WASHINGTON -- Ava Kavyani, a high school senior from Vienna, Va., is giving some thought these days to the idea of success. Is success "having a nice apartment in New York, a beach house in Duck, North Carolina, four cars, two SUVs and a Porsche for the weekends?" Is it "writing for a newspaper, running for the Senate, finding a partner to share my life?"
Such ruminations are music to the ears of self-help authors who say they have found a new, receptive audience: 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds who are feeling increasingly overwhelmed by all they have to do. The same life-management skills that work for adults work for teen-agers as well, these writers say, when they're reworded to be relevant to self-image, peer pressure and other vagaries of youth.
Two such books on the market are the new "Teens Can Make It Happen: Nine Steps to Success," by Stedman Graham (Fireside), and Sean Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens," two years in print and also published by Fireside. Both men write from an unusual perspective: They are successful businessmen who have observed legendary entrepreneurs up close. Graham is Oprah Winfrey's longtime friend. Covey is the son of Stephen Covey, management guru and author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
Sean Covey says he decided to write his "7 Habits" because teen-agers would tell him they had read his dad's book, published 12 years ago, but couldn't understand the examples, many of which were taken from the corporate world.
Graham picked up his pen for a more personal reason. He grew up wanting to play professional basketball, made it to the European league but never hit the big time in the United States. He believes that was because when he was younger, he didn't think through the steps it would take to be good enough to play the arenas he coveted.
In the opinion of both authors, many teen-agers are where Graham was years ago, not being directed by parents or teachers to consider their life paths. Their books can fill a void that amounts to neglect, they say. So what do they suggest teen-agers do? And what do teens think about their ideas? We put the latter question to three high school newspaper writers from the Washington area.
The first step toward crafting a successful life, Graham and Covey say, is defining what you mean by success. Graham, a leadership consultant and author of the earlier book for adults, "You Can Make It Happen" (Simon & Schuster), says that success is not about making lots of money. "It's finding out your passion, being happy with what you do," he says.
Kavyani, who attends a Falls Church, Va., high school, agrees wholeheartedly. She used to hear the word "success" and picture the "s" as a dollar sign, she admits. Her freshman biology teacher, Connie Thomas, changed that. From the moment Kavyani walked into Thomas' classroom, which was decorated like a human cell, "I knew that there was no place in the world Ms. Thomas would rather be and nothing she'd rather be doing," Kavyani says. "Doing what you have a knack to do and love doing, that's success."
Covey defines success as living a life centered on moral principles, such as honesty, love and hard work. Jeff Davis, an Olney, Md., senior, likes that definition. "To be successful in life, you need to live a certain way and stay away from negative behavior and habits," he says.
Defining success also means envisioning the life you want, according to Graham and Covey. Graham, the more ambitious of the two, suggests that teen-agers cast their eyes beyond college to the career and family they desire. Most people, adults included, don't think ahead, he says. "You ask them about their vision, and they start talking about their last visit to the eye doctor."
Older teen-agers are less inclined to think long-term than they used to be, according to a national survey of last year's college freshmen. Linda Sax, director of the UCLA study, says students reported declining commitment to succeeding in business and social activism and increased attention to making good grades and paying for college. A record one-third reported feeling stressed. "They are preoccupied with immediate goals," she says.
Nonetheless, Graham insists that teen-agers are dreamers and can shape their dreams. "Nine Steps" offers written exercises to help teens do this by thinking about their talents and strengths.
Kahina Robinson, a junior at Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts, enjoyed Graham's exercises. But though she likes to write and has attended a summer writers camp, "I haven't discovered a dream that I am living for," she says. "Even if I knew what I wanted to do now, that could change in college."
Kavyani, who thinks she wants to major in journalism in college, believes that it's unrealistic to expect most high school students to picture what they want to be doing far in the future. The request could even panic some teens into an identity crisis, she says.
Davis, who is considering journalism, law or political science, says some of his friends "know exactly what they want to do in life and have decided what colleges they need to get into in order to excel in their profession." But many students have no clue, he says.
All three embrace Covey's notion of envisioning a life only 12 months away. "In your mind's eye, visualize someone walking toward you about half a block away," Covey writes. "You suddenly realize ... that it's you. But it's not you today; it's you as you would like to be one year from now. Now think deeply. What have you done with your life over the past year?"
"I have no problem setting short-term goals," says Kavyani. "I know that college is coming up, I have to get my applications in, get good grades, have a nice conclusion to high school."
Robinson also is comfortable talking about short-term goals, partly because she is a student of taekwondo and has worked up through several levels. "My big goal is graduating from high school with honors, getting into a good college and traveling to different countries," she says. "And getting my black belt before I leave D.C."
Once young people decide what their lives should look like, they must convince themselves that this vision can materialize no matter what the circumstances. Graham calls this "active optimism"; Covey calls it being "proactive."
It's not enough, the authors say, to believe in yourself in the good times. The true optimist decides to enjoy drama class even when her boyfriend has just been rude to her. The proactive driver laughs it off when some jerk cuts in front of him in traffic. "Proactive people recognize they can't control everything," Covey writes, "but they can control what they do about it."
A can-do frame of mind "is really important," Robinson agrees. "It's the difference between getting a bad grade on a math test and saying, 'I'm never going to be able to do math,' and saying 'Maybe I should study more and ask somebody for help.' "
The third ingredient of success is following the steps (Graham's word) or habits (Covey's) necessary to take you there. This idea is at the heart of both books, and the tools espoused in both are essentially the same: knowing who you are and what you stand for, being willing to take risks, learning to make wise decisions, being determined, seeking support from, and giving support to, others, and balancing your physical, mental and spiritual lives.
The idea of balance is especially appealing.
"Teens need to keep up their energy level when they strive to succeed," Robinson says. "There's no use getting burned out halfway along the way to becoming valedictorian."
"I often question the pressure I put on myself to become successful," Davis says. "Yet when I step back and survey the situation, I see that I am perfectly happy. ... It seems to me that my friends and I who work hard to become successful have very balanced lives."
And what about the kids who don't work hard, or work hard at only one thing? Sadly, they are many, says Davis, "and they are not going to want to buy a book to tell them how to act."
They may not have a choice, if Graham and Covey have their way. Covey's book is being taught in hundreds of schools around the country.
Graham hopes his will receive a similar reception. While writing his book, he worked with a group of 36 high school students from Shorewood, Wis., to refine his ideas and write them in a way that would be accessible to teen-agers. He saw these students begin to structure their lives differently based on their conversations with him and their teachers. They also organized a two-week event for their community called the Shorewood Games, using his nine steps.
"Once you give kids a road map based on their visions, you can't stop them," Graham says. "They're so hungry, so smart. They've got all this information, and you help them organize it, and they say, 'I can be as great as I want to be.' "
Covey was equally moved when he worked with dozens of kids for his book. Prior to the project, he says, he was worried about the state of American youth. But once he finished, "I felt just the opposite. The bulk of kids are really good, self-made, intelligent and street-smart."
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