The Powerful Undercurrents of Readiness and Well-Being

April 22, 2015

As a Native Hawaiian, I was raised to respect the ocean. I was taught to watch the waves before diving in. Even as a little kid, I knew tall, fast and choppy waves meant hard or dangerous swims. My mom tried teaching me about undercurrents, but I didn’t understand their power until I had actually felt one.

Over the past year, I left the shoreline and dived deeply into the waters of youth behavior, development and well-being. As co-director of the Forum for Youth Investment’s Readiness Project,I had a good reason for jumping into the vast ocean of information on adolescence and adulthood. Earlier this month, at our National Meeting I came up for air to share what we have found. We have located a rich, rapidly growing ecosystem of policies, practices, people and research focused on specific practices and abilities that, we believe, best enable young people’s readiness for life’s demands and responsibilities (read more here and here). I think about this ecosystem as a coral reef: a collective of vast and colorful pieces, each playing a role in the growth and development of the whole. Fellow swimmers have studied, shaped and shared parts of this ecosystem. Using our national meeting as the kick-off, we hope to continuously provide folks with a panoramic view.

Flowing within and around this ecosystem is a strong cultural undercurrent. I think most of us feel it, even if we don’t realize that it’s there. On the surface, American culture pushes us toward fame and success. Below the surface, however, there is a strong counter-movement pushing toward family and well-being. Increasingly, this undercurrent is being called out and named: over the past few months, Huffington Post founder, Arianna Huffington, published Thrive, where she outlines her argument on why we should prioritize well-being; Washington Post reporter, Brigid Schulte, published Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time and New York Times pundit, David Brooks, wrote the “The Moral Bucket List,” and released his new book, The Road to Character. This call to focus on our selves more than our success goes beyond mere self-reflection. It also challenges us to rethink how we parent and raise our kids. New York Times reporter, Jennifer Senior—a working mother—recently wrote All Joy and No Fun: The Modern Paradox of Parenthood and earlier this week, the Atlantic captured a spreading parent movement, describing how tens of thousands of students and their families are refusing standardized tests.

In the past few months, I have met with two different funder groups, attended policy forums, and listened to conference presentations all to discuss children’s well-being and social and emotional development. While public figures petition adults to focus on our well-being, leaders are petitioning for increased attention on kids’ character and wellness. Words like “flourishing” and “grit” are moving beyond academia into the everyday vernacular of practitioners, policymakers and parents.  Everyone can benefit from this shift. The more we talk about the well-being of children and adults, the more likely it will seep into the everyday interactions and experiences that we have.  Even those who swim against this undercurrent will still be moved—even if incrementally—in the direction that it flows.

Tony Biglan, author of Nurture Effect, describes it best. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Tony talk about his involvement in the anti-tobacco movement. He reminded us that not long ago it was hard to imagine smoke-free bars and baseball fields. Today, most are. Although tobacco companies and their well-paid lobbyists put millions into protecting their interests, the anti-tobacco movement worked. In the past generation, our society has made a permanent change from seeing smoking as socially acceptable to rarely socially allowable. Tony credits this shift to many things, but mostly to a powerful undercurrent. The anti-tobacco movement was an undercurrent that pulled people toward a smoke-free world. As Tony explained, if the movement had set a more realistic goal—like non-smoking areas where children and the elderly spend time—the rate of change couldn’t have reached what it needed to be. With an ambitious goal, the right supports and smarts, change was far beyond what anyone expected. It’s a change we feel each day, in classrooms, restaurants and around town.

As I reflect on the rise of public and professional discussion of well-being and stories like Tony’s, I think about how our CEO, Karen Pittman, says that “readiness is a right” for all young people. Readiness is the requisite of well-being. Before you can thrive, you must be ready and able to meet your demands. The buzz about and belief in well-being cannot be reserved for adults and those in positions of power and influence. The anti-tobacco movement envisioned a smoke-free world and they made more progress than anyone could have guessed. We should envision a world where all young people have the chance to lead balanced, productive lives; where success includes well-being and demands readiness. 

stephanie kraussStephanie Malia Krauss is a Senior Fellow at The Forum For Youth Investment focusing on issues of youth readiness and competency-based education. She was previously President and chief executive officer of Shearwater Education Foundation.

This article is part of the Right to be Ready blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section. 

Stephanie Krauss