become the dominant ethos in so many families, so many towns, so many cultures, so many communities. But I feel like there’s been a pendulum swing. It’s just starting to swing back to the importance of us in the context of a larger collective. I’m wondering if you’re sensing that, too.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:26:20) – Oh, absolutely. I think Covid showed us how much we need each other, how interdependent we really are. And I think Covid gave people permission to talk about their loneliness. You know, people feel ashamed of being lonely. They think they’re the only ones. But it’s an epidemic. And our surgeon general is, you know, talking about loneliness as one of the crises of our time, the healthy strivers, those families that I met, one of the things they had in common was that they didn’t go it alone, that those parents would say to their kids, Here’s a list of four parents in our community that you can call, you can reach out to. You have carte blanche to talk to them about anything that’s bothering you. And so in the book, I call this, you know, replace yourself. Think who are the adults in your child’s life that can give them the support they need when either not available or maybe they need another ear besides you. And so I’ve really taken that seriously.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:27:28) – And I have literally said to my children, Here are three families that I trust explicitly. Whenever you have an issue, if you don’t want to talk about it with us, you have full permission. There’s nothing you have to hide from them. They are like family to us and I think it’s given them a real sense of community. Mean when you think about it, when I was growing up, I knew my neighbors. I knew all my neighbors. We fed each other’s goldfish. We took each other’s newspapers in when there was a storm. We called and checked in. When we didn’t see anybody on the sidewalk for a few days, we made sure they were okay. Now, I don’t know what the stat is, but it’s staggering how few of us know our neighbors. I live in an apartment building in New York, so I have in my elevator line there are a bunch of young families like mine, although we’re not that young families anymore, but we all have teenagers. But I have shown my kids how I reach out to them for support, both emotional support and just everyday support.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:28:28) – Like when it snows unexpectedly in New York and somebody run out of snow pants that fit. They’ll email the chat group and say, Anybody have size ten snow pants and we’ll deliver them. And my son, when he was writing a long paper that was due the next day and our printer jammed, he knew the mother downstairs would print it out for him. And so anyway, it’s there’s a real comfort in building and knitting this social safety net for our kids and for ourselves.

Jonathan Fields (00:28:58) – One of the things that you’ve been sharing also is the notion of don’t just say do of modeling behavior. And as any parent knows, you can say things all you want if your behavior, like if your lived action in the world doesn’t support what you say, a kid’s going to look at you and be like, Yeah, no. So, so much of the examples that you’re giving here from your own life, it’s there examples of you not just saying, Hey, here’s a list of things, but it’s letting your kids see you in like a question mode or a need mode or in a crisis mode, and then turning to others and asking for their help and then even more powerfully receiving their help.

Jonathan Fields (00:29:44) – And they’re not the same thing and allowing your kids to see you in that place. I think modeling is such an important part of the process. But again, that also brings in the question of vulnerability Now, not to your peers as a parent, but like how vulnerable do you get with your kids? And I think that’s a lot of a line that a lot of parents would really struggle with.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:30:10) – Yeah, I call what I do at home living out loud. I don’t burden my kids. There’s a line. I express my doubts. I express my concerns. I let them see me reach out for help. But I certainly don’t go to them to problem solve for me. I. You believe. And I’ve seen what my reaching out for help. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen them doing it. Like during Covid. My then ten year old, one of his teachers died of Covid and he started a dance party, I think it’s called. It’s an app where you can have like 40 people in the room at once on a zoom.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:30:50) – And he sent it out to all of his friends just to talk about the teacher. Is there anybody who wants to talk about how they’re feeling? Is there any? So I do believe Covid helped to lift the veneer. But I also to your point, I talked to my kids about what gets in the way of being vulnerable, what gets in the way of healthy interdependence. You know, what are some of the emotions that are felt in our achievement culture that can poison relationships? So we talk openly about the elephant in the room. We talk about envy, we talk about unhealthy competition. We talk about how you can use your envy for good or for bad. Researchers have looked at it as as having two arms malicious envy where you want to cut your the other person down so you look better by comparison or benign envy, which is really can act as a motivator. And so with my own kids, I’ve tried to really call out loud the the unhelpful emotions that can get in the way and to normalize them, say everybody feels them.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:31:56) – We don’t have to judge ourselves for feeling envy. We don’t have to judge ourselves, but we do have to hold ourselves accountable for how we act on that envy. And if we act on it in a way that it undermines our relationships, that’s not healthy for us.

Jonathan Fields (00:32:09) – Yeah, I mean, the notion of modeling this and then also really reinforcing the importance of interconnectedness and and really having that village, even if it’s 1 or 2 other people who comprise it, just not you alone is so important. One of the other things that you talk about is and you referenced it earlier in the conversation, is also this notion of conditioning, love or belonging or acceptance or affection or validation or valuing your humanity upon achieving some sort of external success oriented metric. And again, for a lot of parents, this is probably what you grew up with. That’s all you know in your mind you’re doing the right thing because that’s going to help your kid hit that metric. And in your mind, you’ve always been taught that’s what it means to be a successful human being.

Jonathan Fields (00:32:59) – It’s not malicious. And yet when you condition it, you write about and you’ve researched all these other dominoes start to tumble towards dysfunction and towards potentially mental illness.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:33:10) – Yeah. So for the book, I went in search of the healthy strivers. I wanted to know what their parents focused on at home, what were the messages they were sending their kids, What were the relationships like with their peers at school? And they had a lot of things in common. And so I was looking for a framework to present my findings to parents, and I came across this idea of mattering. It’s a psychological construct that’s been around since the 1980s. It was first conceptualized by Maurice Rosenberg, who brought us self esteem. And what he found was that kids who had this healthy level of self esteem felt like they mattered to their parents, that they were important and significant and that they mattered for who they were at their core. So different than what you were saying. You know, a lot of parents could get caught up in that conditional mattering.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:33:58) – The kids I found who were doing the worst were those who felt like their mattering, their value was contingent, or kids who felt like they mattered to their parents, but they were never depended on or relied on to add value back to anyone other than themselves in their own resume. And so those kids lacked social proof that they actually mattered. So the parents of the healthy strivers really were intentional about the messages they sent their kids at home. What gave them that strength and bandwidth for intentionality was because they had those sources of support that gave them the resilience. One mother I met with had this great idea. So when her kids come home with a bad grade or they get cut from the ATM, she’ll reach into her wallet and she’ll pull out whatever bill she has. It could be a $5 bill, a $10 bill. And she says to her child, do you want this? And then the child says, yes. And she says, okay, hang on. She wrinkles it up, dirties it, dunks it dramatically into a glass of water, and then she holds it up again, this soggy, wrinkled bill.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:35:11) – And she says to her child, Do you still want it? And they inevitably say yes. And she says, like this, Bill, your value doesn’t change when you get cut from the team, When you feel wrinkled up and soggy and dirty, your. Value is your value no matter what. It’s not a message that we could send once and think our kids get it. It’s the kind of message we need to be sending day in and day out that their value doesn’t change when they disappoint us. It means separating the deed from the doer. It means minimizing criticism. It means prioritizing the affection that we give them at home. That was sort of one of the biggest takeaways from Sonia Luther’s research that among the healthier achievers, their parents minimized criticism and prioritized affection. And Scott Galloway, who’s an NYU professor, has this great quote in his book, The Algebra of Happiness, about affection. He said, growing up, affection to him was the difference between thinking someone loved me and knowing that they did.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:36:21) – And I think about that all the time. Even with my teens, I find time to be affectionate. We all need it.

Jonathan Fields (00:36:28) – Yeah, it’s so powerful. I’ve heard Scott talk about that often with the context of his mom, you know, where he was like, Look, we had a lot of disadvantages, but the one thing I never questioned was that my mom was irrationally in love with and supportive of me. That was the bedrock of everything for him. But it’s interesting because you were talking about, okay, so the role of the parent in this and we can have these conversations and we can think, okay, so what if I kind of rewire the way that I am with my kid? And what if maybe I start to re-examine my own assumptions about, like, what this thing called successes in the world and what I was taught and really what I want from my kid. I really do the work of trying to change my relationship with him and model certain behaviors. We are not the only influences in the lives of our kids.

Jonathan Fields (00:37:20) – So how do we do this dance of saying, okay, so like we have some role to play to help our kids feel like they matter Unconditional, but what about their peers? What about teachers? What about the academic society around them? What about the culture and the community and the neighborhoods they grow up in? These are the places where we don’t have agency and control, and yet they have a profound impact.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:37:43) – So I asked the same question to Tim Kasser, who is one of the world’s leading researchers on how values, how our personal values impact our wellbeing and mental health. And I said to him, you know, my kids go to these competitive schools. I’m raising them in New York City, a competitive environment. You know what? Short of moving out and switching schools, what can I do? And I’ll tell you, he said, I don’t understand the premise of your question. I don’t buy it. If you knew your kid was drinking lead in their school water fountain, you would pull them out.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:38:19) – You know that this environment is toxic, that it puts your kid at risk. And I don’t buy that. You don’t have agency. And so I got I was glad it wasn’t a zoom. It was on the phone and my neck got all red. And and then he there was silence. And then he filled in the silence very kindly. And he said, But if you are going to stay, if you are going to keep them in these environments, then you need to be very clear at home about your values. So what he taught me was that values, according to the research, operate like a zero sum game. So he uses the analogy of a pie. The more you are focused on what researchers call materialistic values, those are not just logos, but career success, achievement, those kind of external markers, popularity. The more you spend your time and energy chasing those external goals, the less time you have for the pieces of the pie that are intrinsic goals like being a good, caring neighbor or really being invested in personal growth.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:39:28) – And what he has found is that materialistic goals are found to really impact mental health negatively and also are linked with substance abuse disorder, whereas intrinsic goals are found to really support well-being and positive mental health. So what he said, the job of the parent to do the job of the parent is to call out unhealthy values for what they are. So, for example, your child, you know, already has sneakers and then they’re on their phones and they see an advertisement for another pair of sneakers. He would say, What is it about those sneakers that you hope you will get? What is it that you hope those sneakers will do for you? So really teaching kids how to think about their values and what they value and be explicit about it. And so at home again, it is really buffering against the values in the environment. So one parent I met to. Did this by issuing a volunteer mandate. So every week her kids had certain number of hours that they had to do volunteer work. It was mandatory.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:40:36) – And that was her effort to buffer against materialism that was in her culture. So what we have to do is we have to one, we have to find people like us in our community who also have our values so that we feel as parents reinforced. And then we have to help kids really identify other people in their environment who share their values and be explicit about values, just like we are about substance use and we are about sex. We need to be explicit about values and we need to have 1001 minute conversations, not just one big conversation or lecture every year about values, but really make it a part of your everyday life and call out what you see as values that are not necessarily helpful.

Jonathan Fields (00:41:24) – That makes so much sense to me. And the underlying assumption is we need to get clear on what our own values are as like moderately grown human beings, adults walking around. And and so many of us either are not clear on our values or we are clear, but we’ve never examined them and their relationship to our own personal flourishing.

Jonathan Fields (00:41:48) – So we’re like, well, we hold these things to be really important. You need to make a certain amount of money, you need to accumulate this. And and then we ask ourselves, we never ask ourselves the question, well, how’s that working for me? And then realize, oh, wow, this actually is not working at all and do the work to really readjust our own values before we can then turn back to our kids and say like, these are the values that we espouse as grownups, and we’d love these to be the values of the family. But again, unless and until parents are not just speaking those values, but living them in an observable way where the kid can say, Oh, these are actually legit, it’s just not going to matter. So like what you’re inviting is not just like asking the kids to do this work, but like this is a family project.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:42:33) – And it’s looking at our calendars and saying, do our values? Are they reflected in how we spend our time? If we say family is important, are we making dinner? Are we finding family time each and every day? I’ll tell you one.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:42:50) – Tina Payne Bryson, who’s a psychoanalyst, gave me four questions, reflective questions for parents about what you’re signaling you value most in your home. So she said, this is what you’re signaling to your child. She said, Look at your child’s calendar outside of school. How are they spending their time? Is there room for family time, downtime, playtime in their everyday lives, number one? Number two, she said, look at how you spend your money as it relates to your child. How much of your money is spent pursuing achievement oriented goals. Number three, she said Take notice of what you ask your children about when they walk in the door after school. Are you asking them, How did you do on the Spanish quiz? Or are you saying, you know, what did you have for lunch? Who did you hang out with today? What was the best part of your day? And then the fourth thing the fourth question, she says, is take note of what you argue with your kids about what you argue with them about.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:43:50) – Says a lot about what you value as a parent. Those four questions are a good place to start.

Jonathan Fields (00:43:56) – Yeah, I mean, that makes a lot of sense because you’re really just demonstrating an interest in your kid that is different than whole heartedly achievement based as you’re sharing that. I was remembering Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx, once sharing a story about how when she was a kid, they used to come home every night, sit around the table, and the dad would go around the table and ask each kid, what did you fail at today? Because he was trying to normalize failure and risk taking. And the fact that like, we bump up against things all the time and that’s totally cool. Like, what did you learn from that? Like and trying again? And it seems like that question is in the vein of the type of questions that you were just asking by pulling it away from, you know, like the expectation of like only what have you really succeeded at and been like and achieved today, but what have you tried and like just didn’t work out.

Jonathan Fields (00:44:43) – And that’s okay. You know, it’s so powerful. I want to circle back to the notion of mattering, which we’re not really circling back, because I also feel like this has been the thread of everything that we’re really talking about here. And it’s really it is the deeper thread of of the work that you’ve been doing in the book. You touched on it, but deconstruct a little bit more for me what you’re actually talking about when you’re talking about mattering.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:45:10) – Yeah. So mattering is the deep, universal need that we all have to feel seen, valued, significant to those around us. And so the definition that really resonates with me is this idea of mattering as feeling valued for who we are at our core, by our family, by our friends, by our larger community, and then being relied on to add meaningful value back to friends, to family, to our community. Researchers have studied mattering in cultures all over the world. This is universal. They say. After the drive for food and shelter, it is the instinct to matter that drives human behavior, for better or for worse.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:45:57) – So for better, when we feel like we matter, we are more likely to show up to the world in positive ways, to want to contribute, to want to have those interdependent relationships, to want to achieve for the betterment of everyone. When we feel like we don’t matter either because our parents have sent us that signal or society has sent us the signal, we can sometimes show up in negative ways. A school shooter is the most among the most tragic examples. Oh, I don’t matter. I’ll show you. I matter. It also could make when you feel like you don’t matter, you can turn inward. You can become depressed, anxious, and rely on substance abuse substances to alleviate that suffering. It is a human need and for too many people it is going unmet. And I honestly believe mattering is at the root of the suffering we are seeing today. Too many young people and too many adults feel like they don’t matter and it’s showing up in anxiety and depression and loneliness with colleagues. I have co-founded something called the mattering movement, which mattering matters throughout the lifespan.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:47:09) – It matters a lot in adolescence when you are developing a sense of self. We don’t develop our sense of self in a vacuum. It’s a barometer. It’s a way of of gauging how other people see us. So it’s really critical that kids have this sort of firm foundation of mattering. When we give that to them, they are more likely to reach for higher goals. They are more likely to achieve greater things because they’re not afraid to fail, because a failure is not an indictment of their worth. They matter no matter what. So these healthy achievers that I met were not afraid to reach because they knew that they would have people to catch them when they fell. So with mattering mean, it’s also important for parents to feel a sense of mattering, and it’s important for grandparents who are retired to feel a sense of mattering. So this is a concept that is so huge and so relevant across the lifespan.

Jonathan Fields (00:48:12) – I feel like so many people are feeling this and have felt it. We have a sister organization actually that does research on identifying sort of the underlying drivers of work that give people the feeling of meaning and purpose and access to flow and energy and excitement.

Jonathan Fields (00:48:29) – And so many people really feel like they show up at work. And the thing that they do and we’re talking about adults here right now, the thing that they do that they spend the vast majority of their adult waking hours doing for the rest of their life. It doesn’t matter to them or it may matter to the organization or to leader or to the team or to whatever the inevitable consumer of the thing that they’re creating is. But to them, if you ask them, does this really matter to you on a personal level, so many people say no, which is the source of such profound sadness. It is. And we don’t put our finger on why we’re feeling this thing. And yet the classic existential crisis is not a crisis of money or status or power of stuff. It’s a crisis of meaning and crisis of purpose. It’s like the feeling that I just don’t matter. What I do doesn’t matter. And it’s devastating.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:49:21) – It’s devastating. I wrote an article in December for the Wall Street Journal about mattering at work.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:49:26) – The surgeon general talked about the importance of mattering for workplace well-being. And it doesn’t take a lot to make people feel employees, to feel like they matter. But if you go to an office day in and day out eight, ten, 12 hours a day where you are made to feel like you don’t matter, that you’re expendable, that you’re just a. A cog in the machine. How do we think those adults go home to their families, to their kids, to their marriages? Depleted, Absolutely depleted. They cannot be those sources of support that are needed. And so there is this, I hope, forward movement to create mattering at work. You know, the ingredients of mattering, it’s simple, profound, but it’s important. It’s it’s giving people attention. It’s knowing their name, making eye contact, making them feel like they’re important, showing them how their work applies to the bigger whole, how they are adding value both to their colleagues and then to the larger organization and to the customer. It’s feeling dependent on that.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:50:39) – When they’re not there, they’re missed. Noted absence. Oh, we missed you. How are you doing? It’s showing them that you appreciate them in words and in deeds, in recognizing their work and expressing your gratitude for them. And it’s also what researchers call individuation, meaning that a lot of people feel like they are not known by anyone at work. That was one of the findings of a national survey. And it doesn’t take so much to know someone, know them for who they are as a person, what makes them tick, what are their strengths? What is something you see in them that they bring? So I did a talk for a major corporation, and a 30 year old man raised his hand and he said, You know, I feel like there are some weeks that are really just don’t matter. Is there something I can say to myself, like a mantra? And I said, No, I have something better than that. I said, Today, go down to the lunchroom and thank the man or woman who always hand you your lunch with a smile who’s always there to make you feel seen, to make you feel like you matter, and tell them how much they matter to you.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:51:52) – Tell them that sometimes the days are long, but, you know, walking into that cafeteria, you’re going to see their smile and you’re going to get that delicious food and it’s going to make you feel good inside. By unlocking mattering in others, we unlock it in ourselves.

Jonathan Fields (00:52:09) – Yeah, that makes so much sense to me. As you describe you earlier in a conversation, you got a bunch of people together to basically say like, how can we actually create some form of movement behind this and actually build this? And part of that. You put together an assessment or a test where somebody can literally go and say, get just sort of like a beat on like, how much of this mattering stuff actually do I have in my life right now? I thought it was really interesting. It’s super fast. Anyone can do it. We’ll drop a link to that in the show notes. I was very happy with the score that I came out with, by the way, but it’s like touch and go there for a minute.

Jonathan Fields (00:52:42) – But I thought it was interesting also because after you take that and somebody like learns what what this metric is for them, you invite people that you want to learn a little bit more like a couple of ideas here. And one of them was sending them to an assessment where they can explore their strengths. Now there are two different large bodies of work around strengths these days. One is StrengthsFinder and one is what’s known as the strengths which came out of the world of positive psych UPenn with Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson, maybe lesser known on commercial basis. But a lot of people don’t realize they’re very different. You know, StrengthsFinder is much more about skills and talents and abilities. This is aimed towards achievement via strengths is about character. So I thought it was really interesting that you chose to direct people to the strengths assessment for further exploration and not the other one because it really speaks to your focus on let’s talk about character. Like let’s sort of like shift the emphasis to something different.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:53:39) – And let’s talk about something that’s innate in you that’s not measurable.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:53:44) – So the survey is so fascinating. It’s free. And there’s a survey for adults and there’s one for kids. And we did this in our family together. And what it helped me, you know, Rick Weissbourd, Who’s at Making Caring Common up at the Harvard Graduate School of Education said to me, Once the self becomes stronger, less by being praised than by being known. And so this could be true of your colleagues. This could be true of your spouse or your partner. This could be true of your kids. So in our home praise, as I’ve seen in the research and I’ve heard from the students I interviewed, praise feels a lot like pressure. And so instead of praising my kids, I now notice their strengths and I call them out on them. You know, when I see their empathy in action and how kind they are to the neighbor next door, getting her newspaper and bringing it up close to her door or, you know, little things like that. In our family, we have a few routines that we do to talk about these strengths.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:54:46) – So one of them is. Every birthday, we go around the table and we say one thing we love about the birthday boy or girl, and it’s one It’s always about these strengths. You are so kind to everyone. You you know, my daughter once said to my son, You always stop your homework to help me when I have a question in my homework. That’s really kind. You’re always thinking about other people, including strangers. So these are things that our kids have control over. They can grow these things, they can make them stronger. And it’s actually these strengths that they can use when they hit up against a roadblock or an obstacle. They can dig into those strengths to get over the obstacle. So, yes, we’re a big fan of the survey in my house.

Jonathan Fields (00:55:35) – Yeah, as am I. And just the whole world. The positive sake, I think is fascinating from a research standpoint. You know, if we get a little bit meta here, a big part of what we’re really talking about is reimagining success.

Jonathan Fields (00:55:47) – We sort of have this this Western definition of success as status and stuff. That’s what it is and that’s what we strive for and that’s what we aspire to and that’s what we praise our kids for. That’s what we praise us for. And we’re really talking about reimagining that and say like and again, if you look at the the the status of mental health, like in that same society, you got a question whether that’s actually working for all of us. And it clearly for a lot of us not. And we’re really a big part of what we’re really exploring here is like really reassessing, like what does success mean to us as individuals, as adults, and then what are we going to model as a definition of a successful life, not just work, but life to our kids?

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:56:33) – That is exactly what I have come to realize in my own parenting, is that the definition of success that our culture likes to give us is really narrow. And I’ve met a lot of people at the end of that road and they’re really unhappy.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:56:48) – Like you said. And the research backs this up that those extrinsic goals don’t lead to the wellbeing and mental health that we really hope for for our kids. But for me, I’ve always been very achievement oriented and ambitious, but I’m ambitious for more than just my work or I’m ambitious as a wife. I want a strong marriage. I’m ambitious as a parent. I want a strong connection with my kids, ambitious about my friendships. I want to have really deep, meaningful friends that I know I can rely on. I’m ambitious about my hobbies. I want to really, you know, get some joy out of my day. So for me, my ambition is just re-imagined that I think we’re thinking about ambition to narrow and to small and that we should be ambitious for more.

Jonathan Fields (00:57:41) – Yeah, completely there with you. And it feels like a great place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

Jennifer Breheny Wallace (00:57:52) – To live a good life is to live a life that matters.

Jonathan Fields (00:57:56) – Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, safe bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Jessica Lahey on the Gift of Failure. You’ll find a link to Jessica’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did, since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email. Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together.

Jonathan Fields (00:58:54) – Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.

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