College, Career, or Nashville: What IS the Measure of Students' Success?


by: Alex Stubenbort"Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune."- Jim Rohn

Success. What a fickle, fuddled word. Despite it being, in many ways, the driving force of the American Dream; very few individuals are actually capable of defining it. Although a brief browsing of the inter webs will bear much fruit in pundits' views on the subject, few, if any, are able to give a description of success that is universal. It is my firm belief that the reason for this is simple. It is not society that defines what success is or isn't but the mindset of the individual in question; but if success is relative to the individual, why is it that our education systems are so focused on standardization?

This misplaced obsession with standardizing success is a self-fulfilling prophecy. School houses across this great nation are not breeding grounds for innovation and ingenuity but industrial factories producing cookie cutter compliance. Compliance to the idea that success begins with college, is realized in a career, and enjoyed in retirement. However, many of the students we serve and the adults they become are not buying what we're selling, and thank God for that!

  An ex-student of mine paid me a visit today on her last day of school. She is a graduating senior with all of the telltale signs of a high academic achiever. She is a 4-year honor roll student, dual-enrolled, an active member of multiple school organizations and clubs, a social butterfly that uses her connectivity to bring about positive change in her community, and genuinely loved by all of her teachers. For this young lady, clich├ęs abound: the sky's the limit, the world's her oyster, life is ripe for the pickin', etc. 

Following life's playbook, this young lady's next best step is to select a great college. This has become such an assumed transition that I've grown accustomed to asking, as so many educators across our nation have, "Where do you plan on attending?" So imagine my surprise when this particular former student responded without hesitation, "I'm not. I'm moving out to Nashville next week to pursue my dreams in country music!"

  In that moment, I was confronted with what I've been conditioned to say in response to a student dropping a bomb like that. "Are you crazy?! Do you know the odds of actually making it in that town? What do your parents think? You could attend any college you choose! What are you thinking?!" But I didn't. 

The girl in front of me has already proven herself to be wildly intelligent, innovative, and talented. She has shown grit and resilience in the face of attending a high school that is nationally ranked as one of the most challenging. She knew that what she was doing flew in the face of what was expected from her, but she had a plethora of options and chose the one that she was most passionate about. So my response? "I am so happy for you! Go give Nashville hell!"

Today's interaction helped me realize what my former administrator, William Farrell (real name), told me years ago: Success can be measured by the number of options available to you. We should not be preparing our students for a predetermined path. They are not cogs in a machine or bricks in a wall. Instead, we should be preparing our students to have the skills necessary to produce a plethora of options. Which option they choose will ultimately be up to them. However, if we're lucky, they just may choose the one that will change the world.