Adversity May Just Be a Student’s Best Friend

Last week I met someone at a student conference who inspired me. Alex is a junior in high school who has overcome several obstacles in his first sixteen years of life—an abusive, deadbeat dad who left the family; growing up in a single parent household afterward; family income that was at the poverty level; a speech impediment; walking abnormalities, and the need to work two jobs while attending high school and applying to colleges.

Our conversation revolved around how he felt that each of these obstacles actually made him a better person.

This is easier said than practiced.

I admire Alex for his perspective, and he’s absolutely right. None of us enjoy adversity in the moment, but almost all of us recognize how much it sharpens us afterward. As I reflect on my own story, I can see how hardships I faced have deepened me, given me strength, and actually produced a better leader:

  • I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic in 1980. (It’s built patience and empathy.)
  • I was fired from a job as a teenager. (It enabled me to identify my real gifts.)
  • I’ve been hit by another car six times while driving. (It gave me perspective.)
  • I’ve had curvature of the spine for fifteen years. (It helped me plan better.)
  • I was in an airplane crash in 1990. (It grew a sense of urgency for my mission.)

The fact is, researchers have found new ways that adversity creates better people. Higher education is now focusing on students who come from difficult circumstances and factoring that in when evaluating S.A.T. scores. Whether you agree with the move or not, it’s a recognition of the fact that variables besides academics can produce a successful graduate. The College Board, which oversees the S.A.T., decided it would assign an “adversity score” to each college applicant who takes the test, “…the score will be determined by 15 factors, among them: the crime rate in the student’s neighborhood, the median income of the applicant’s household, and whether he or she comes from a single parent home.”

In fact, Yale University now claims they’ve used this new metric and believes it is “part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.” The bottom line is simple: educators are now recognizing how the social and emotional factors in a student’s life may be predictors of a successful person later on. Those who endure tough circumstances might just have more grit and resilience in college.

Want more evidence?

Teens and Acne

The Spring Issue of the Journal of Human Capital reported new research from Ball State University and Emory University revealing a strange factor in success:

“We use data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health to investigate the association between having acne in middle to high school and the subsequent educational and labor market outcomes. We find that having acne is strongly positively associated with overall grade-point average in high school, grades in high school English, history, math, and science and the completion of a college degree. We also find evidence that acne is associated with higher personal labor market earnings for women. We further explore a possible channel through which acne may affect educations and earnings.”

The paper is entitled, “Do Pimples Pay?” And the answer, apparently, is “yes.”

How Do We Help Students Benefit from Hardship?

1. Discuss these findings.

While it sounds silly, I always had some success discussing interesting findings like the research I mention above with kids. Who would’ve thought that a teen who endures years of acne actually benefits from it? Could it be the acne toughened them up, forcing them to focus on their studies instead of being obsessed with their social life? Could it be that they became better workers on the job from this disadvantage?

2. Tell your own story.

While you don’t want to overdo this, I believe every student at some point wants to hear a personal story from someone older about how they faced similar hardships. They need to know they’re not alone and that there is hope. My son went through a stage where he actually asked me to tell him stories of my past failures. Stories get locked into our memories when they feel relevant and timely.

3. Reflect on positive outcomes from their adversity.

If students are willing, ask them to make a pro and con list of what came from their challenge. This won’t happen naturally. In the moment, difficult situations foster negative emotions rather than logic. But with a coach, students can begin to see the benefits and can recapture a positive attitude along the way. Help them see that they gained something from the adversity they would’ve never received without it.

4. Help your students see hardship as a mentor.

This takes things to a higher level and enables students to gain from misfortune without your help. Over time, strive to teach perspective through critical thinking when it comes to adversity. While it’s often a grueling teacher, hardship always teaches us something. If we welcome it as a friend not a foe, we end up benefiting from the lessons learned and from the grit that results from it.

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Adversity May Just Be a Student's Best Friend