“Courage is grace under pressure.” – Ernest Hemingway

“When will you graduate high school?”

“Which colleges are you applying to?”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

These are just a few of the typical questions asked of today’s teenagers, particularly in our country. It seems that from an early age, we’re trained to focus on success – often characterized by status, monetary value or income, and/or material things. We’ve become hyper-focused on doing instead of being.

The result: The end goal has transformed into more of a passionless obligation to themselves or to others rather than one filled with happiness and gratification.

I’ve seen this pattern in my private practice and with my own nieces and nephews; there’s this pressure for them to have it all figured out by 17 or 18 years old, which is utterly unrealistic. The brain is still developing at this age, leaving them lacking the full mental capacity of an adult (and even then, some adults aren’t capable of making positive, sound decisions). Additionally, as humans, our desires, passions, and goals generally shift many times throughout our lifespan. To think that adolescents need to have their lives completely mapped out is, again, unrealistic. The pressure, however, is very real and may feel insurmountable to them at times.

Sometimes, this pressure originates from the outside world, such as from parents, teachers, coaches, peers, social media, or society as a whole. Other times, the teens are the ones placing the pressure to succeed on themselves due to the high level of competition in academics, athletics, and other areas of life. One could even argue that these pressures are in a “dance” with each other, à la “the chicken or the egg”. Either way one chooses to look at it, it’s definitely becoming tougher to be a teenager in today’s world. When appropriate and therapeutically beneficial, I’ll ask a teenage client’s parent to join us in session to share their own experiences of not knowing. Typically, this allows teenagers to be aware of their own parent’s journey and provides parents with a glimpse into their child’s complicated world, resulting in more empathy, understanding, and acceptance.

What’s important to keep in mind here is that it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do or be in life. I didn’t discover or pursue my love for counseling until I was in my 40s. It’s okay to not have it all figured out! If you do know your path and the necessary steps to reach your goal, great! Follow it with steadfast passion and focus. For those who don’t know, try some things and see what works. It’s not a set path for every person. Take that woodworking course, apply to a trade school, or inquire about various internships. It’s about taking the time to figure out what interests and motivates you on your own path to success.

TAKE-AWAY: Keep in mind that there’s more than one way to reach success and happiness. If you’re an adult, try thinking like your teenage self for a few moments. Return to the beginning of this blog and ask yourself the questions posed. How would your teen mind answer them? Record your responses. Now, shift to your adult brain. How would you answer the questions now? Notice the differences between your two “minds”. Success and happiness mean different things at different times in life…and it’s okay to explore.