Levine: Graduates flunking life Book Review: Ready or Not, Here Life Comes
"Years of schooling and parenting have entirely missed that elusive target, work-life readiness," Levine writes in Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. Levine, a pediatrician and a professor, is also the author of the best-seller, A Mind at a Time.
In Ready or Not, Levine gives parents a sobering preview of the years post-school. He introduces us to former patients, and shows us step-by-step how they seem to have lost their way in the transition between formal schooling and holding a job.
But don't mistake this book's target audience. Levine wants to reach parents of young children. He is hoping to help influence how they raise their adolescents. For parents of almost any age child, the book works as a perceptive lens through which to see progress. With Levine's compassionate guidance, we view many different reasons why a student can flounder.
One of these is what he calls being "trapped in your teens." Our present popular culture, including advertising images, music and television shows, celebrates adolescence and the elusive social status of being cool. Everyone seeks personal pleasure at any cost. When Levine analyzes cool, he breaks it down into parts that may seem innocent at first. To be cool is to be mildly cynical and to try to keep up with trends that change quickly. But then he shows us how the values of cool can undermine what a person needs to show to keep a job. An employer wants stability and reliability. An employer expects agreement with work norms, and not cynicism and joking.
We meet a man named Buddy in the book, who was a socially successful college student. He was well-liked and showed leadership within his fraternity. On the job, he becomes his own worst enemy. He tries to be cool, which means he can't appear to be working overly hard, showing any initiative or seeming to be ambitious or dressing for success, Levine explains.
Buddy eventually gets treated for depression, which is partly fueled by his repeated failure in his post-college jobs. Levine uses Buddy as an illustration of someone who had great people skills, but never understood what else life required. "Buddy should have been cured of his naivete, for he was totally ignorant of what it takes to be a happy adult when the party is over," Levine writes.
Levine gives readers many concrete recommendations for how to help their children gain insight and inner direction. For example, he provides a sample questionnaire to ask a student yearly, beginning in middle school. Students' answers help them see themes in their own interests and activities, and gain insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. When this is done outside of an academic context, it has a different spin. The question isn't - "Am I good at math?" The question is - "Do I like puzzles?" By helping young teens see patterns, parents foster their child's self-knowledge. A student might choose an after-school activity or job shadow related to a passion they have. They might read biographies of people in careers they admire.
No one pretends that these early career notions should be gospel, but Levine believes the process of imagining your future and the process of analyzing your passions is in itself a skill that requires practice to strengthen. Later on, every student is going to need this grounding to make critical life choices. Parents and educators are failing some young people, by neglecting to teach the kind of communication, patience, planning and accountability that life will require. Some call this group of students the "echo boomers," children of parents born during the baby boom. Levine told an interviewer that ironically, the very careful parenting that boomers gave these children may leave them vulnerable.
Parents have been "protecting them, inflating their egos, massaging them and fighting their battles for them." In Levine's mind, the protection leaves young adults fragile when they meet the world.
Sally James is a freelance writer in Seattle and the parent of three teenagers, including a college sophomore.