Ep. 92: Raising Successful People

Episode Summary

Esther Wojcicki, author of How to Raise Successful People, shares her insights into what we can give teens in the home and the classroom to set them up for ultimate success later in life. As the mother of 3 highly successful daughters in Silicon Valley and founder of the Media Arts Program at Palo Alto High School, Esther not only talks the talk but walks the walk. 

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

We all want our teens to be successful. But it’s hard to know if we’re pushing too hard…or not enough. Maybe you faced this dilemma when your teen adamantly wanted to quit piano, even though you knew they’ll regret it down the line. Or maybe they just got back from college and want to abandon their original career path. Sometimes it may feel like you’re walking on a tightrope, trying not to squash their hopes and dreams but also attempting to protect them from their ignorance. Luckily, Esther Wojcicki: American journalist, renowned educator, and mother of three incredibly successful daughters, joins me this week to share with listeners highly effective lessons that can help you empower your teen towards success. 

Like many teens, Esther Wojcicki, author of How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results, questioned everything. And while not every teen’s power struggle is warranted, sometimes it produces the breakthrough needed. In Esther’s case, it saved her life. When Esther’s mother told her to lie down in her room while carbon monoxide was leaking into their home, Esther challenged her mom and insisted they go outside. This experience and others similar inspired both Esther’s teaching and parenting philosophy.

In the 1980s– and still today– many educators assume an authoritarian role in the classroom: they are the keeper of information, and they are the lead disciplinarian should teen behavior go awry. And many well-intentioned parents handle their kids this way too. But Esther decided to shake things up. 

Instead of viewing her high school students as being that ought to be managed, and their questions as shots at her authority, she approached them as partners. She allowed them space and support to get creative. She collaboratively worked with them to achieve their projects. And more than anything, she showed interest in their work and expressed kindness along the way. Not only did she create a welcoming, empowering environment that inspired hundreds of kids to join, but she also helped her students achieve success beyond their wildest dreams. The once 20-student journalism classroom she led decades ago has grown to be the largest in the United States. With over 600 students, 5 teachers, and 9 prestigious journalism publication awards, Esther cracked the code. Without pushing them to the brink or letting them abandon their untapped potential, Esther found a way to help her students succeed while fostering meaningful relationships with them. These seemingly simple pillars– creativity, collaboration, and kindness–yield radical results not just in the classroom, but in families.  

When I asked Esther how parents can create a similar environment to that she spearheaded in school, Esther emphasized the importance of shared trust and opportunities for independence. In theory, of course it’s easy to see how both these values can help our teen grow closer to us and successful in their own right. But in practice, it feels like there’s less time, more emotions, and more at stake. Many parents, trying to protect their teens, double down on control and implement more restrictions. It makes sense to do this, especially when parents feel safer having more control. But Esther warns against this urge. Because the more control a parent implements, the more likely distrust will fester in their relationship with the teen. This distrust can manifest into either deception or defiance, which is a lose-lose situation. Esther believes the way parents and teens can equally feel safe and affirmed does not require teens to relinquish control or parents to overcorrect teens’ decisions. It requires taking off the training wheels and allowing your teen to ride the bike, scrape their knees, and lean on you for support as needed. 

As a grandmother, Esther helped her grandchildren experience the joy of shared trust and independence by allowing them to go back-to-school shopping at Target, free from parental control. While her daughter thought Esther would be closely supervising the entire time, Esther was actually running other errands while the soon-to-be third graders were getting what they needed, and would call her when they were done. While this exact scenario may not be easily replicated for some families, there are many ways throughout the day where parents can empower their teen to grow independently, feel your trust, and find their path to success. 

But what if you don’t agree with my teen’s passions? Perhaps they’re obsessed with gaming, or fixated on social media. Do you always have to stand by them? How can we redirect if it appears the interest is displeasing? When I asked Esther how parents can support their teen in such instances, Esther assured me that teens’ interests can be fleeting, and they should be allowed to engage with and explore them nonetheless. Instead of engaging with your teen in a combative way about it (i.e. no more gaming!), maybe encourage them to dig deeper. For example, Esther’s grandson had–what her daughter considered– a gaming addiction at age 10. They were quite concerned: and justifiably so. Rather than controlling him and slowly suffocating his interests here, Esther encouraged her daughter to lean in instead. She had her son create a gaming computer for himself, and now he’s the family’s go-to guy for computer issues! By finding creative solutions to allow for independence and self-actualization, parents can help their teen experience success in their own unique way. 

What’s tougher than redirecting your teen to productively enrich their passion is motivating them to have one in the first place. Nowadays, Esther and I noted, many college grads return from their university bubble and find themselves twiddling their thumbs at home, paralyzed by the real-world, or unmotivated to join the workforce for whatever reason. While allowing your teen a break in between major transitions such as college is important, what’s more important is having your teen do something. Sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves is not an option, Esther argues. They don’t have to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives right now, but they should at least be doing something that somehow helps the world. And not every kid can predict what career path will fulfill and sustain them for decades to come, so they have to try things out! Allow them to. Don’t freak out if they struggle to find their way. So long as they’re honestly applying themselves, give them the space and support they need to succeed. 

In addition to these nuanced perspectives and helpful tips, Esther and I discuss: 

  • Building trust together in families 
  • Showing interest 101 
  • Activating teenage creativity 
  • Staying strong, quitting, and taking a break: which is best and when? 

Find out more about Esther’s remarkable insights about raising highly successful teens today!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your teen gabbing: (1)

“What’s happening in the world right now that’s making you the most angry? Can you tell me more about that?”

-Esther Wojcicki

2. Get your teen gabbing (2)

(Members Only)

3. When your teen doesn’t know what they want to do:

(Members Only)

4. If your teen is frustrated with school: (1)

(Members Only)

5. If your teen is frustrated with school: (2)

(Members Only)

2. Get your teen gabbing (2)

“What is making you the happiest right now?”

-Esther Wojcicki

3. When your teen doesn’t know what they want to do:

“You’ve got to do something.”

-Esther Wojcicki

4. If your teen is frustrated with school: (1)

“What do you want to study?”

-Esther Wojcicki

5. If your teen is frustrated with school: (2)

“What do you want to write about? I don’t care what you write about. Don’t worry about what other people think is better, I want to know what you think is better.”

-Esther Wojcicki

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Creativity + Independence = Success, Part I

With her own children and her students at Palo Alto High School, Esther Wojcicki has learned teens need two things to be successful: independence and permission to be creative. In her English classes, Wojcicki doesn’t have students just write about one thing, rather, she has then write about whatever they want. For one student it turned out to be shoes! 
In her own home, Esther gave her daughters plenty of independence, in the sense that they were allowed to choose their own activities and projects. Just because they show interest in something doesn’t mean it will become a lifelong passion—but if you show interest in what your teen likes, it opens a door to ask them if they might try some other things. 
Make a point of asking your teen what they are interested in. Schedule a time in your calendar right now to ask them this week. Rather than jumping to judgments about their interests, try to learn more about why they like those subjects or what makes them curious about them. Write down your teens interests on a piece of paper or in your notes app and get ready for Part II of this exercise. 

2. Creativity + Independence = Success, Part II

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The book is How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. It talks a lot about your experiences as a teacher and running the newspaper at this high school, I believe it is. And it talks a lot about your experiences as a parent, raising three successful daughters, and has a lot of really insightful tips. So, how did you get to this place where you’re writing the book?

Esther: So, my origin story, so I went off to college, UC Berkeley, and fortunately I got a scholarship. Without that I don’t know how I would have made it. I worked all during college. I worked on an afterschool program. I worked as a model. I worked as a house cleaner. I had a lot of odd jobs, but I made it through, I’m very happy to report. And then at the end, I got married. First was graduation and then was marriage, literally two months apart.

Andy: Wow.

Esther: Yeah. Well, because the pressure on me to get married was still pretty intense. So I learned a lot of lessons in that, and what inspired me to write the book was that a lot of people were asking me, “What’d you do with your daughters? How did they ever get to be where they are? What’d you feed them? What was going on?”

Andy: Totally. What is in the water at your household over there?

Esther: That’s right. How’d you do it? So then the intensity of the questioning got pretty strong, so I thought, well–“Hey, I’ll just write a book.” And then when I ever got questioned, I was like, “Hey, I’ve got a book for you. Here, let me give you this book.” I mean, that worked really pretty well. But then it didn’t stop just with my daughters. I ended up with my youngest daughter Anne, who was five, I went back to work as a teacher in the local high school called Palo Alto High School. And in that school, I mean, it was pretty exciting for me, I decided I was going to teach in a totally different way. That the typical teacher was lecturing all the time and bossed all the kids around, and I just realized after two years that I was losing a lot of kids because they didn’t want to do what I was telling them to do, they wanted to do what they wanted to do. So it was a constant battle. Basically, I was luring them into doing what I wanted them to do by the grade. It was like, “If you don’t do what I want you to do, you’re going to get a bad grade.”

Andy: Carrot, stick, let’s go.

Esther: Carrot, stick. Yeah. We’ll get you with this. So I decided to change my strategy, my pedagogy in the classroom, to give kids more control of their learning. This was 1986, 1987, all through the ’80s. And for those of you that have been around that long, you will know that this was not a popular philosophy back then. The idea was, if you didn’t keep those kids in control, you were failing. And all the books that teachers read were on discipline and control, and how to send the student to the office, how to control your class and what to do with them if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. When I switched to a more collaborative approach, it was dramatic. I mean, first of all, the numbers of kids taking my class grew like crazy. Everybody wanted to be in the class.

Andy: Yeah, I bet. Word gets out fast that this teacher is cool.

Esther: That’s right. Word got out really fast. And so actually, by the next semester, people were wondering like, “What are you doing in that class? Are you giving out free pizza to kids? Or what’s happening?”

Esther: It was hard for me to say, “Well, I’m just giving them some freedom. Do you remember what that is? It’s why everybody came to the United States, remember? Religious freedom, freedom of speech, all that.” Well, so it seemed to have worked to attract all those people to America, so I’m just attracting people to my class. It worked. And with time, in the 1990s, I sort of perfected it. It got better, so I gave more kids more control. The quality of the product went up. The product being the newspaper, went up and up and up. And we were winning top of the nation Gold Crowns from Columbia.

Andy: Wow!

Esther: It was all primarily because the kids were so empowered and so happy about being there. And by 1999, 2000, I started another publication because the overflow. I had 100 kids. What am I going to do with all these kids?

Esther: So we started a magazine called Their Day, and I took like 30 kids out of my class and put them in that. And then honestly, within two years, 30 more appeared. I had even more kids. So, to make a long story short, every two years, 2002, 2004, 2006, it just continued, and I kept starting more publications. Today we have 10 different publications.

Andy: Oh my God!

Esther: And about 700 kids. And all these other teachers. There’s five other teachers. It was great story. And everybody was like, “How do you control all those teenagers?” Actually, the answer to that is collaboration. Collaboration and giving them an opportunity for creativity, and then kindness. Oh my God, there’s nothing like kindness. Treating them with kindness works like a charm.

Esther: That’s basically the story of how I wrote the book, because everyone wanted to know, “What’s going on in your journalism program? It’s now the largest one in the United States.” And I just tried to explain it. So my parenting, my teaching style. And then also within the corporate world, why do some companies seem to do so well? They thrive, their products are good, their services are good. It’s just really a nice place to work. The same philosophy works in the corporate world, so that people in jobs who are treated with trust and respect and given some independence, and if you make a mistake, you’re just like, “Okay, we’re just going to do it again,” they are more willing to take a risk and be innovative because they know that they’re going to be treated in a way that they wish everybody would be treated, with kindness. So that’s why I wrote the book. That’s a long answer for a very short question!

Andy: You write in here just writing here, distrust. We’re in kind of a crisis. Distrust has seeped into every sphere of our lives. You write on page 29, the 2018 at Edelman Trust Barometer, a measure of the general public’s average trust found the United States dropped nine points in the global trust scale, the steepest decline ever measured in this country. So what’s going on with trust? Why is it so low? Why is it more important now than ever?

Esther: Well, I would say that in 2020 now, the trust is even lower. And I think it’s because of, unfortunately we have a government that is causing a lot of divisive behavior. So people, they don’t trust each other. And the studies show that people didn’t even trust their next door neighbor. Those afraid to go out and ask for help to the next door neighbor. So now, in this pandemic that we have, there is a lot of trust that is missing. Especially between what is considered the right and the left. Even though we’re all one country, we all have the same goal, there’s a lot of distrust going on. What that does is it just makes us all anxious and all depressed, and it works against us as a unified group because we really have just one common enemy at the moment, and it’s the pandemic. We should all be working together as a team and not fighting with each other about one thing or another.

Esther: And then in the midst of this COVID pandemic, we then had this tragedy of the George Floyd killing, and what it brought to the top of everyone’s mind, how the country is really a different country, depending on the color of your skin. For years, I heard from my black students that it was really hard for them to stay late at school, to walk home at night, because they would get stopped and harassed by the police. And I was like, “Really?” But then I actually walked with one of them, and he was telling me the truth. This was actually 15 years ago, so it’s been going on for a long time.

Esther: And so there’s unfortunately less trust now, but there should be more. We need more trust. We need to trust each other. We’re all human beings. We all have, no matter what the color of your skin is, what your religion is, what your ethnic background is, we’re all human beings and we all have the same desire, the same goal, and that is to live a good life. And I think that we all need to step back a little bit and take a breath and realize that we can all work together, and in spite of our leadership. Because whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, or I don’t know all the other designations, we really care about our fellow citizens, and we really need to make that clear to everybody.

Andy: You have some steps on page 45. You have some steps for building trust with teenagers and kind of creating trust in your household, which I thought were really savvy. So what can parents do to create trust with teenagers?

Esther: Well, one thing that they can do, first of all, it sounds kind of crazy for me to recommend my book, but I am recommending my book. But just to give you a sort of the CliffNotes version here, the number one thing that teenagers want, and it’s innate by the way, I think it’s built into your DNA, is independence. Number one thing they want. And it’s very hard for parents to give those kids independence, because coming from a good space, they’re trying really hard to say, “I already tried this when I was kid and it didn’t work. Not only that, I got into a lot of trouble. And so I’m just going to try to protect you and tell you, ‘No, no, don’t do that. You can’t do that. Actually, I’m going to forbid you from doing that.'” The more controlling you become, the bigger the distrust is between parent and child.

Esther: So, the teenage years are a time when kids are trying to be as independent as possible. If you run counter to that and you try to over-control, kids are either going to defy you directly, or they’re going to deceive you, and you don’t want either one of those. Deception, I think is probably the worst. We all know about the teenager who comes back from a party or comes back from going out with their friends and the parent says, “So, how was it? What’d you do?” And they’re like, “Oh, it was great. It was fine.” And they go into the room and that’s it. They don’t want to say anything else. It’s like, “What?” And so, you’re the parent, it’s like–“Hey, well, what happened? What’d you do?” “Oh, we just hung out together.”

Esther: It’s like, “Hey, guys, what about detail?” But that’s what happens when there’s a lot of distrust and when there’s a lot of no respect, because some of those ideas are really a little crazy. And I could just give you one idea. One of my grandchildren decided in the middle of the pandemic that she wanted to drive about 300 miles away to a place in the mountains. You weren’t supposed to go anywhere, right? You’re supposed to stay home and not go anywhere. And so the minute that these restrictions were lifted just a slight bit, “Oh, time for me to go.” And my daughter was biting her nails, like, “What? You’re going to drive up there? I forgot, are you a good driver? Let’s see, did we do the test?” But honestly, she went and everything was fine. She planned it and so forth. I know that it’s a nail-biting experience for parents, but you do need to give them this opportunity to grow. As a parent, I sympathize because I know what it was like. You just have to do it, give them that opportunity, because-

Andy: It should make you uncomfortable. That means they’re pushing their boundaries a little bit. You have a great story in here about your grandchildren going shopping at Target, and they’re pretty young. And so you just have them create the list together, and then you just send them into Target, and you said, “Okay, I’ll pick you up in an hour and I’ll come with the credit card.” It’s their back-to-school shopping and they had to make sure they had everything on their list and everything. And then, so your daughter was like?

Esther: My daughter was freaking out. I mean, what happened is she asked me to take them shopping at Target to buy back-to-school supplies. It’s like, sure. But then in the car driving there, I was like, “Well, who knows back-to-school supplies better than they do?” No one. Okay, so-

Esther: They were nine. And I was like, “Hey, you guys, you’re smart enough, I’ll just drop you off here. Just go and get your stuff. Call me when you’re done, and I’ll come with the credit card and pay for it.” But as you said, my daughter, well, she didn’t know that I was doing this, but she called in the middle and she’s like, “So, how’s the shopping going, Mom?” And I said, “Oh, I just dropped them off at Target.” I mean, I thought she was going to need to have some kind of resuscitation at the other end. But anyway, I just want you to know that was a great opportunity in our family because those kids, they just bloomed. They were so proud of themselves. And my daughter, she had to agree that they did do a great job, but it was a little stressful for her, I think. Even though, as I said in the book, and I’ll say again right now, June 2020, Target looks like a pretty safe place to go shopping to me.

Andy: You write that nowadays many college graduates have no idea what they want to do, so they come home and sit there. Not a good plan. How do you know when to let them find their way and when to intervene? Here’s my policy, they have to be doing something. Not doing anything is a problem. How did you come upon that policy and what do you mean by that?

Esther: I think it’s really bad to just sit around and feel sorry for yourself, or just sit around and not do anything. Even in this pandemic, I think it’s really important to do something. I mean, my garden looks really great. It hasn’t looked this good for years. Basically, I think that kids coming home from college, if they have no idea what they want to do, they have to get a job doing something because they need to explore. You need to be connected with the world. You need to give yourself an opportunity to interact with people in different job situations.

Esther: Back when my daughters, Susan, Janet, Anne, all graduated from college, we used to have these temporary jobs. Now they don’t seem to have temporary jobs, but they do have gigs. I always had them doing something. I said, “Well, sit around and take a rest for a few weeks, but then you need to do something. And also, you need to contribute to the family in some way. Do something. You’re part of the team.” So, they did do something. I mean, Susan got… One of the first jobs that she got, what’s actually might’ve been a summer job, she was managing all the garbage trucks in Palo Alto. They have a schedule and they have somebody at the front who has to make sure that they all hit the right spots and do all that stuff. That was dispatching. She learned a lot.

Andy: I bet.

Esther: It was an interesting job. And then, my other daughter, they all had something. My daughter, Anne, when she came home, she didn’t know what to do either. They all had this, “I don’t know what to do,” thing. I was like, “You should’ve thought about that before you majored in whatever it was.” They didn’t.

Andy: “I was just following my heart, Mom.”

Esther: That’s right. But it didn’t matter because they all eventually found something that they wanted to do. And it’s a process. Kids cannot predict what they want to be. They have to try it out and see how they like it. And if they like it, then they move on. I mean, Anne probably took the longest. She decided after she had graduated with a degree in molecular biophysics to be a babysitter. And I was like, “Really?” Maybe you could have done that before you spent all this money on this degree. But after two months of babysitting and becoming the most popular babysitter on the Stanford campus, she decided that she was actually going to take up this job offer that she had gotten. But I never said, “You have to move out.” I never said anything. I just said, “You’ve got to do something and you’ve got to somehow help the world.” Because no matter what it is, we all can contribute to making each other’s lives better in some way. So, that was my philosophy, and I still think that’s a very important philosophy. No sitting home, feeling sorry for yourself.

About Esther Wojcicki

Esther Wojcicki is a leading American educator, journalist and mother.  The author of How to Raise Successful People and Moonshots in Education, Wojcicki is also the founder of the Media Arts program at Palo Alto High School, where she built a journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1984 to one of the largest in the nation including 600 students, five additional journalism teachers, and nine award-winning journalism publications. Wojcicki serves as Vice Chair of Creative Commons and has previously worked as a professional journalist for multiple publications and blogs, most regularly for The Huffington Post.

Esther has been intimately involved with Google and GoogleEdu since its inception, where she was one of the leaders in setting up the Google Teacher Academy and remains a guiding force. With two Honorary Doctorate Degrees – Palo Alto University (2013) and Rhode Island School of Design (2016). She was California Teacher of the Year in 2002 by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing; a recipient of the Gold Key by Columbia Scholastic Press Association in recognition of her outstanding devotion to the cause of the school press; a board member of Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, DC, and on the Board of Newseum in DC; and a has been consultant for the U.S Department of Education, Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, Google, Silicon Valley Education Foundation and Time Magazine Education.

Esther resides in Palo Alto with her husband and is close with her three daughters: Susan (CEO of YouTube), Janet (UCSF Professor), and Anne (co-founder/CEO of 23andMe).

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