7 Rules for Creating Empowered, Antifragile Young Adults

Approximate Read Time: 14 minutes


“You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out and say ‘I’m gonna build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that has ever been built.’ You say ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do this every single day, and soon you have a wall.” – Will Smith

The freedom and possibility of summer have come and gone and now we are returning to the regimentation of the fall. Summer offers us the freedom and space to gain perspective so that we enter autumn full of hope. Whether you have kids or not, these seasonal patterns are interwoven into our nature. School is starting and we are all scheming and dreaming about how to make this a great year for ourselves and for our children. It is very much another time for New Years resolutions. And this is as it should be. After all, if you mess up the opener, you’re only digging yourself into a hole. 

Yet, I should caution you, like I would any New Years resolutioner, to begin with an understanding that three weeks of hard discipline amount to very little in the grand scheme. The vast majority of resolutions fail because they don’t honor the principles of sustainable change. Positioning yourself for real success is a more nuanced process. It is not a destination but a path that the most fulfilled people have internalized. 

We all have a vested interest in this path, but especially those parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors who would like to see their protégés flourish. Our mentees simply won’t outperform our model. Your disposition becomes theirs; your energy, theirs; and, most importantly, any of your own self-limiting patterns of thought will be internalized and become theirs. Do as I say only works if we do.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

This is most evident when it comes to the differences between a growth and fixed mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to see ability as rigid and unchangeable. They are less likely to give effort or risk living fully because they fear what failure would say about them. They tend to be reactive and heavily invested in other people’s opinions. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe on a deep level that any current ability is mutable. They know their effort is the determining factor. They accumulate failures on their way to living fully and grow immensely in the process. People with a growth mindset love to learn and embrace challenges for the opportunity they bring. They are antifragile, embracing all that life has to offer with the full confidence that they will be able to survive and thrive through anything life brings their way. 

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s studies indicate that we can help people develop a growth mindset by praising effort (something people control) rather than praising outcomes or ability (something we have no control over). For example, when a student gets a good grade we should praise how hard they worked, their focus, their persistence, or any of the behaviors that went into that grade rather than telling them: “Good job! You’re so smart!” In fact, telling them they are smart tends to create a fear of trying any challenge that might shatter that fragile self-image. If they are smart because they got answers correct then the opposite outcome would mean they are dumb. Thus, they internalize a fear of challenge.

"Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance." –Carol Dweck

This is powerful. Like, ridiculously powerful. Everyone should know this. Doctors should be telling parents this in all those baby basics courses and schools should be built around this one powerful notion. After all, we don’t have a clue what jobs will look like in 30 years, but we are damn sure the growth-minded learners will be best positioned for success. But the problem is, we can’t just praise effort. We have to change ourselves. Our own mindset will bleed out into our relationships and infect anyone in our tutelage. Just consider the example I gave above. The student was praised for getting a good grade. But would we praise him if he worked just as hard and got a bad grade? Do we encourage students to take harder classes that might hurt their GPA? Do we celebrate getting the more passionate albeit far more demanding teacher? Do we praise those millions of failed efforts that characterize childhood? 

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And what about the way you treat yourself and everyone else? Do your children see you strive, fail, and learn from failure or do they see you shy away from anything new or challenging? Do you make comments about how you were never good at music or public speaking? And when those around us accidentally mess up, do we overreact or focus on the effort involved and learning from life’s feedback?

Trust me, I’m no saint. Theory is always far easier than practice. Which is why we have to practice, reflect, risk failure, and grow as a way of being. In this spirit, I have a list and an offer. First, the list. 

6 Parenting Directives for Empowered Children

As I mentioned, theory is easier than action, but it is still useful for giving us ends to strive towards. With that in mind, I put this together more for myself than anything. Here are the parental habits/practices that I believe best foster growth, passion, and a great life. I may miss the mark on all of them, but I know I’m personally better off for constructing ideals to strive towards.

  1. Fill your own cup first.

    You cannot pour from an empty cup. Take time to embrace projects, passions, and activities that are restorative. Health magnifies every other pursuit. Get on a sleep schedule, learn to eat well, and embrace an active lifestyle. If you want your children to live long healthy lives, you’ll have to live the model.

  2. Prioritize your relationship with your spouse

    Like health, a strong parental relationship is part of the foundation that most well-adjusted people are built upon. If you want your children to have strong relationships with healthy communication patterns, it starts with your model. You may be thinking to yourself, who is this guy to talk about marriage? And you’re right to ask. I’ve only been married about four years. I’m no one. Again, this list, is a set of ideals I’ve created to help clarify the best route for myself. If I can offer any insight it is only because I am passionate about human development and I’ve come to my conclusions with great reflection.

    That being said, very little has been more damaging for youth than our society’s expectation that children are the center of our universe. One of the greatest gifts you can give your kids is to put your spouse first. Prioritizing your spouse is not about loving your kids less, but modeling a healthy relationship and working to create the ingredients for a stable home. That’s a hard thing to do. It takes a lot of work, but only enhances your ability to love your children, while offering them a healthier sense of their place in the world. When love for the children replaces the spousal relationship a very destructive set of expectations takes hold.

    The Standard Model is for parents to sacrifice their relationship and lose each other scrambling to satisfy their child’s every want. Young children are adorable and easy to bring instant joy that evokes spirited adulation. Adults are more difficult. No wonder most rush to spoil the youngsters. But when mom and dad begin competing for their children’s affection, or grow passive aggressive, or split up everyone loses.

    Still, the reality is that even amongst the strongest and best people, divorces happen. While marriage is very hard and worth fighting for, there are times when the healthy decision is to part ways. Sometimes two great people are bringing the worst out in each other and sometimes there is significant dysfunction that won’t be fixed. There is no shame in divorce, just power in spousal love and solidarity. Divorce only makes it that much more important that the communication lines are open. Hopefully you can unite around providing what is best for the kids. If that is not possible, be conscious of what may be absent and work to fill those gaps. 

    Parent Communication:

    “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” - Tim Ferriss

    It all starts with values and a willingness to work on your communication. We can all improve our patience and emotional intelligence. If the tendency is to point fingers, consider adopting a policy of 100% personal responsibility. This eliminates blame and always orients each spouse in a problem-solving mode. Determining fault only serves a purpose if it is expressed in a manner that is likely to be received and intended to prompt future correction. Other musings on communication:

    • Get on the same page. Have the hard conversations.

    • Present a united front. Never pit kids against the other parent. This means that you both should appear to care about the expectations you impose. You never want to de-value your partner by saying something like: “your mother doesn’t want you to have chips and pudding at lunch.” These comments mark a clear discord in values that discredit the other parent.

    • Commit to being 100% honest about your parenting. Even if you tell your kids that “This will be our little secret,” your spouse should know, while honoring that illusion.

  3. Eat Together. 

    Habitual family dinners are the ritual whereby a family finds its center and creates a common purpose and vision. This is where we learn to listen, empathize, understand each other, see different perspectives, convey values, and laugh together. Families must be bonded by more than proximity and obligation. Family dinners allow our shared values and shared experiences to be strengthened every day. Parents who do not have the family put their phones away, turn off the TV, and eat together most nights are sacrificing their most important opportunity to consistently impact who their children become and learn about the world they’re experiencing.

  4. Don’t be a Jerk. 

    Don’t litter. Put the grocery cart back. Wait your turn in line. Hold doors. Offer people your seat. Model compassion as a driver. To take this one step further, try to model excellence. Your children will never forget it.

    “Make the Charitable Assumption”

     –A favorite maxim of Danny Meyer, Founder of Union Square Hospitality Group

  5. Fix the Home Environment. 

    Environmental design has a lot to do with how we behave. If there is a TV in the bedroom, we are more likely to watch TV in bed, rather than read. If the cupboard is full of Pop-Tarts, Oreos, and Cheetos, you will be more likely to eat these items. Consider how you can shape the home environment. I recommend embracing the Hero’s Journey archetype by filling the home with books about heroes who display courage, integrity, persistence, and other admirable qualities. Some of my favorites include: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Gates of Fire, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Fifty Bedtime Stories for Children About Fifty Phenomenal Men, and Endurance (about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s amazing leadership on the Trans-Antarctic expedition). Talk about people like Kyle Maynard, Harriet Tubman, Theodore Roosevelt, Pat Tillman, John McCain, Jim Thorpe, Nelson Mandela, and Amelia Earhart so that children have models of heroism and bold living.  

  6. Read and Learn. 

    The more you are interested in the more fascinating and adventurous life becomes. If your children know and experience more, they’ll have more interests, learn faster, and remember better. The more you know, the more hooks you’ll have for connecting new ideas.

    If I’ve learned about Japanese history, I can differentiate Japanese culture from other Asian civilizations. I’ll have more ability to connect with people of Japanese heritage and enjoy more cultural references in books, movies, and conversations. When I later learn about the Japanese concept of “forest-bathing”—the renewal humans feel after spending time in the forest—I’ll be able to remember and retrieve this concept for future use because I have more context to help me connect it to prior learning. Forest bathing helps me better understand human nature, while also getting greater insight into Japanese culture and geography. In this way, the more I learn the easier learning becomes because I can bring connections to almost every subject.

    One of the greatest gifts you can offer your child is a home where reading is normal, learning is discussed, and conversations often run towards concepts rather than gossip. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: 

    “Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, and small minds talk about people.”

    -Eleanor Roosevelt

    Some of my fondest memories with my father are of him quizzing my brothers and me at the dinner table. The ritual sprang up organically from the placemats my mother purchased to go under our plates. We started with a placemat that had all the planets and one with all the states and capitals. It became a trivia game that my brother and I couldn’t wait to compete in each night. I grew to love staring at maps and marveling over the seemingly endless number of very different places in our great big world. Soon we added a placemat with all the presidents, which I could recite in order by 4th grade. These presidential tenures served as hooks to help me organize all future American history lessons around. Eventually, my father went off the script and taught us whatever he was interested in at that time. We’d sit their long after the meal was done listening to stories full of history, mythology, and weird psychological marvels and beg him to quiz us longer. These experiences sparked an earnest yearning to always learn more.

    No factor has a greater impact on your children’s future than their inclination to learn as a way of being. For those who love learning, none of life’s inevitable challenges are fatal. When the learner struggles they are empowered to innovate, adapt, and overcome. Successful people are fascinated by the world, read voraciously, and find passion in seeking growth. 

    Unfortunately, many are programming kids to seek incessant stimulation and entertainment. A youth’s lack of life experience, lack of discipline, lack of unstructured free play, and immersion within environments of instant gratification will leave them uninterested and, thus, uninteresting. 

Love of Learning

“We live in the age of Alexandria, when every book and every piece of knowledge ever written down is a fingertip away. The means of learning are abundant—it’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.” –Naval Ravikant

Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, outlines the costs of incessant entertainment and instant gratification. In it, he clarifies the dystopian fears of our most insightful literature, stating, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” The brave new world Huxley described is the product of a culture that’s replaced its desire to be more with the desire to only have more.

Fulfilled living is an extension of interest, the desire to learn, and a respect for growth. To instill an inclination to learn, try to:

  • Always praise effort. Never intelligence and ability. Remember the Carol Dweck studies.

  • Model a desire to learn and be teachers of your children in everyday life. That means telling stories and relating them to current events. Explain how the world works, from the bank you go to, to how all the food gets to your grocery store. Find an interest in the world and they will. Learning should be a form of play so we should approach it the same way. Podcasts and audiobooks are a great way to begin learning quickly. Check out the IHD Resources Page or sign-up for our Mailing List (at the bottom of the page) to consistently get great options. 

  • Make it clear that education is a wonderful opportunity that will enrich your life and make the world more vivid and interesting.

  • Create the attitude that the world has plenty of money. Learners can always make more money, but what you don’t get back are time and experience. Seek good people rather than money. Create an earnest passionate desire to learn and experience the world.

  • Take the time to discuss what is going on at school and show an interest in subjects so they come to life. If you don’t love learning, then they won’t.

  • The person who is not interested in anything, is almost certainly not an interesting person. If your kids are not interested in learning, there is very little schools can do for them. Therefore, we should place a high value on creating an environment that prompts youth to discovery and fascination.

Parental Directives Made Easy: Jordan Peterson’s 5th Rule

In the bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson, addresses many common norms that stand in the way of personal empowerment. Peterson’s vast education and extensive counseling experience help him offer uncommon insight into the human condition. His 5th Rule is “Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.” This simple directive helps clarify most childhood expectations. If, you, the parent, don’t like being around your child, who else will? Many parents will balk at the idea that they could “dislike” their children, but let’s be honest. No one likes a whiny, selfish brat. Not even his parents. After a certain age, you are unlikely to be a jerk without parents who enable this behavior.

Peterson expands on this tenant with five of his own rules for successful parenting: 

  1. Limit the Rules: Children will naturally want to follow the rules but will become overwhelmed if there are too many, or the rules are too complicated. As we’ve explored with Philip K. Howard, there is a sweet spot that promotes the development of human judgment. Clear boundaries with consistent accountability create order and stability from which children grow best.

  2. Use Minimum Force Necessary: Respond without loss of emotional control. This can be impossible, but it is a nice standard to strive towards. Unbridled anger turns a disciplinary experience into a model for lashing out when you lose your cool.

  3. Don’t Do It Alone: Ideally you are on the same page as other adults, especially educators.

  4. Understand Your Own Capacity to Be Harsh, Vengeful, Arrogant, Resentful, Angry, and Deceitful: Oh, Dr. Peterson. You know us, humans, too well. Sometimes we overreact and let past issues fester into embarrassing emotional outbursts. If you aren’t messing up, you aren’t trying. The parent who cannot recognize their own emotions and hold themselves accountable creates a chaotic environment where accountability and rules seem arbitrarily enforced. Children in these environments feel less personal responsibility and perceive punishments as random. This can be the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Allowing yourself the vulnerability to admit overreaction will endear respect, model humility, and help children grow up with an ability to perceive nuance.

  5. Act as a Proxy for the Real World: It is far safer for kids to fail with the parental structure behind them than it will be when they experience the real world. Thus, they should experience failure and learn to persevere. They should experience the consequences of their actions or they’ll never be ready and resilient for the challenges of their adulthood.

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"If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don't have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence." –Carol Dweck

The environments we offer our children can reinforce the boundaries of limited living or open up the doors to a deeper human experience. When families don’t discuss academic topics or take an interest in learning about the world, children never cultivate that most natural inquisitiveness that stokes creativity and leaves them burning to learn as much as they can in the short time they have. Similarly, when young children are not allowed to freely run, jump, climb, chase, and fall they are deprived of the capacity for free-flowing movement. They do not experience a park, a field, a forest, a gym, or any environment in the same way. The joys of creative movement are a foreign experience. 

Strengthening Your Model

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But no environmental factor is more powerful than your own example. The best thing we can do for our children is to work on ourselves and I hope IHD can help. Justin and I have spent the last six months pouring ourselves into a daily habit program. We’ve taken the three core habits we advocated in our e-book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery, and put together a 30-day program that gives you a daily dose of each. Rather than telling you to fit these concepts in your life, we do it with you in only 30-minutes a day. In the process we’ll help you integrate the principles of sustainable success into your own life. It is the 30x30 Challenge. If you can commit to 30 days of 30-minutes per day, you’ll see and feel changes in your mind, body, and emotion that ripple out into every facet of life. It is a foundation that gives you the tools to build your own sustainable success. There is nothing to know and nothing you need. No prerequisites. All that is left is for you to act.