A Kid’s Guide to Success – In School, Sports, and Life
Dr. Steve Silvestro outlines a framework for parents, teachers, and coaches to teach kids about success
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Now that my kids have moved into their school years, my job as a parent feels like there is so much more on the line.
Gone are the days when feeding them, changing them, and making sure they don’t run out into the street were my top priorities. Now many of our conversations are about dealing with the challenges of learning and how to handle getting something wrong; navigating the ups and downs of friendships; and how to ride through the messy process of figuring out who you are and who you want to be.
And because in addition to being dad to my own two kids, I’m also the pediatrician to hundreds of young children and the coach for both of my kids’ soccer teams, I have quite a few children under my wing.
I’ll admit—I feel a little pressure to make sure that I say and do the right things as I try to guide all of these kids to be successful in whatever they strive to accomplish.
So I’ve explored how to create a foundation for success for these many kids in my life. One of the most inspiring experts on success was John Wooden, the celebrated UCLA basketball coach of greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. In fact, Wooden famously created a “Pyramid of Success”—comprised of 15 different qualities and outlined in his book Wooden on Leadership—that he used for decades to inspire his young players to become the best at what they do.
But while Wooden’s pyramid is a great inspiration for adults, I feel that it’s too busy and complex for most kids. So instead, I’ve come up with a simpler guide to success with key points that are easier for us adults to convey and for our kids to understand.
My hope is that you can use this guide as a framework to teach the kids under your wing—whether they are your own children, or those in your class or sports team—about what it takes to find true success.
The key components of this Kid’s Guide to Success include Effort, Enthusiasm, Friendship, Skill, Team Spirit, and Confidence. Each of these qualities builds on the next, as illustrated in the picture below:
What is Success?
Before we start, it’s important to know where we’re headed. And so let’s begin by deciding what “success” should mean when we talk to our kids.
Defining success is something that even most adults find challenging. Is it a certain income? Is it a final prize or accomplishment? Is it a particular career or family goal?
The problem is that success can’t be defined as a measurable outcome. After all, once a specific, measurable outcome is achieved, what’s next?
Success, therefore, can’t be an endpoint. It can’t be a checkbox. Success has to be a state of being. It’s more a feeling than a tangible item or reward.
But how do you describe that to a kid? Like this: Success is being the best possible version of yourself.
“Success is being the best possible version of yourself.”
What does that mean and how do you explain that to a child?
Being the “best possible version of yourself” means that you do your best in whatever you try. It means that you don’t shortchange yourself in preparation. It means that you behave in a way that leaves you happy with your mark on the world and those around you. Being the best possible version of yourself means you’ve become who you want to be, to the best of your abilities, in any given moment.
It’s no small feat. In fact, I know that many of us adults would have a hard time saying that we are the best possible versions of ourselves each and every day. But it is achievable. What’s more, this definition of success might even be the most important goal worth striving for.
So how do we get there? What steps can we tell our kids, students, and young athletes to take to become successful? Let’s start at the base of the pyramid:
Say this to your kids:
- “Success is being the best possible version of yourself.”
- “If you know that you’ve done your absolute best, then you’ve won no matter what the outcome.”
This concept is quite simple: The first step on the path to success is to make the right effort. How hard you work is the foundation of the outcome of that work.
Notice that I didn’t say how much you work. We live in a culture that prides itself on toil and long hours. You may have heard the notion that 10,000 hours of practice makes you great. This idea was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and states that ten thousand hours of deliberate practice are necessary for someone to become world-class in their field.
Several studies, however, have shown that this isn’t quite the case. And the reason may be that while a great deal of practice and experience are necessary to hone world-class skill, 10,000 isn’t a magic number of hours.
Instead, it’s the “deliberate” part of “deliberate practice” that might be the most important. In his book The Four-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris successfully points out that it’s not the amount of work that matters, but the quality of the work. A telemarketer can spend eight hours dialing through a phonebook from A to Z, or he can spend two hours calling the right people at the right time to make the sale. A child is more likely to learn piano by spending twenty minutes focused on playing than by spending an hour playing half-heartedly, wishing his lesson were over.
And science is showing this to be true in many aspects of life. For example, when it comes to exercise, Tabata training—a 4-minute workout broken into eight segments of 20 seconds of intense exercise plus 10 seconds of rest—has been shown to build muscle and burn fat as well or better than 60 minutes of moderate exercise.
But when it comes to accomplishing goals, time and preparation are still important. While the person using the 4-minute Tabata protocol might have better results than the person moderately exercising for 60 minutes, the latter person is still going to achieve more than someone who never gets off the couch in the first place.
To reach your goal, time must be put in. Every “overnight success” is really years in the making.
Ultimately, the lesson to kids needs to be that it takes a good amount of high-quality “doing” to develop high-quality skills. Achieving your dreams takes Effort.
Say this to your kids:
- “You need to work hard to reach your goal.”
- “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi
Of course, putting in that much effort will feel like punishment if it’s not something that you enjoy.
In order to commit yourself to the work that it takes to reach your goals, you have to face it each day with excitement. That’s why Enthusiasm is the second part of the foundation of success.
Now, it certainly is possible to become highly accomplished at a particular skill—even to be the best in the world—and not find any joy in the process. Tennis great Andre Agassi might be the best example of this.
Agassi is widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players in history and he dominated the game in the 1990s. Yet in his autobiography, Open, Agassi writes: “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.” How could he be so successful without finding any joy in the game to which he committed his life?
In the same autobiography, Agassi describes the struggles with drugs and anxiety that plagued his personal life during some of the most triumphant years in his career. So while his performance on the court was top-notch, his life off the court was fraught with strife and suffering.
Despite appearances, Agassi was not the best version of himself—he hadn’t truly found success. There was no enthusiasm in what he did, and he suffered because of it.
But what if the task at hand isn’t something that you enjoy, but is still something that you have to do? Isn’t this the challenge with kids—that they have to do some things they don’t like because they simply have to get done? What if you hate studying for history, but need to ace the exam?
The key is to find something enjoyable in the process. It’s more easily said than done, but no less crucial.
That’s the pitfall of telling kids to “follow your passion.” Not everyone knows what their “passion” is. And for many, doing the thing they love the most wouldn’t bring them happiness because they may have to give up their desired lifestyle or other key factors to do it.
And that’s why it’s important to recognize that “doing what you love” and “loving what you do” are two different things. The baseline approach that we need to teach our kids if we want them to find success is not necessarily to encourage them to follow their passion, to only do the thing that they love most; but instead to love what they do—to find something in the work and effort that they are doing or need to do that can excite them and that they can enjoy.
It’s important to recognize that “doing what you love” and “loving what you do” are two different things.
Bringing enthusiasm to what you do not only makes the effort more enjoyable, it also gives you the drive you need to commit to the level of effort required take you to the next level.
Effort and Enthusiasm form the foundation of success. You can’t move forward without high quality effort, and that effort can feel tedious without enthusiasm.
Say this to your kids:
- “Let’s find something that you love in this and it won’t feel as hard.”
- “Picture what it is that you want, and know that this work is going to help you get it.”
- “What can we do to make this fun?”
Friendship isn’t necessarily something that you would think is a building block of success. After all, it can seem like all of the work on the journey to your goal must fall on you; no one else can do it for you.
But it turns out that friendship is one of the most important requirements on the path to success.
No matter how enthusiastic or optimistic you might be, you are bound to face challenges along the way. Failures and mistakes will rise up as obstacles and make you question whether you can achieve what you want, or even whether you should bother trying at all.
Friends provide much-needed support and can encourage you when the road gets tough. And since persevering in the face of challenges and fatigue is what separates those who do and don’t find success, the support of friends is vital to getting there.
Moreover, friends can act as a sounding board, letting you know whether or not you’re headed in the right direction. If you tend to be overly optimistic, you might think that things are going better than they really are. If you’re more of a “glass half empty” type of person, then you might not recognize how much you actually are accomplishing. A true friend can be honest with you and can point you in the right direction.
Research is even beginning to show that having close friends can have more profound benefits, leading to better health and even longer life. To find success, you need to keep your mind and body in the best condition—whether your task is physical or not—and the power of friendship in helping you do that may be second to none.
There is an adage that says that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Choose wisely and treat those relationships with care and respect, and you will find that those around you become a vital component on your path to success.
Say this to your kids:
- “Take a break and do something with your friends to help clear your head.”
- “Take care of your friendships and they’ll take care of you.
- “You’re not in this alone. I am/your friends are always here for you.”
Skill is the one building block of the pyramid that might seem like it needs the least description. Obviously, you have to be skilled at what you choose to do in order to be successful at it. To be the best version of yourself, you need to hone your skills to the best of your abilities.
Of course, what “the best of your abilities” means is often a point of debate. Does natural skill always trump abilities that are gained through hard work and practice? In some cases, yes. A 5-foot 3-inch basketball player is not going to be as dominant a center as a 7-foot 3-inch Shaquille O’Neal. Likewise, a man with a resounding baritone voice is going to have a hard time singing a soprano’s part.
Still, the question of “Nature versus Nurture” when it comes to skills and abilities has long been a difficult question to answer.
My approach is this: Genetics, or “nature,” defines the parameters—the upper and lower limits of what ability you might achieve. Nurture—the combination of environment, effort, and enthusiasm—will determine what within those parameters you ultimately achieve.
So for that 5’3” basketball player, his natural parameters might limit his ability to become a world-class center. But if he enthusiastically puts in enough high-quality effort, he may still become a world-class basketball player at, say, point guard.
All skills can be improved upon with the enthusiastic application of quality effort. And doing so is crucial to becoming the best version of yourself and finding success.
Say this to your kids:
- “Working on the basics/fundamentals is necessary to become the best.”
- “It’s so much fun to watch you play/practice/perform!”
- “I can tell you’re getting better all the time.”
- “Your hard work is paying off.”
- “Look at how far you’ve come.”
Working toward “success” and being the best version of yourself can seem like a solitary endeavor. As I mentioned above, even with the power of friendships and supporters, the path is ultimately yours to travel.
And yet, there comes a time when we reach a certain level of mental maturity and we realize that while we can achieve amazing things with our own goals in mind, we can only truly be the best version of ourselves when our goals are also tied to some sort of greater good.
That’s why discovering a drive to work toward some bigger, communal goal is one of the final building blocks of success. For the soccer player, that might mean playing a specific role on the field to ensure that your team wins. For the student, it might be to strive to become more knowledgeable so that you can someday learn how to improve the lives of others.
And there is always a team, something bigger to work for, even if you think that you are an individual talent. For the violinist or actor, the audience is the team. Your skills are lost in empty space if there is no audience to perform for, no one to be enlightened or moved by your art.
Too often, we find accomplished individuals who get too wrapped in their own heads, too stuck in their own experience. We can all list a litany of elite athletes and other “successful,” world-class people who fit this bill.
But without the connection between their work and some sort of community, there is no soul in their triumphs.
What’s more, as John Wooden writes, “what benefits the team ultimately benefits the individual.”
Take the superstar American swimmer Michael Phelps. No one can doubt that Phelps has spent almost two decades striving and pushing himself to be the world’s best competitor in his events. One only has to look at how he trains to see that. But Phelps has also driven himself with the goal of representing his country as best he can—including joining on team events, rather than solely swimming individual events—and the result has paid off. In fact, twelve of his record twenty-eight Olympic medals relied on and were shared with teammates in relay events. Had he never joined a team and striven for its success, Phelps wouldn’t be the most decorated Olympian in the world.
Team Spirit—having some greater communal purpose—not only adds drive and inspiration to your efforts, it also furthers you on your own path to success.
Say this to your kids:
- “What’s good for you isn’t always good for the team, but what’s good for the team is always good for you.”
- “Think of how your accomplishments will help those around you.”
The final piece of the Kid’s Guide to Success is the most crucial. It’s impossible to accomplish your goals without confidence.
And yet, this final building block is the one that relies the most heavily on all of the components that come before it. In fact, confidence arises naturally after you successfully work through all of the previous steps. Confidence comes from the support of your friendships and the knowledge that you’re working for something greater. And it comes in knowing that all of your effort and enthusiasm have honed your skills to perfection.
But confidence also arises from one surprising place: your failures.
As you work so hard to reach your goal—practicing, drilling, refining your talent—you are bound to fail. In fact, you’ll fail over and over and over again.
For kids, this can be the demoralizing moment. Many kids and teens think in terms of black and white and can become distressed and down on themselves when things don’t go well: “I didn’t get it right, so I’m terrible and I never will.” How often have you heard this?
And so it’s the job of the parent, coach, or teacher to use failures and mistakes as opportunities to learn. If we can keep a child thinking positively, then we can keep her enthusiastic enough to put in the Effort needed to overcome any failure. And so that child will, at some point, succeed.
In 1982, a freshman basketball player at UNC named Michael Jordan made the game-winning shot to clinch the NCAA Championship. Decades later, Jordan is often quoted as saying that he missed over 9,000 shots in his career, including dozens of potential game-winners. But he was confident to take any shot—no matter what the consequences—because he knew that he had made a game-winning shot before.
Failure is a learning opportunity and a motivator, and thus not something to fear. And past accomplishments should forever give you the confidence that you can achieve them again.
“To learn to succeed, you must first learn to fail.”
– Michael Jordan
It’s of course important to point out that you must be careful not to be overconfident. You can only control how good you are; you can’t control how good your competition is.
As my dad often said when I was a young athlete: “Remember that there is always someone out there who’s better than you.” I never took that to be a disparaging comment. Instead, hearing that acted both as an inspiration to work harder and as a reminder to be humble and not become overconfident.
Underestimating your competition—whether it’s an actual person or some other test or challenge before you—only serves to undo everything that you have accomplished to this point.
Confidence without arrogance is the final key component of finding true success.
Say this to your kids:
- “I know it’s hard when you make a mistake, but let’s go over what happened and see if we can figure out how to do it better next time.”
- “Look at how hard you’ve worked so far. Believe in yourself. I know that I believe in you.”
- “There’s always someone out there who’s worse than you & someone out there who’s better than you. So believe in yourself and do your best.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good the competition is if we remember that our definition of success is to “be the best possible version of yourself.”
If you’ve done all of the above and yet, in the end, haven’t won some particular prize—a gold medal, first chair, whatever—you haven’t lost.
It’s true. In fact, with or without that prize, you’ve found success.
Believe me, as someone who spent 20 years of my life striving for top grades; who did always set the goal of becoming first chair or getting the best praise; who would get so angry if a call from the ref didn’t go my way that I’d punt the soccer ball 50 yards out in to a cornfield and end up with a yellow card—I know that it can sound wishy-washy to hear that you can “win” and find “success” even without winning the top prize.
But when you can say that you gave the effort your absolute all; that you enjoyed the hard work you put in and honed your skills to the best of your abilities; that you built strong, lasting friendships and worked for something greater than yourself; that you are confident in who you are and what you can do—then you’ll know that you’ve become the best possible version of yourself.
You’ll know that you have found true success.
I hope that this Kid’s Guide to Success has given you a framework that you can use to help your children, students, and young athletes strive to be the best they can possibly be and achieve their dreams.
Leave a comment below and share this with anyone who you know guides the hearts and minds of aspirational young people.
Photo: Flickr CC stevetulk