Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pay for it - Why is bribery a bad word?

Parents, I would like to ask for a little self-honesty here.  You do not have to reply to this article, just be true to yourself. If you were independently wealthy and had the means to live whatever life you wish, would you still get up this morning and head off to your current job?  I am guessing most of you would not. Fortunately I do not have to guess.  
Forbes has run a survey on work satisfaction every year since 1987.  2014 results indicate that more than half of us (52.3%) are unhappy with our jobs.

So why do we still drag ourselves out of bed 5 days a week (when it is cold and dark outside) and brave the long, crowded commute to spend 8+ hours doing something that does not excite us? The short answer is money. The long answer is because we have responsibilities like rent, feeding our kids, tuition, saving for retirement (hoping it comes eventually), paying for our annual vacation to Disneyland, etc...  which all requires money.

Now if 52.3% of us do not want to do something hard (like work) without getting paid, is it fair to expect our kids to do the things they dislike without some reward as well?  [In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the little jury inside my head is still out on this particular topic which is why I writing through my thoughts here hoping to gain some clarity.]

WebMD.com has an article that is quite openly against bribing our kids.  Specifically, they talk about not bribing children to behave.  If children develop an understanding that they only have to act appropriately if they are paid to do so then they will not learn the intrinsic value of good behavior.  This leads to a sense of entitlement and a lack of respect and personal responsibility.  These are strong arguments and a sense of entitlement is damaging to our kids career prospects.  I have met many students with the attitude that they will start learning and preparing for the job they want AFTER the company hires them and starts paying them a salary. "Why should I waste my time learning JAVA or C++ now? After Google hires me as a programmer I can pick it up quickly."

The same article makes a distinction I don't entirely agree with; that bribes and rewards are different things.  Bribery being a payment to stop bad behaviour and a reward offered after something good.  While I get it, I prefer to think of it in simpler terms.  Payment for services rendered (rewards, bribes, whatever).  Is it OK or not?  When we start approaching it this way and dispense with the term differences we can focus on which "services" are appropriate to pay our kids for.

I tend to agree that paying our kids to stop behaving poorly is likely to result in a reinforcement of whatever that negative activity was.  "Here is a lollipop so please stop whining." Is easily understood by kids of all ages to mean that whenever they want another lollipop they just need to start whining again.  Where I think there is room for payment (money, candy, etc.) is when encouraging our kids to make an effort towards something that will provide a future benefit to them.  Amy Chua of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother infamy, says that one of the worst things we can do is let our kids give up.  She also states that nothing is fun until you get good at it.  In her case she is talking about the hours and hours of painful piano and violin practice for her daughters. Encouraging our kids to put in the time and energy to get through all those hours of (insert difficult thing here; piano, homework, Japanese language) will lead to two positive results.  First, they will be able to play piano well or speak Japanese fluently or get all As on their report card.  These goals will not seem like much to our kids when they would prefer to be playing video games or hanging out with their friends.  They won't recognize the value of the result until they get there.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for the future, they will have achieved something impressive through their own efforts. Confidence is built through such achievements and if we can encourage our kids along the way with the occasional and timely "bribe", then why not?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Are your kids in leadership roles?

May I assume that we are all familiar with the word rubric (no, not like the cube)?  Maybe no?  I did not learn about it till I had kids and they started bringing home assignments along with these charts laying out what they needed to do to get an A (see sample here).  I don't remember having such clear guidelines when I was in school...  Did we have it harder then?  Was it actually better preparation for the real world?  I doubt that the companies and bosses our kids work for will be providing such detailed instructions on what they need to produce to earn an A at work.  Oh, sorry, the definition for those of you who have yet to come across this magical little piece of paper:  A rubric (according to Merriam-Webster) is an explanation or a set of instructions at the beginning of a book, a test, etc.  There is an alternative definition that states it is a rule for conduct of a liturgical service.  That particular definition is less relevant to our discussion though.

As a teacher, I was curious about whether there are rubrics available for some of the assignments I give in classes, particularly one for writing a resume. A quick search of the Internet resulted in a fairly comprehensive rubric written by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). The full version has 4 columns that descend from a perfect resume down to horrible.  The abridged version is posted here with just the best and worst shown for contrast.

This is an excellent tool for both high school and college seniors to help prepare their resumes for applications to schools and employers.  The guidelines are clear and have been created based on input from the actual people who make decisions on accepting our kids.

However, we do not need to wait until the applications are imminent before reading through the rubric and getting a head start on the content.  There were three key lines that jumped out at me and are worth considering for our kids.

In the Education Section a "Best" resume would include the student's: Major, degree, GPA, study abroad, and relevant course work.  Companies and colleges are looking for connections here to the job or degree. We know about GPA of course but course choice in college can often be more about fitting something into a schedule rather than considering what will be most relevant for our kid's future career.

The Experience Section has several points but as with education above, this line should be written in bold letters, underlined, and italics, Information relates to the intended career field. If our kid is applying to the marketing department and just happens to have had an internship with P&G (doing marketing) then their chances of getting in have jumped exponentially.

The last section, while not often the center of attention on a resume, Honors/Activities specifies something that I rarely see on resumes at the college level but also mid-career, Skills gained and leadership roles held. Typically the kids put "Swim Team" or "Piano" and leave it at that.  The positive impression that including the word Captain after swim team adds to a resume can make all the difference.  Now, if my daughter is already a senior in college we can't go back in time (yet) and convince her to look for a leadership role in whatever she is doing.  But, if your son is 10 or 14 and still in the midst of building their resume we can apply a little parental persuasion and encourage some leadership and skill building when there is still time.

Resume Rubric - NACE

Resume Rubric
Resume should effectively land you an interview.
Resume needs significant improvement and would be discarded during screening
This resume fills the page but is not overcrowded. There are no grammar or spelling errors. It can be easily scanned.
This resume is either one-half page or two to three pages long. The font is too big or may be hard to read. There is more white space than words on the page. There are multiple spelling and/or grammar errors.
Education Section
This section is organized, clear, and well defined. It highlights the most pertinent information and includes: institution and its location, graduation date, major, degree, GPA, study abroad (as appropriate), and any relevant course work.
This section is missing the most crucial information. Institution is listed, but not its location and graduation date is missing. The major is included, but not degree. No GPA is stated.
Experience Section
This section is well defined, and information relates to the intended career field. Places of work, location, titles, and dates are included for each position. Descriptions are clear and formatted as bullets beginning with action verbs. (This section could be split into related and other experience.)
There is no order to the descriptions of each position. Descriptions are not detailed and don't illustrate the experience. No locations and dates of employment are listed.
Honors/ Activities
This section is well organized and easy to understand. Activities and honors are listed, and descriptions include skills gained and leadership roles held. Dates of involvement are listed.
This section is missing—or contains very little—information. Organization titles or dates of involvement are not included, and there are no descriptions.
Courtesy of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, copyright holder. www.naceweb.org 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

We don't plan ahead so why should our kids?

The PowerPoint presentation I made for my kids was brilliant.  The logic was irrefutable.  I had relevant graphics and 23 different charts and graphs to prove my point not to mention the 3 slides of citations from established experts in the market.  So why don't they get it?  With all the data and life experience on my side showing that if they make an effort now, it will pay off in the long run.  It will increase their chances of getting into the college of their choice and after that the career they are interested in.  Should I have used a different background theme?  Instead of "Water Bubbles" I could have gone with "Hot Air Balloon".  Maybe that would have done the trick.

Sometimes it seems that no matter how many times we explain to our kids that what they do now will affect their choices in the future, they just don't get it.  We can certainly force them to do the things they need to do: homework, exercise, learn Chinese. But if we want our kids to be self-motivated and ambitious, they must "believe" that those goals are worthwhile to them.  How important was it to you at age 10 that you get into the right college and be a marketable candidate when you graduate?  Even if you thought about it (unlikely) you probably dismissed it as meaningless since it was a "million" years away.  There is no doubt in my mind that my own kids are the same.

No, I did not really make a PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of studying now in order to get a better job in the future and then force my kids to sit through it.  I was tempted, but since I don't really like PowerPoint anyway and my kids have already heard it all from me countless times I thought it was not worth the effort.

Humans seem to have a hard time processing anything further out than their next birthday.  In my career class at Temple University I ask students to describe their life 40 years in the future.  The results are entertaining and fun to talk through but that is about it.  We work our way back to 5 years which is still a stretch but at least that milestone allows us to pick some key things they should be working on right now. Apparently we don't even know what the future (as a concept) is until around age 2 and the ability to plan kicks in at kindergarten.  Are we (as adults) any better at it?  What is your 10 year plan?  What did you do today to help you reach your 10 year goals?  Corporations are even worse, most of them look no further than the next 3 months down the road and the earnings reports that will affect their stock price. So is it unrealistic to expect our kids (at any age) to understand and feel the urgency of what is coming up for them 10, 15 years from now? 

This article started out as a thesis on how we can get our kids to appreciate the value of making an effort towards a productive future (read as "getting a job").  I had some idea that by the end I would be able to say that following this approach would helps us drive this critical point through their remarkably thick skulls. I was wrong.  My conclusion is that we need to be pulling those lofty horizons back to within range of our kids own perception of time.  Instead of 10 years from now, how about 10 days? Now the problem is how to encourage them to study for that test coming up in 2 weeks without threatening them with being jobless, homeless, and miserable in the distant future...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ambition = Goals + Energy?

In my previous article about ambition, I mentioned a formula described by Dean Simonton.  The claim was that ambition could be reduced to a clear goal plus the energy to reach that goal.  Perhaps not for all of you, but this was a revelation for me.  Ambition had always been a vague word in my mind. It seemed that people were either ambitious or they were not. Being able to think of it in very concrete terms was great.  The phrase, "plan your work then work your plan" keeps popping up for me as the template for what we (and our kids) need to do to be considered ambitious.

So why aren't we all ambitious and driven?  Anyone who has spent time walking through a playground knows that our kids have energy to spare.  They are jumping off jungle gyms, trying to spin the swings around the top bar, chasing their friends, running away from their friends, doing something with a ball. And goals are not that difficult to come up with either.  Sure they change with age from "I want to be a Ninja Turtle" to "I want to drive a Ferrari" to "I just want 5 minutes of quiet time, PLEASE!"

Well, we can certainly improve on the goal-setting function in the ambition equation. Just any goal is not necessarily enough to focus all that energy.  A common (attributed to George T. Doran) acronym for remembering what makes up a good goal is SMART.  A goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Bound.

So now we have our new equation;

Ambition = SMART Goals + Energy

Attainable answers one of the concerns I had with our original definition.  If kids do not believe that the goal is possible then they are not going to exert any energy towards it.  Attainable also happens to be a relative term and is subject to perception.  Two kids with equal capabilities may view the same objective differently.  The insecure one believing from the get go that he will fail and therefore it is better not to try and the confident one sure that she will make her dreams come true.  We may now need to add another component, A is a function of c (confidence).

Dusting off my ancient algebraic skills, we may write it like this (?)

Ambition = SMA(c)RT Goals + Energy

Relevant is the other key word.  Is the goal worth the effort necessary to achieve it?  Again, we have confidence sneaking in.  How much effort would our insecure young man expect to have to put in to achieve his goal.  Would the confident young woman estimate it the same way?  Probably not. In almost every case the more confident our kids are the less effort they will feel is necessary to reach the finish line and the more likely they are to go for it.  In absolute terms it may turn out to be the same number of hours and calories but perception will be different.  Can we have Relevance as a function of both c (confidence) and e (energy)?  Or maybe Relevance is a function of Perception with Perception being a function of c (confidence) and e (energy).  That sounds more fitting to me.  I am going to guess at the syntax here but you get the point:

Ambition = SMA(c)R(p(c,e))T Goals + Energy

So much for our simple equation...

Monday, November 10, 2014

It is not about the iPhone, it is about discipline and responsibility!

Parent1: So, what are you going to do to show us you understand?
Middle School Teen: Well, as soon as I get home from school I will give you my iPhone and I can't get it back until I finish my homework.
Parent1: OK, let's see how that works for a while.
Parent2: (Thinking to himself) No! Not OK!  It is not about the iPhone. 

The above dialogue and subsequent non-verbal response by Parent2 occurred because of an incident with Middle School Teen.  This was the more subdued conversation at the end of about a week of having his iPhone locked away.  It began because he had his phone taken away by his teacher for using it in class but he also lied to Parent1 and Parent2 about finishing all his homework so he could watch TV and later was caught because he was ratted out by a different teacher who sent a note home (thank you).  He promptly had his iPhone privileges revoked and was told that he has to discuss what he did with Parent1 before he would get it back.  It took a week for Middle School Teen to summon the courage to talk to Parent1 (see dialogue above) and he now has his iPhone back, for which he is greatly appreciative.

So what is the problem with Parent2?  Middle School Teen was appropriately disciplined for misuse of technology and now learned that screen time is not a right but a privilege.  Case closed, let's move on. The problem is that the suggested solution by Middle School Teen seems to address the symptom rather than the disease.  The real issue here is whether Middle School Teen understands that he needs to be responsible and self-disciplined.  Our kids have one main responsibility growing up (as it refers to their future careers anyway), they need to concentrate at school and learn to manage their time so that homework is completed and they are ready for whatever tests and quizzes are coming up.  From age 6 to 22 their job is going to school.  We don't normally put our kids to work in the fields these days or force them to earn their keep in the local textile factory.  Responsibility means that even if Mom or Dad does not remind him to do his homework, he will break out the books and get it done.  Discipline means that they will do the hard things first and get them out of the way, they will not put off the big project until the last day because they want to play games or watch TV.

Yes, these are high expectations that adults fail at on a daily basis but we still need to do what we can to encourage the right habits in our kids.  These are the same habits that will eventually serve them well in their careers.  Maybe we should try to set the right example?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Is ambition a product of our kid's environment?

A friend of mine who had been living here in Japan for many years decided to take his family back to his home country last year, India.  The two boys in the family had been going to a very good International school in Tokyo and found the transition to the local public school in India challenging.  They are good kids though and thanks to a supportive Mom and Dad they were soon adjusted to their new life.  A year later I had a chance to catch up with my friend on one of his business trips back to Tokyo.  Inevitably, our conversation turned to the kids and how they were doing and our hopes and dreams for them.  We are both entrepreneurs, have hired and fired people, and know what the challenges are to finding a meaningful career.  We both want our kids to grow up to be confident and self-motivated... and ambitious.

I was curious about the boys and their school life.  My childhood experience (both my own and for my kids) has been limited to the United States and Japan, both arguably well developed countries.  India, at least according to the IMF, is labeled a developing country.  This developing country though is expected to grow 6.4% in 2015 whereas Japan is 0.8% and the USA is 3.1%.  Probably based on my extensive research of life in other countries around the world (mainly thanks to Hollywood movies) I have the impression that kids are more driven, hungrier, and ambitious if the country they grow up in has fewer amenities.  So, I asked, "Is school life different for your boys now?  Do you think they are more or less ambitious than when they were going to school here in Japan?"  His answer was immediate and definite.  "Absolutely," he said, "the competition at even the lower grade levels around age 8 or 9 is aggressive and out in front."  The children are very aware of who's father makes more money or has a more impressive title or drives a fancier car.  When the test scores come back there are immediate comparisons throughout the class.  When you ask the kids what they will do when they grow up, you get the usual responses such as professional athlete (maybe soccer or cricket in India and soccer and baseball in Japan) but you also get answers like CEO of a big company or just billionaire.

I certainly dreamed of being rich when I was growing up and I know that my son (maybe even my daughter) understands that with more money you can buy more toys.  But, I never felt that "hunger" or "drive" to get there.  My ambition was more laid back.  Reading that last sentence I have to wonder if ambition can be laid back...  Anyway, my point is that our kids growing up in more "comfortable" countries like Japan and the USA do not seem to have the drive that kids have in some other parts of the world.  We are not likely to move to India anytime soon (although I did suggest it but was vetoed by my lovely wife). So, how can we "teach" our kids to be more ambitious regardless of where they grow up?

Dean Simonton, from the University of California in an article in Time Magazine makes the point that ambition, is actually just a combination of energy and goals.  Having one without the other is not enough but someone who has both of them together is they guy or gal you would say is driven.  Back to the question then, can we teach our kids to set goals and then get them energized about achieving them?  My feeling is that goal setting is a skill that can be learned.  There are countless books, classes, podcasts, etc. on how to set and manage goals.  The challenge with our kids (and us?) is how do we convince them to use their considerable supply of energy in pursuit of those goals?

Many of the examples I have read or seen about people who transformed from a laid back, take life as it comes attitude into a driven, ambitious, seize life by the throat mania, have done so because of a dramatic change in fortunes.  They are living an easy life and suddenly Mom or Dad loses their job and they have to sell the Benz and move to a small apartment.  The slap in the face of dropping down the income scale triggers the energy to go after the goals that more than likely existed already.  But can we do this with out kids without giving up the good life?  Or without sending them to boarding school in a poorer country?  There must be a way to trigger that singularity of focus right here at home.

If we look at the example given in the preceding paragraph, perhaps we can adapt it to other aspects of our kid's lives rather than just focusing on money.  The theory being that if we can encourage the "habit" of ambition, it may carry over to other goals.  We can choose a goal that means something to our kids at their age.  Most likely getting good grades or practicing the piano is not high on their list so how about starting shortstop for the JV baseball team.  It is a clear goal and one that your kid may be willing to exert some energy to achieve.  With goals, a key component is the belief that they can achieve it.  That confidence comes with having achieved something (anything) in the past.  If we can encourage and support them to put in the time and practice to make the team and get the position we will have helped them establish a benchmark on what is possible if they make an effort.

I think all kids have goals and dreams and if they are more confident about their chances of achieving them (thanks to past experiences) then they will be more likely to put in the energy.  Goals + Energy = Ambition.  There you go, problem solved.  Right?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Executive Functioning, the CEO in your kid's brain

In Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, he reveals that while IQ is more or less maxed out by the time our kids reach 3rd grade, executive function can be improved well into adolescence and beyond.  What is executive function you ask?  Well, according to Webmd.com
"Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain's frontal lobe. "
Now it is clear, right? No?  Let me elaborate a bit.  Webmd.com goes on to say that executive function is that little bit of our kid's brain that is responsible for helping them to: manage time and attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, curb inappropriate speech or behavior, and integrate past experience with present action.  Basically just about everything they are going to need to do well in life.  Kind of like a CEO for your brain.

As parents we can immediately see how a higher level of executive functioning in our kids would make life easier for the whole family.  Homework would get done on time, past consequences would contribute to current appropriate behaviour, they would not forget their lunch, ever!

Applied to work and preparation for work these attributes become even more critical.  Assuming the goal of passing the job interview for our kid's dream career out of college, we can start from grade school.  Executive functions will help our kid's to develop the appropriate study habits and (hopefully) stay out of trouble in school.  Even with an average IQ, the work ethic and discipline from a mature executive function will help them to progress.  The higher grades resulting from those same study habits in high school along with being able to present oneself with maturity in the admissions interview (speech and behaviour) increase our offspring's chances of getting into the college of their choice.  College, with its myriad distractions, tests the executive functions to the limit but our young heroes survive which brings us to the job interview.

Take off your parenting hats now and put on the hiring manager hat for the company your son or daughter is applying to.  Who do you think is going to do better in your firm?  The genius with the high IQ but has difficulty staying organized (perhaps late for the interview) and makes the occasional inappropriate comment?  Most jobs and organizations will require the full complement of executive functions to not only succeed in their given job, but also to get along with their co-workers.  Read that list of executive functions again: manage time and attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, curb inappropriate speech or behavior, and integrate past experience with present action.  Isn't this what companies want?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ask your kids: "Would you rather make something or sell something?"

The problem I faced in high school when choosing a college, did not go away after that first decision was made.  I faced the same issue trying to decide on a major (I started out undecided) and then again as graduation approached.  The question that kept popping up and demanding an answer was, "What are you going to do with your life?"  Shortstop for the Yankees was no longer an option and America had done away with royalty back in the 1700's so I could not be king.  Hollywood had given me a few options to consider with the obvious one being movie star.  I was never really into theatre though so did not think that would work out.  There were also the roles portrayed in movies: Police Officer/Detective, Stock Broker, Doctor, Assassin/Ninja, Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine, Wizard, Knight, CEO, and Cowboy.  While some of these were appealing, I was not convinced that any of them were for me (or possible).  And here lies the crux of the problem, these few jobs were really all I knew.  How could I make the right choice for myself if I did not know what else was out there?

I see the same frustration today in the faces of the students in my undergraduate courses and to a lesser degree (due to the lack of urgency at ages 13 and 6) in my own kids.

The typical response to this is to ask the young student, "What do you like to do?" or "What are you good at?"  Good questions and relevant however the answers are all too often something along the lines of, "I am good with people." or "I like a challenge."  Which do not do much to reduce the number of possible jobs and solve the problem.  So, we then move to the Big Book of Jobs (similar to the Big Book of Colleges or the Big Book of College Majors).  Of course, now you can search online and get endless details on all sorts of jobs which because of the sheer volume of data soon becomes an overwhelming and meaningless task.

What we need is a Choose Your Own Adventure book for jobs.  Starting on page 1, the student reads a page or two about life and work and is then confronted with the first of what will be many guiding choices.  With this format, we need to narrow the options down to something manageable, say two choices?  The first fork in the road will be the most basic, something that allows us to divide all jobs into two different categories, a very basic and fundamental division.  Since this is my book, I am going with the following:

  • If you want to have a job where you make something, go to page 23.
  • If you want to have a job where you sell something, go to page 37.

I figure that starting with these two choices we can eventually cover every possible job out there. Which would you choose?  Which one DID you choose?