What Overachieving Young People Really Need to Hear

By Lily Lozovsky

[This is the fourth in a series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

For the last ten years, I have been on call for the existential crises and big questions facing overachieving young people. When we first met, they were teens on Jewish leadership programs I was running. We discussed great leaders, talked about values, social change, and the importance of taking action. Empowered and inspired, the teens returned home, excited to make a difference.

These days, my conversations with alumni are quite different. I find myself sitting with students who are stressed out and frustrated. They are doing everything “right” yet find themselves craving meaning and a sense of direction. Although they are active on campus, most of them don’t feel that they really belong to a Jewish community. Few are generating their own solutions and starting initiatives. For the most part, they are searching for a connection.

As experiential Jewish educators, the gap between inspiration and action is one that should concern us. We create close-knit cohorts, inspire teens, and tell them that they can change the world. However, the world often sends them the opposite message. The reality they encounter leaves them feeling that they are on their own, disconnected, and disempowered.

Starting with the End in Mind

My experience with alumni has motivated me to change my approach to experiential Jewish education. I now ask myself: “What can I do and say to Jewish teens that will prepare them for the challenges they will encounter as young adults?”

The challenges I try to address are:

  1. An imbalanced approach to life that is based on comparison and ranking vs. values and a personal calling
  2. Unrealistic expectations about what it means to “change the world” and challenge authority
  3. Few experiences with failure and the opportunity to address adversity in the context of the leadership programs that we run
  4. Few personal mentors and a weak connection to former mentors and teachers

Good experiential Jewish education can and should structurally acknowledge these issues in order to empower young people with clarity and resilience.

The Kolb Learning Cycle

Educational theorist David Kolb says that when we internalize information – when we learn – that learning isn’t solidified at the close of a workshop, an Israel trip, or after any concrete experience. He describes a learning cycle that starts with an experience and that entails reflection, conceptualization, and active experimentation to apply the conclusions in new situations. This learning cycle is completely unique to each individual and can take years to complete.

When I was first introduced to the Kolb Learning Cycle in Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, I began to understand why the questions alumni were raising came up years after their initial experiences. I realized that these conversations were crucial in shaping how young people understood and applied lessons from their experiences to their lives.

This realization prompted me to reconsider my approach as an educator. I started from the outside in by identifying the challenges the alumni raised and tailoring programs to prepare teens for the world they would soon encounter.

Challenge #1: Teens leave high school with an imbalanced approach to life that is based on comparison and ranking vs. values and a personal calling.

There could not be anything more different from school than “real life.” In school, students have a clear objective. They progress through different grade levels, their performance is assessed and ranked against other people. Life is just the opposite. There are no objective criteria for judging ourselves against anyone and there is certainly no clear path towards graduation. Without criteria or a clear path, I see talented young people get restless.

Often, they begin to approach work the same way they approached high school or college. Young adults replace studying for tests with working late nights at the office and regard promotions as progress to the next “grade level,” so to speak. As you can imagine, this construct caves in after two to three years. Without realizing it, young people are starved of relationships with friends, family, community, volunteerism, and spirituality. The imbalance created by treating work like school is intolerable.

I have started to address this issue in two ways. The first is by making sure that programs leave teens able to articulate their calling and help them develop an internal compass to guide decisions later in life. The second is by being present in difficult moments when I remind alumni that there is more to life than work and that their internal compass is still there to guide them. These are the moments when I see conceptualization take place and when conversations about values and priorities resurface to be internalized.

Challenge #2: Teens leave high school with unrealistic expectations about what it means to “change the world” and challenge authority.

I have yet to be convinced by any social justice campaign that doing something to challenge the status quo is “sexy.” It’s actually pretty hard. It takes a while and it makes people in power nervous.

I have gotten midnight phone calls from young people who did something courageous, that initiated a positive change, and that made them want to throw up because authority figures disagreed with their position. The truth is that whenever you take a stand on anything that matters, people will disagree. You may be threatening their livelihood or institution. Whatever it is, people don’t take change sitting down.

To address this challenge I have started telling teens the truth. I acknowledge that changing the world is a long, hard process and that discomfort comes with the territory. They will need to work together and support each other in the process. When they encounter resistance, I want our alumni to name it, to look it in the eye, and to face it head on. I want it to be their new expectation.

Until we are ready to be honest with young people, we will continue to create disillusioned leaders who balk the minute they encounter resistance. If all we do is hand out badges for volunteering and tell teens stories with happy endings, they will never become the bold, courageous people that challenge our institutions and transform Jewish life.

Challenge #3: Teens need more chances to fail and address adversity in the context of the leadership programs that we run.

There is a movement from Silicon Valley to embrace failure, encouraging people to “fail better, fail faster and fail more often.” This concept represents a healthy attitude towards work and I hope that it becomes part of our day-to-day life. An adverse effect, however, is that it makes failure look easy, fun even.

Failure, for young overachievers, isn’t just hard. It’s devastating. When young people put themselves out there and fail – honestly, miserably – the experience is dizzying. They need someone to help them process their experiences so that they can get up smarter, with more resolve.

Seeing this play out with alumni has made me understand the need to give teens a chance to make mistakes and receive honest feedback early on. We need to present teens with tough real world challenges where they have the potential to fail under our guidance and direction. Being able to embrace feedback and practice overcoming adversity is exactly what teens need to evolve as leaders. Young people who understand their strengths and who know how to address their shortcomings will inevitably develop the resilience and creativity to weather any challenge.

Challenge #4: Teens enter college with few mentors and a weak connection to former mentors and teachers.

You can always come talk to me. Of everything that we tell teens, this is the most important message for them to internalize, by far. It needs to be repeated. Mentorship is so fundamental for life that all of us flounder without it. Experiential Jewish education is significantly impacted by the mentor who stands alongside his or her student in solidarity; who remains a friend and teacher well after the program has ended.

We have a deep responsibility to follow up with our alumni, to catch up over coffee, to see how they are. It is in these quiet moments that we hear what’s really happening, that we become the trusted advisors that help young people make sense of their lives and chart their next steps.

A Lifetime Learning Cycle

Experiential Jewish programs have designated stop and start dates but they form communities that live on well after graduation. As influencers in these communities, we need to maximize the credibility we have with young people. We need to realize that one and two years later everything that they learned can be unlearned unless we leave our doors open.

Whether you are an experiential Jewish educator, former counselor, teacher, or supervisor I want to ask you to think about your former students and mentees. Take time to reach out to see how they are doing. The conversation you generate is crucial for helping them translate the inspiration they once had into action.

Lily Lozovsky is the Diller Teen Fellows Follow-Up and Alumni Engagement Manager for North America and a graduate of Cohort III of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort V of the Certificate Program will be accepted through January 26, 2015. For more information and to apply visit www.ejewisheducation.com

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.