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“An engaged employee is 44% more productive than a satisfied worker, but an employee who feels inspired at work is nearly 125% more productive than a satisfied one, says Mankins. The companies that inspire more employees perform better than the rest.” Fast Company- Stephanie Vozza

Why shouldn’t we start motivating high school students to perform for their own satisfaction instead of just getting grades for an agenda they may have lost faith in?

I was recently an invited visiting speaker to a high school to speak about my books and my life. I asked one of the counselors about how many of the students in the 3,000 student school were expected to go to college. She said about 40%.

I was shocked by a few realizations. One, the primary reasons they weren’t planning to continue their education was they probably couldn’t afford the expense. Secondly, a college education is no longer a resolution to getting a job that pays the cost of the education. Thirdly, more people realize the cost of getting through college could result in a life of debilitating debt, beginning immediately.

I could also speculate that a high percentage of students now come from homes where college education is not touted because the families know they cannot afford it. Families are hoping their children will find a way without further education, but what are those opportunities?

It seems we should be focusing many of these students toward a life’s work rather than just engaging them in classes meant to be a door way to college. This is a prime learning period for young minds and it appears a higher percentage of U.S. students see the difficulties of going to college, the questionable results of a college education in the market place, and the lasting debt for financing this experience.

It is also possible we start to lose students from becoming contributing members of society when they see such bleak prospects for their future. We and they know that not only is their a lack of minimum wage jobs, machines are taking more of them, and minimum wage is not a living wage.

The program at which I spoke for vulnerable high school students was labeled self-empowerment. This is certainly a good start. Students should start with a good self-image and personal habits that build their vitality, pride, and energy beginning with nutrition and exercise. Finding a reason to be spiritual can drive motivation and hope.

I like Stephen Covey’s assessment that our personal values begin internally and we broadcast outward with our contribution. Helping students become aware of their value as a human organism, then as a part of society and finally as a contributor of their unique gifts, however they may choose to express them, gives them more alternatives.

Is there a solution? Is there an alternative to inspire students to become more autonomous and self-directed toward results that could have more impact on their lives and not lock them into a narrow path of possibilities?

I think their power should start by creating their own identity with health, fitness, and ideas of the kind of work they like. Developing personal discipline creates a power to focus on more goals. Students need to become learning machines. Taking multiple classes introduces them to a wide variety of topics, but they also need to understand what is involved in mastery.

I remember my high school days of seeking performance more than learning. We crammed for exams and forgot everything the next day. This was all for the goal of going to college. This performance orientation might be a missed opportunity to learn skills and knowledge that could be applied to real life. Some of these skills might be personal finances, how to build relationships, social media skills, how to start a business, how to build mastery for long term work, how to maximize personal energy, and how to create great customer service. This could be labeled a “prepare for real life” major.

So, I believe a viable program includes three steps: First inspiring students to maximize who they are by optimizing their personal energy and productivity. Realizing the value of becoming more vital through nutrition and fitness begins a path toward self-esteem.

Secondly, the secret of optimizing our potential is to become learning machines that tackle difficulty for the challenge and risk. Once we learn we can work through the difficulty of tasks with commitment and discipline, we realize we could point that energy toward any task we thought worthwhile. Our opportunities open up once we learn how to harness our own capabilities. USC has begun a program that has students trying new experiences to become more comfortable with fears.

Thirdly, exposing students to real world experiences where they can learn the arts of customer service, accountability, integrity, and team work could create a second level of skills that could be coupled with their primary work interest. We might stop emphasizing “jobs” and think of our future in terms of life long work. We could ask what field of endeavor is attractive to you? What are the necessary skills to enter that field? What type of work are you most suited for?

Learning trades or training for niche jobs where there is employment while in high school could create a few positive effects. It could give students the realization that the system can be weighted on their behalf. It gives them a solid reason that their efforts might produce tangible results. It envisions a life in which they could become independent and live on their terms.

Secondly, high school students should be given some insight into living a fulfilling life if they don’t continue to college. How can they optimize their uniqueness and their skills? Why should they optimize their energy with a nutritional diet and exercise? How could they start learning more about their interests and connecting to communities with the same interests? How could they immediately begin contributing to the world at large?

Students don’t have to become employees. They can be valuable citizens who have an interest in a niche and seek followers or customers for both the product/service they offer or become independent contractors of their niche skills.  Learning personal skills, appealing characteristics, customer service, empathy, and contributing behaviors might open up more opportunities than subjugating themselves to the first minimum wage opportunity.

High schools might play a larger role in realizing often the majority of their students are not going for higher education and this is the last opportunity to offer them the many personal and vocational skills they will need after graduation.