Thoughts while visiting colleges with my daughter

I really enjoyed the privilege of taking my middle daughter on a tour of potential colleges. She is a bright young woman with plenty of options; she is clear about what she’s looking for. That’s good, because, personally, I felt drawn to each school we attended. Not just as a parent. I imagined attending EVERY school we visited as a student. To me, they all seemed like magical places of learning, with beautiful campuses, rich histories and a who’s who of professors just waiting to impart the secrets of the universe. After four years within their hallowed halls, I would emerge a well-rounded, brilliant, empathetic and nearly perfect human specimen. By the way, my children find this fantasy of mine hilarious. I suppose it is.

It’s the curse of the life-long learner — every opportunity to learn new things seems invaluable. Every educational environment seems awesome. And every earnest place of learning, especially a few of the prestigious schools my daughter was considering, seem like a big deal. At least, it did to me. No doubt, some of this derives from my experience as an Indiana kid reared in solid Midwestern values; I sometimes wonder what I missed by not attending a popular school. But I think what really struck me is the incredible opportunities available to all students. I’m not sure younger people are geared to see this. I suspect it’s an adult’s reflection on the narrowing world of “what’s possible” for us at a time when, for our children, anything seems possible.

Anyway, on this journey with my daughter, two things became really clear: 1) Any environment designed to optimize learning is good. 2) In choosing a college, we drive ourselves crazy for all the wrong reasons.

As a father, I want what’s best for my daughters. What parent doesn’t? But it occurred to me, even as I was being awestruck by our tour of colleges, that the ultimate choice was important only insofar as it was my daughter’s choice and it provided her an environment conducive to learning. What mattered most was my daughter’s own commitment to learn and her overall happiness. And if she chose to attend the free city college for a couple years, and then transfer to a local university, she would thrive. She will succeed because she is primed to get the most out of every opportunity to learn, and there are innumerable, excellent opportunities.

Just about the time the college visits were going on, the scandal broke regarding certain wealthy, entitled parents hiring someone to fraudulently inflate their kids’ entrance exam scores and bribe college admissions officials. Sobbing mothers appeared on the nightly news saying they just wanted to secure their children’s futures. Again, what parent doesn’t? But it’s not something you can achieve just by writing a check, and they must know that. So it makes me question their real motives.

My personal opinion is that as parents we often have so much invested in our children’s success that it becomes an extension of our own personal equity. We like being able to casually mention at dinner parties that our kids are attending a popular school and rubbing elbows with the elite or Nobel Prize winners. We like to flaunt our own brilliant parenting skills.

I suspect we also do this as business leaders. How many times have we heard about C-suite corporate leaders who make a short-term decision to impress Wall Street, their shareholders, or the people at the club, knowing that it will hurt long-term productivity, innovation, and growth? How often is our first consideration “how will this make me look?” instead of “how will this affect future growth?”

Whether we are acting as parents or business leaders, we need to constantly examine our own motives. If we’ve launched our children into a lifetime of learning habits, and designed our organizations for continuous improvement, we’re doing our jobs.