When “Study Hard and You will Do Good is not enough, and Why the Need for Role Models


illustration source: NYT, "A Formula for Happiness”,   December 14, 2013 (Arthur C. Brooks)

illustration source: NYT, “A Formula for Happiness”, December 14, 2013 (Arthur C. Brooks)

Very often we hear these ‘words of the wise’: “Study hard and you will do good in life.”

But is it just cliché? After all, not all of us turn out the way we expect or proportional to the zeal and enthusiasm we put into our education. We have heard stories of the most intelligent and highly achieving academics turning to self-destruction, sometimes with fatal ending.

My father’s brother, a man with high intelligence and academic standing, received scholarships to the most prestigious world universities, earning a Bachelor’s Degree from University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon return to Uganda, he failed to ‘find himself’ amidst friends he left behind. Plenty with less of the education him were doing extremely well in life, with thriving families and children. Meanwhile, the wife he left behind had married another man, whom she brought into their marital home, forcing my uncle to find a one-bedroom rental somewhere in the city. With a failed marriage, and social reintegration, his sorrows sent him into alcohol to seek consolation when he was not teaching. Moreover, he often showed up to teach drunk, until that fateful day when he was fatally hit by a speeding motorist while crossing the road drunk. Similar story about my friend’s dad! Highly education, as well, with degrees from prestigious western universities, but he too succumbed to HIV/AIDS, after miserably failing to reintegrate, a broken heart and womanizing.

Yet the most high-profile case is one about our 44th President’s father. Educated at the University of Hawaii via a prestigious African American Scholarship to very promising and outstanding students from his country, and at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He later return to his Kenya and worked as a senior government economist. But frustration with his country’s national politics and drinking destroyed his professional career, driving him into a motor accidents that later claimed his life.

So, how long can we keep telling our children and learners that studying hard will yield bright futures for them? Is the glass half full, with some unfinished business that we need to add to the conversation? How well do we know the intrinsic struggles of our highly intelligent and academic superachiever personalities do we know? I suggest that perhaps, we should add the value of role models, as an additional ingredient to enrich their education experience and post-graduation success for our learners/schoolers.

It is not enough to strive for an elite education, good grades and six figure job with a highly-rated professional institution. True some people succeed in following the ‘perfect logical route’: Go to the best elementary schools; enroll in after-school programs, reinforcement classes or prep school; graduate valedictorian from high school or close to the top of their class; score high on SATs; get into the best colleges; land prestigious summer internships between study and summer abroad escapades; graduate from college and scoop job placements among the best of corporate and nonprofit America; and earn six figure salaries.

Still, their success does not come from individual effort per se, nor is it always the ultimate indicator of happiness. After all, “Happiness Research” reminds us that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, does not imply bondage in unfulfilling, underachieving and hyper-exhausting six-figure jobs. Instead, happiness correlates greatly with achievement, the thrill of creativity and discovery, and the reward and comfort from pursuing own goals and initiatives. Happiness Research also point to the role family, faith and community contribute.

Many high career achievers are guided by the successes, expectations, visions, actions and profiles of their role models, often families, guardians, friends or community, whom they seek to emulate and please. Little wonder that children of doctors often grow up to pursue medicine, children of lawyers go to law school, architects breed architects, actors make actors, models, professors, and humanitarians. Not that some apples do not end up falling far from the tree, but plenty of good/successful apples fall close to the tree.

Like anything else, there are exceptions, such as children from homeless shelters, foster homes, farmworkers and first generation college-bound, making it to Harvard. Yet, their journey is not always the same as those with parental/community role models as doctors. Their role model might be their working class parent who have never set foot into an elite classroom or attained a college degree, who struggled to beg for a $1 on the streets to buy a burger meal every night or their farm worker parent or factory production or mining dad who worked unorthodox hours just to meet ends half-way.

So, what happens when they make it to Harvard but fail to ‘fit-in’ because the new environment is far from relatable to them? Or because they cannot find anybody from their background, anyone with shared life trajectory? Or, when their new elite circles have no room for the Association of kids who grew up in a homeless shelter or the Association of kids from the projects or The weird kids alliance? The office of student career services has no support for their type, and the African Students Group is not “Africanist enough?

The feeling of being an ‘outsider’ in one’s geographical spaces, contesting and re-creating ’normality’, resisting silence, has the potential of causing career apathy. Even an upbeat scholar may sometimes doubt the value and relevance of their career pursuits, increasingly feeling no satisfaction from the ‘mainstream’ line of engagement. Resultantly, a migration of career pursuits might happen, dictated partly by disappointment from not achieving one’s career target, while all along ignoring opportunities presented but not of one’s liking. In a twist, taking on anything to offset one’s responsibilities and obligations that come with pursuing an expensive education without own or family resources to buy it.

Ultimately, the lack of strong professional and personal support, and absence of satisfactory advice and mentorship, often hinders one’s ability to stay upbeat and invested in activities that do not offer happiness. Including, among well-mentored children,with ‘shinning’ role models to look up to but perhaps not ’strategically aligned’ to their interests. Now that I am a parent, I worry if all my effort teaching, educating, engaging with, my son, and engaging him in activities to hopefully advance his learning and social interaction will not mean a thing in his future! Not because there is no value in shaping our children’s destiny, but perhaps once again, it is not so much about working so hard and obtaining good grades, but working strategically.

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