Young Success

MBA professor and ex-Wall Street banker: The No. 1 thing we're not teaching our kids enough of today

Twenty20 | Crystal Sing

For more than four decades, I've worked closely with successful entrepreneurs, colleagues at the White House, the State Department, Goldman Sachs and the bright MBA students in my classes at Georgetown University School of Business.

I've observed them and I've listened to their stories. Among the many valuable lessons they've taught me is the importance of teaching our children to embrace and take smart risks in life.

These days, unfortunately, parents' expectations and need for control can put screws on that.

Start by giving your kids emotional support

Margot Bisnow, a researcher and author of "Raising an Entrepreneur," has long puzzled over the notion of risk-taking.

She shed some light on the subject for me from a unique vantage point by asking a group of young and successful entrepreneurial risk-takers about how their were raised. Their answers were surprisingly consistent: They all had a parent or caregiver who believed in them, period.

Being an entrepreneur is bruising and hard, full of self-doubt and fearfulness. Inevitably, your mind is swimming with voices, internal and external, urging you to give up, grow up and get a "normal" job. You need that one reassuring voice that believes in you, often when you don't see the way forward.

One effective way to instill that voice in our children is to offer strong emotional support. Studies have shown that when kids are supported emotionally (e.g., parents practice gestures or acts of caring, acceptance and assistance), they are more likely to be proud of their skills, confident and fearless.

But it's not about raising an entrepreneur. While strong emotional support might produce a gifted college dropout who launches a technology company, it might also produce a steady professional who earns a law degree and practices that craft dutifully, or a fifth-grade teacher who relishes shaping young minds.

The path taken is almost irrelevant. The main thing is that they're able to face their fears and simply do it, whether they embark on what is perceived by others as high-risk or not. 

Creating the right environment

An environment that enables us to take appropriate risks isn't just a place; it's a mindset. Children who are encouraged to play and explore are more comfortable with risk and its range of implications.

But the desire for control and order can stifle the imaginative, risk-taking side of a young person. Often at airports, I see overwhelmed "responsible" parents scolding their young, restless children. "Johnny, stop running! Sit down and behave," they chide, when all their children were doing was energetically exploring their new environment.

As a father, I understand parents' tendency to project their own fears onto their children. But here's the thing: Humans are made to explore, and as we age, our social cues become more pronounced. Alison Gopnik, a child-development psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, writes, "We do less [play] as we get older and become less willing to explore novel alternatives and more conditioned to stick with familiar ones."

So allow your kids to push frontiers, make mistakes and discover new paths when they are young. You can do it in little ways: Encourage them to try a new food, have a conversation with a classmate they typically wouldn't engage with, or read a book outside their usual genre of choice.

They might end up not enjoying the experience, but they will grow up and start to see that risk — the unfamiliar — is their friend and teacher.

J. Douglas Holladay is a professor at the Georgetown University School of Business and co-founder of Park Avenue Equity Partners. He is also the author of the new book "Rethinking Success: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Meaning in Work and Life," published by HarperCollins. Previously, Holladay was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and worked for the White House as a Special Ambassador coordinating international relations.

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