BOOK REVIEW | Never Enough

Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It by Jennifer Wallace puts words to what we are all feeling as parents, as educators, and just as people in the midst of the rat race. It’s never enough. There is never the right combination of things that seems to satisfy the feeling of…there has to be something more. Unless of course you are a Christ follower and you understand that all that your heart longs for is a relationship with the one who created you. Wallace’s book isn’t from a Christian perspective, but it really does largely articulate a worldview that points to the fact that we have all been made for something more than chasing after the wind as Ecclesiastes reminds us.

I highlighted several things while reading this one and plan to share these ideas freely in the days, weeks, and months to come. My best opportunity to implement what I’ve learned in this book is at home with our kids and the second best opportunity is with the students, teachers, and parents I serve each day as a high school principal. Let’s be the generation that decides to get off the crazy train…even without waiting for the next train station!

  • Living with toxic stress is harming a large portion of our youth, and as the adults in the room, it is our job to do something about it. p. xvi
  • What emerged from my research hit me like an ice bath: our kids are absorbing the idea that their worth is contingent on their performance – their GPA, the number of social media followers they have, their college brands – not for who they are deep at their core.  They feel they only matter to the adults in their lives, their peers, the larger community, if they are successful. p. xviii
  • High achievement is now seen by many parents as a life raft in an unpredictable future. p. 29
  • Like a smoke detector that goes off when we burn a bagel, evolution has wired us to feel stressed even when our survival isn’t actually in danger, because the potential cost of not responding is too great.  Our brains aren’t great at distinguishing between a real threat, like our child getting cut from the A team, denied a scholarship, or rejected from their first-choice college. p. 31
  • When our efforts are motivated by neurochemistry or good intentions, they leave many of our children feeling like commodities.  Their lives become high-budget productions meant to attract the attention of admissions officers, scholarship committees, and football recruiters, not unique and imperfect stories just beginning to unfold.  At the critical stage of adolescent development, as they are grappling with questions of identity – who am I? – they begin to question their place in society.  They begin to feel valued not for their intrinsic worth, but for their external appeal, for their resumes.  Surrounded by our achievement culture, they begin to wonder: Do only certain people matter in this world? p. 44
  • A parents pressure might manifest as hypervigilance about a child’s grades, intrusive involvement in child’s schedule, or excessive criticism of their failures.  The parent-child bond is the most important relationship for a child’s mental health.  When a child cannot meet a parent’s high expectations, that bond becomes jeopardized.  Criticism feels like rejection, a loss of love.  The relationship transforms from safe place into a danger zone.  The fear of not being lovable as they are can push a child to pursue or present an idealized, perfect version of themselves in order to win the security and affection they crave. p. 49
  • When you feel like you matter, you are secure in the knowledge that you have strong, meaningful connections and that you are not going through this life alone, explained Gordon Flett, a professor at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher on perfectionism and mattering.  Mattering expresses the deep need we all have to feel seen, cared for, and understood by those around us, notes social psychologist Gregory Elliott of Brown University.  Elliott describes the feeling of mattering this way: Do people take an interest in you and what you have to say?  Do you have people who can share your triumphs and support you after setbacks?  Do people depend on you and rely on you for guidance and help?  As long as we live, this instinctual need to matter never changes. p. 51
  • In his book The Psychology of Mattering, Flett notes seven critical ingredients to feeling like you matter:
    1. Attention: Feeling like you are noticed by others
    2. Importance: Feeling like you’re significant
    3. Dependence: Feeling like you’re important because others rely on you
    4. Ego extension: Recognizing that someone is emotionally invested in you and cares what happens to you
    5. Noted absence: Feeling like you’re missed
    6. Appreciation: Feeling like you and your actions are valued
    7. Individuation: Being made to feel unique, special, and known for your true self p. 54
  • When you criticize a child, they don’t necessarily stop loving you, psychologists say; they stop loving themselves. p. 56
  • It can be challenging to go against the tide.  But Jane knew she was the last line of defense in protecting her children’s mental health.  She felt it was her responsibility to help her kids set healthy boundaries around school, sports, and extracurriculars.  If at any point they looked like they might be at risk of drowning, Jane gave them explicit permission to get out of the water – or pulled them out herself if she had to. p. 111
  • When I asked psychologists and researchers what was making young people today more vulnerable than past generations, they all pointed to one thing: the increasingly narrow definition of “success.” p. 113
  • As parents, we sometimes think our role is to help fuel  and support our kids’ ambition.  But in a hypercompetitive culture, kids sometimes need the opposite.  They need the adults in their lives to occasionally hold them back – to prevent them from sacrificing their minds and bodies on the altar of achievement and to teach them how to build the kind of life they won’t need substances to escape. p. 115
  • At the root of grind culture is a foundational belief: a good life is secured by admission to a “good” college. p. 125
  • A good “fit” means that a student feels significant and important within a campus community, that they feel others are interested and concerned with their well-being and come to depend on them.  Put another way: future success and well-being are correlated with how much a student feels like they matter on campus.  Did they have a professor who made them feel valued? Did they have a semester-long project or an internship where they were able to use what they were learning to add value? p. 130
  • Have I set up my life in a way that reflects what I think is most important? p. 132
  • Giving permission to rest communicates to our children that they are worthy of protection, that their being, their physical and mental health, matter.  As Lisa Damour told me, “Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together, and it is the hill I will die on as a parent.” Rest isn’t only about achieving peak performance.  Our kids need to learn they are worthy of rest because they are cherished humans, not machines. p. 136
  • Mattering starts at home when we feel valued by parents and family. p. 146
  • Chores aren’t just a way to teach responsibility and work ethic.  Nor are they simply a way for parents to avoid taking out the trash.  Chores cement our place in our immediate community, our family-and equip us to add value to those around us.  They can be used as a tool to communicate to our children that they have a place in a world that needs them, and that their contribution can have an impact. Chores make children feel depended on.  In other words, chores bolster a child’s sense of mattering.  While caring for others benefits us, it’s just as important to care for others because it’s simply the right thing to do. p. 186
  • A deep sense of mattering takes root in our interactions with others – that’s where we learn our value and grow as people. p. 191
  • When we teach our kids how to live a life of purpose, how to contribute meaningfully to others, their drive becomes self-sustaining.  Purpose energizes, motivates, and keeps them on track, even when challenges or setbacks inevitably occur.  It curbs perfectionistic tendencies and reminds them that they’re much more than any one failure.  Setbacks don’t become all-encompassing reflections on a person’s inherent worth.  When we have a sense of outward mission, we gain a long-term perspective: We see that we’re not just rising and falling on our achievements and that our failures aren’t as consequential as they may initially seem.  This larger purpose shifts our mindset from one of scarcity and fear to one of abundance, where we see our place in the world as part of a bigger whole.  In fact, practicing generosity both requires and reinforces the perception of living in a world of abundance, which then increases happiness and health. p. 204
  • Mattering, as I’ve come to see it, offers a powerful antidote to a scarcity mindset.  Knowing that people are valuable for who they are – not how they perform, not for what they produce, not for what they acquire – releases us from the competitive chokehold.  It shifts our thinking away from what we’re lacking and allows us to see all that we do have.  It boosts our status in healthy ways.  It connects us to the best in ourselves and the best in others.  Mattering, in other words, offers a perspective of abundance, freeing us from zero-sum thinking, and reminding us that there is enough for everyone to go around.  Mattering shows up in how we treat ourselves and how we treat one another.  Choosing mattering, even when we’re feeling anxious and fearful, is a deliberate choice we can make every day. p. 212
  • Mattering works as a virtuous, overflowing cycle.  When we feel valued by others, when we see how we add value to them, we experience a fullness that then allows us to share it with others: we are encouraged to express how they are valuable and how they add to our own lives. p. 213
  • There is a Sanskrit word that captures this feeling of pleasures that comes from delighting in another’s well-being “mudita”.  Mudita is an unselfish joy, the belief that there is room in this world for everyone to experience happiness and success. p. 213
  • The greater the number of caring and attentive adults our children have in their lives – who know and appreciate and take an interest in who they are – the more valuable they will feel, and the more they will be exposed to how they can add value to others. p. 214
  • Happiness and well-being, I’ve come to realize, are the byproducts of living a life where we feel valued and add value to others. p. 226
  • What I have learned through these thoughtful, intimate conversations is that under all the angst and anxiety, envy, fear, and hypercompetition, at the core we all really want the same thing for our kids.  When we are no longer around to guide them, we want them to live a good life, to have deep life-sustaining connections, to feel the joy of living a life of meaning, and to leave this world a little better than they found it.  We want them to feel valued by those around them and to help others – in their family, in their schools, in their communities – to feel valued as well.  What we want for them is to live a life that truly matters. p. 230

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