Full Show Notes
[This episode contains strong language.]
You remember high school, don’t you? The crushing pressure to define yourself, the need to fit in with your classmates, and the stress of meeting all the expectations of adults and teachers. What do you want to do with your life? they ask. But, at sixteen, did you really know? Did your life pan out the way you thought it would? Or was it full of unexpected twists and turns, mistakes that served as learning experiences on your road to success?
It’s important for teenagers to recognize that they don’t, in fact, need to know everything about themselves by 18. But nowadays, with social media emphasizing the importance of personal branding and colleges putting pressure on teenagers to perform perfectly, teens can feel boxed in. They feel they need to know exactly who they are and what they want…ASAP! And they may get the message that their life must be one clean story with no zigs, zags, or misdirections. This limiting belief is detrimental in a world that is full of fast-paced change.
Paradoxically, change is the most consistent part of human experience. Every day, we learn more about ourselves and make adjustments accordingly. And experimenting, failing, and adjusting is how we figure out what makes us happy, what motivates us to get out of bed each morning with a clarity of “purpose,” or, for those who are rolling their eyes at “purpose,” our “f*ck yeah!”
Alexis Rockley, author of Find Your F*ckyeah: Stop Censoring Who You Are and Discover What You Really Want, sat down with me this week to talk about how you can help your teen find their f*ck yeah and break out of restricting stereotypes. Rockley, who humbly describes herself as a “nerd who loves research,” is leading a movement to help young people find their “purpose” and “joy” in life…but in a cool way. She has spent years studying and working with experts in the field of positive psychology and her book unpacks the science and psychology in an accessible way to help people find their “f*uckyeah.”
According to Rockley, one of the most important aspects of raising well-adjusted, go-getter teens is to debunk the falsehood that “adults know everything.” Drawing from her own twisting and turning journey Rockley delivers the science behind teens limiting beliefs, and why it’s dangerous to place too much emphasis on, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” More helpful questions should address the reality of change–and acceptance of all the versions of you that you might be!
Rockley also speaks to me about how parents can help teens navigate our “factory school system” and set themselves up for the modern workplace. Rockley gives great tips on how to expose your teenager to environments that value creativity and problem-solving skills, instead of simply following rote instructions.
In addition to these fascinating topics, we talk about:
- How to get your teen excited about their future
- The problem with asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
- The tricky science of ‘limiting beliefs’ in teens and young adults
- The need for personal branding…
- And how personal branding could be negatively influencing who your teen is.
Alexis Rockley brings her enthusiasm and passion for helping others to this week’s episode, and her positive energy is contagious! I hope you find our conversation as fun and helpful as I did–and maybe you’ll be leaving a copy of her book lying around for your teen to ‘stumble’ upon.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Reframe “what do you want to be when you grow up” with:
“There will always be problems, so which problems do you want to solve?”-Alexis Rockley
2. When your teens tells you what they want “to be when they grow up”:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: This stuff so that they can maybe save a little bit of time in their 20s when they’re figuring out what the fuck they want to do. So that being said, what the fuck is a Fuckyeah, and who the fuck are you?
Alexis: Great question. Well, I’ll start with who I am and then I’ll explain what Fuckyeah is. So I’m Alexis Rockley. I’m a positive psychology coach, a career coach, specifically, and an author, as you know, and a speaker. I spend my life now teaching people fundamental basic stuff of psychology, but how to apply it to their daily lives in everyday, what I call, emoji language, so millennial language. It’s speaking it not like a scientist, because I’m not a scientist. I am a nerd who loves research, and who, after having an existential crisis that spurred the writing of this book, I ended up going back to school to get my specialization in positive psychology from UPenn.
Alexis: So I do a lot of new things, and it’s funny because if you told me three and a half years ago that this would be my job, I would have laughed in your face, because I was sure I was going to be doing something else. And I think that is a classic sign of being a young person, is this absolute sincerity when you think you know what you want, that has this undercurrent of insecurity. And I feel like the older I get, the more confident I am that I know nothing about the world, and the better I feel about that. So it’s almost like a flip flop.
Alexis: When I started researching for this book, I didn’t know that a book was going to come out of it. I was just getting more and more obsessed with the psychology and neuroscience behind happiness, because I had started out reading a lot of self help books, and while some of them made me feel good while I was reading them, when they were over, I felt like I had been abandoned by my best friend. And I was like, “What the hell do I do with my life now? I have no strategies. You made me feel good and then you disappeared. What?” So I was pissed off that the self help advice was common sense and cheerful, and without any research backing it up that I could find. It was just sort of a pep talk, which is great. Some of us need that.
Andy: No depth.
Alexis: Yeah. So I thought, okay, I know there are people who devote their lives to studying the brain and happiness and purpose. So I started reading and reading and reading, and getting more obsessed. And in the process, I was finding there were tools that would help me deal with my massive amounts of existential dread, and constant anxiety, and stress I was carrying from work, because I had climbed the corporate ladder to the very tippity top. At 28, I was managing 55, 56 million dollars in annual business a year for a huge retail giant. I was leading massive teams of people. My job was bad-ass and sexy on paper, and I was stressed the hell out because I had not established any boundaries between my own identity and my job.
Alexis: While I’m going through this existential crisis, I find that science is really helpful. I started applying it to my life. I ultimately leave my career as a retail fancy pants executive, and start trying to get my sanity back. Again, no fault of the job I was at just the side effect of not having boundaries. And as I’m applying the science, I’m finding, oh, there’s so many things that add up to happiness, but I can’t quite find the right word for it.
Alexis: So when I was describing this state of being, this feeling of having a clear sense of purpose without necessarily needing all the answers, and having a excitement to wake up and work and get going with my day, and feeling of hope and motivation, and knowing which problems were the problems that were worth solving, that complicated ball of things needed a word, and I couldn’t find it, because the eye roller in me was like, “Well, I can’t call it purpose because… Ugh-“
Andy: Passion, that sounds so over done.
Alexis: Passion. Find your calling, like, ugh. I just couldn’t give it those words. And it’s like, okay, is it joy? Well, eww. It sounds like a Precious Moments figurine, or something. It just feels false, and too loaded. So I made a fake word. When I was writing these blog posts, which eventually became manuscripts, which eventually became this book, and the standing word was Fuckyeah, because it was that feeling of fuck, yes. Like, I’m awake. I’m alive. I care. And it was always meant to just be this sort of false fill-in word when you don’t have the words.
Andy: I’ll figure it out at some point. Like, “Yeah, yeah, right.”
Alexis: And then I realized that there wasn’t a word for it, at least in English that I knew of. And so I was like, “Well, I’m going to ball it all up in this word.”
Andy: You got nothing better than that. Yeah, Right.
Alexis: Yeah, so Fuckyeah. To clarify, the cover of the book, it looks like I’m telling teenagers how they can find their purpose in life. It’s perfectly fine if young people pick it up for that reason, but the reality is that I cannot tell anyone the answers, and no book on earth has the answers for them. But there is a way to ask yourself better questions, and to better understand what’s going on in your brain. So Fuckyeah is this combination of having a sense of purpose without needing all of those answers, and clarity, and motivation that we’re all looking for, but it’s outside of that passion, purpose, calling floaty world that we hear about constantly, that is basically a trick to get us to buy stuff.
Andy: So one thing you point out in this book that I thought was really cool, is that ever since we’ve been four years old, we get rewarded by adults for having a confident answer to the question of, what do you want to be when you grow up? And if you can just spout out, “Oh, I want to be a fireman. Oh, I want to be a doctor. Oh, I want to be a cheerleader.” Whatever it is, you get rewarded for that by adults. “Oh, it’s great.” Well, how are we supposed to know, right? How do we even know when we’re in our 20s? How do we even know? It changes all the time, right? So we need to stop doing that to kids.
Alexis: Yeah. It seemed like an innocent good idea at first, because you’re sort of getting kids thinking about… You think you’re helping them dream, right?
Andy: Yeah, right.
Alexis: You’re getting them excited about they’re role models or whatever, but the problem is [crosstalk]-
Andy: You can be that.
Alexis: Yeah. Yeah, you can be anything you want to be. And that’s a wonderful thing to say to all of us. And in fact I’m one of that generation that had parents saying that to me as a kid. That’s a gift and not all children grow up that way. But I think that it’s really detrimental for parents to overemphasize the idea of what you want to be when you grow up, because it leaves this subconscious impression that stays in a child’s brain as they age, that they will be rewarded immediately for saying an answer. And they will work very hard to convince themselves that their answer is in fact true.
Alexis: It’s this really weird thing about the human brain, where we will generalize an explanation for a reason for something before we really know if that’s the reason. This is something that happens with kids and teenagers, we start seeing the rewards of explaining… of saying to an adult, “This is what I want to be. This is who I am. These are the labels I’ve assigned to myself. This is what I’m going to do with my life.” And then we spend a long time struggling internally trying to convince ourselves privately that that is in fact what we want, when we truly have no idea.
Alexis: And it would be much better if the adults around us helped us learn earlier they also have no idea what they’re doing or what they want, and that it’s okay to not have all the answers, but that they will always be there for us. Those adults will not have the solutions. Because when you’re in school, especially in high school in the United States, you are taught that adults and teachers have all the answers. Ergo when you are an adult, or if you’re a teacher, you will have all the answer. It’s like a default thing.
Andy: That’s part of being grown up, right? You got to know what you’re talking about.
Alexis: Yes, I mean, I vividly remember being 17 and thinking, “When I’m 25, that’s adulthood.”
Andy: Yeah, 100%. Right.
Alexis: “That’s when I’m going have my shit figured out. I’m sure.” And then I remember being 26 and laughing, going, “This is hysterical.”
Andy: What? I have no idea.
Alexis: “What? No way.” Yeah. Now, I’m in my 30s and I’m like, “My older me is going to laugh at 30-yea-old me or 33-year-old me, and be like, really? It was cute that you thought you had it figured out.”
Andy: I had no idea.
Alexis: Yeah. So anyways, I do feel really strongly about that. I think a better question to ask small children to help them dream is like, who are you inspired by? Or who do you look up to? Or who do you like? Like, when you’re talking about heroes and things. And then separately, what do you want to do next? So if you change it from what do you want to be when you grow up, to what do you want to try next, it’s starting to facilitate a conversation around things will change more regularly. And at some point, they’re going to have to start thinking about fields of study and jobs, and they’re going to realize that they’re going to have to pick a… You can’t escape that. That’s part of living in capitalism and it’s fine. But asking the question differently might help teenagers not spend so much time trying to have answers, and believe in them confidently because they’re going to end up spending the next 20 years unraveling those answers that they had and going, “Oh, I know nothing.” And that’s actually not so bad.
Andy: There’s also an implication with the question, “What are you going to be?” that your job defines you, and that whatever it is that you do is who you are. And by asking kids what you want to be, it’s like asking them who they want to be, and just kind of forcing them to box themselves in a little bit when they answer that.
Andy: You have written in this book, on page 42, that you hate the movie ET.
Alexis: Yes, I do, with my whole soul.
Andy: Wow. That’s a lot, Alexis. Okay. Why is that? And what does that imply about how our brain decides what is true and what is a fact?
Alexis: Well, this is one of those example stories in my life where my own brain surprised me, which has happened to me multiple times since beginning to study psychology. I’m constantly like, “What? What’s happening in there?” I have always hated the movie ET. And for the longest time, I just… when it would come up in random conversation, I would just say, “I don’t know, it’s a stupid movie and the alien is weird. I don’t know why anyone likes it. And it’s overrated and blabbity blah.”
Andy: It’s just dumb.
Alexis: It’s dumb. I hate it. I always thought that it was just because it was stupid to me and I didn’t like it. And at some point, I had this conversation with my mom, it came up, I said the same thing I always say. And she was like, “Oh, no. Pumpkin, that’s not why you hate that movie. You don’t remember any of this?” I was like, “What? No.” And she said, “Well, when you were little, when we go to the allergist, you would be in the patient’s room laying on your stomach with like 50 plus needle pricks down your spine, and they always played ET. And ET was always in the lobby, and it was always there when we were there.” And I was like, “What? I don’t remember this.” And she was like, “Well, yeah.”
Alexis: And this story came to mind when I was researching what happens in the brain when we explain something without really knowing why we’re explaining it. So it’s the thing I alluded to earlier. Essentially, the way that our brains remember stuff is they flag things with little emotional color codes. So if something is really, really emotionally relevant, like terrifying or wonderful or awe-inspiring, just an important memory, something loaded with emotion, positive or negative, our brains will flag that thing. Then it will file it away. And it will store that memory in that file. Then over time, the more memories your brain loads in…
Alexis: It’s a hoarder, so it’s always trying to collect everything in your subconscious, because your subconscious is running constantly in the background. It’s very, very good at it. It’s very efficient. It’s called autopilot brain in my book, because it’s easier to think of that way. And it’s constantly collecting this data, saving it for us. And then it has to compress stuff because there’s way too much to remember. And we can only focus on 5% of what’s going on in our brains at any time. It’s only 5% is conscious. Around 95% is subconscious. So it has to squish stuff. And when it does, just like file compression, if it’s over compressed, then when you reopen that file, it looks kind of pixelated, the photo’s pixelated, or the audio file is garbled. It’s that kind of thing where it does some minor damage to the file.
Alexis: So when you have an emotionally-loaded memory, especially from a long time ago, your brain is going to save that, flag it, and then when you go back to revisit that memory, it will probably have erased most of the details and all you will have is the shell of the memory, and the vibe. So my brain saved ET, it knew I saw ET, shrink it, and then saved that was awful. It was irritating.
Andy: ET bad.
Alexis: And so, boom, boom, boom, ET sucks. And I had no recollection of why I hated it because my brain had to shrink it. Because my mom was in a different mental state, different place, and had a different brain, a different age when that experience happened for her, she remembered it differently. It wasn’t emotionally loaded for her the way it was for little me, when I was like six years old.
Alexis: So our brains do the very best they can to recall what’s happening to save it. But a lot of times, the stuff we remember isn’t quite accurate, and we make up explanations for those memories just so that we can survive and deal with the fact that we can’t remember it all. It creates limiting beliefs often, and that’s the shocking part.
Andy: Okay. So walk me through that. Yeah, I mean, I hear the ET thing, but what other kinds of beliefs or ideas might get truncated that could kind of lead to limiting thought patterns or limiting beliefs if we aren’t careful?
Alexis: Well, I think the best thing to understand about limiting beliefs… And I have to clarify this first, because limiting beliefs are a popular expression used in self help. The unfortunate thing about the way that it’s discussed in self help books often, is that limiting beliefs are these bad things that are in your brain, and they’re stopping you from having a good life. If you don’t get rid of them, then you will sabotage your own life. That’s the gist.
Andy: Oh, yeah. You’ve got to get rid of it.
Alexis: Yeah. You’ve got to get rid of it. They’re limiting. How awful.
Andy: They’re going to limit you. [crosstalk]-
Alexis: How terrible. Let’s not do that. And it makes sense to villainize this function of our brains, but limiting beliefs exist because our brains are extremely well-evolved to protect us. And so, a limiting belief is just something that your brain has decided is a fact based on personal experience, based on something really emotionally salient, so like something that was red flagged in your brain. And it’s telling you to do or not do something based on that memory to protect you.
Alexis: For example, if… One of the examples I give in the book. If you grew up with a parent who constantly belittled and shamed fat bodies, so constantly made people who were larger than a particular size feel bad or discussed that body in a way that was shaming around you as a young person, even if you don’t believe that personally, even if you believe that all bodies are beautiful and that no one has any right to bully someone’s size, you still were around that when you were a little kid. And that can create a belief that you have to protect yourself from getting hurt by someone who believes that bodies that are fat are not beautiful.
Alexis: For example, you could be craving a burger. And think, I want to really want to go get a burger right now. I’m hungry. I smell grilled onions floating through the air. It’s usually like In-N-Out for me when I’m driving down the road. Like, “Hmm, that smells real good.” You could smell these grilled onions, you’re like, “I want to go get this burger.” And then all of a sudden you’re like, “No, I can’t. I can’t have that.” This is instantaneous, at no point are you thinking to yourself, I can’t have burgers because I’m not allowed to eat burgers, because burgers make people fat and being fat is bad. None of that is happening consciously in your brain. You don’t believe any of that. But there is an undercurrent of, “I can’t have that.” And it’s because there’s a red flag tied to a parent telling you when you were young, “This is unacceptable. This is shameful. This is bad.” And even if you disagree with them, your brain wants to protect you from being shamed and rejected by that parent. And so it will attach weird beliefs to things that aren’t accurate.
Alexis: The only way to question limiting beliefs that are not accurate for us now, is to just try to make them conscious. It’s like how you breathe unconsciously all the time, until someone says you’re breathing, and then you become aware that you’re breathing. And you’re like, “Oh, how am I breathing? Is it normal? Am I doing it through my nose? How do I breathe?” And you get very, like, you can almost stifle your breathing because you’re aware of it, right? It’s the same thing with limiting beliefs. All we can do is ask ourselves questions to find out what we think we believe, and just checking on ourselves to ask why.
Alexis: Now the example of limiting beliefs and fat shaming is clearly a negative belief. Like thinking that you can’t have a food because being fat is bad, is a harmful thing to think, not just for yourself, but for others. That’s not a good way of thinking. But there is the reality that eating fast food every day of your life can cause health issues. And so it’s very common for our brains to use a logical-sounding explanation to defend a subconscious belief that isn’t logical at all. So for example, if you are craving that burger, your brain tells you, “You can’t have it,” but you don’t know why. You’re just, “I can’t have that.”
Alexis: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Bad. Your logical… If you need to explain it, it will often say, “Well, junk food is very bad for you. And I shouldn’t do it because it’s not good for my body.” But that’s not the real reason in that case that you decided not to.
Andy: I am loving this insert you have on page 64, which is the things factory schools taught me. There’s a list here that I love, the pledge of allegiance. F is for failure, don’t fail. This will be on the test. This is going on your permanent record. You have a permanent record. You know nothing and the adults in authority know everything. Ask for permission to speak, to go to the bathroom, and so on. Showing up every day is more important than being involved every day. Tests are mostly memorization, so cramming is fine, no need to learn the material. The only problems we’re solving are problems that already have answers, and your teachers have those answers. Avoid standing out, if you’re in boredom and wasted time. Above all else, look good on paper, on report cards, in the yearbook, on college applications, on a resume, and so on. Raise your hand once every few weeks, otherwise avoid saying anything or doing anything that might embarrass you. Speaking of embarrassing yourself, don’t challenge teachers to wipe the floor with you. The only way to get a hundred percent is by not making any mistakes.
Andy: I think this is really poignant. And I think a lot of these beliefs get instilled through the same ET system that we just talked about, because the first time you try… you cross any of these lines, you get the slap on the wrist, and you learn really fast that, “Wow, yeah, that wasn’t good. I shouldn’t have expressed myself in that way. I shouldn’t have done that. Wow, whoops. Bad me.” And you stop.
Andy: This book is mainly for people who are kind of looking back and trying to undo the damage that’s been done by the school system. But if you are a parent and you have a teenager who’s currently in the midst of this, I wonder if there’s anything you do to counteract it a little bit in the process, or if there’s anything that you could do to kind of empower your teenager a little bit to say, “Hey, even though you’re in this shitty situation where…” these are the messages you’re getting here on page 64, “you’re more than that. And you don’t have to buy into that ET phenomenon.”
Alexis: Yeah. There are definitely things that you can do. I think one, as a parent, you can consider the kind of school system that your kids are in. If you have the privilege of considering which school system your kids can attend, and you can do your due diligence as a parent and figure out what schools are teaching what in what way, then there are so many different kinds of education now than there used to be, even just in our parents’ generation or theirs, et cetera. So that’s number one. But that’s a privileged-based option, because lots of people have no choice or financially need their kids to go to whatever local public school they’re at, and there might not be the same creative approaches to problem solving education as there are in other locations. That said, there are also excellent teachers and administrators in all kinds of public education and in private education.
Alexis: There’s no like one magic bullet to solve this in a particular place you have your kids go to school, or even homeschooling. What would be better, the best thing I think, is to find ways to introduce to your kids while they’re in high school, and junior high, even, that they will need to challenge the norms in order to succeed at work. They will need to think creatively and want to solve problems in order to succeed in the workplace. It might not be the kind of system that they’re in right now in high school, where they need to pass the standardized tests, they need to approach challenging a teacher in a sensitive and polite way. They’re going to have to think differently and learn how to navigate the social systems that are in a high school and college. But if you can start introducing the idea and talking about what it’s like in the workplace, or even better, letting your kids go to outside of high school and college events, curriculum, organizations that are just run differently than traditional factory school, as I call it, they will start getting the experience of thinking for themselves earlier.
Alexis: I think that you can also get that experience as a young intern, assuming that the company that this teenager is interning at is not taking advantage of them and having them work for free, which many companies do, and that’s, in my opinion, cruel and unusual, because young people need work experience and they also need cash early to pay for school and to pay for higher education.
Alexis: So if there’s a way to get a paid internship somewhere, but you’re in a work environment, you’re being challenged, you’re having to think differently, solve problems, then that would be a great way to free their mind earlier. And I think, again, just fostering an environment where your kids can talk to you and ask questions, and get real feedback and advice from you, and not just be told, “Because this is the way that it is,” the more you treat your children like adults younger, the better at critical thinking they will be, which will benefit them in the workplace. That’s the main thing that they need to understand, is that the workplace is just truly, truly different than school. And there are jobs, many jobs, that are still very cut and dry, where you just follow directions and you get a paycheck. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but many, many, many of the new jobs that exist…
Andy: Yeah, right. Especially the modern workplace, it’s becoming more and more that way. More and more companies are run by millennials and young people. Companies need to keep up and they need to challenge the status quo. And things change so fast now that thinking outside the box is valued and recognized.
Andy: Yeah. I think, being aware of what kind of school your kid is in. And yeah, if you can get them into a school where they are rewarded for thinking outside the box and challenging the status quo, then that’s awesome. But if you recognize that they’re not in that situation, then trying to find some situations outside of school where they can at least get that a little bit, or even if it’s in the home and you can just reward them for challenging you a little bit.
About Alexis Rockley
Alexis Rockley is a positive psychology anti-coach and human pep talk. She is the author of Find Your F*ckyeah (available everywhere books are sold, via Chronicle Prism), host of the voicemail-style podcast, Call Me When You Get This, and leads her career and goal-setting workshops for creatives and entrepreneurs all over the world. She earned her Specialization Certificate in Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her mission is to help people figure out how to actually like being alive—by translating the hard science of happiness for anyone who speaks emoji.