From the moment kids are born, they take their cues from the adults around them about how to respond to experiences in the world. For instance, when a toddler stumbles in the sandbox, the first thing she does is look at her parent for a signal. If the parent calmly says, “Whoops, you fell down,” and then smiles reassuringly, the child will likely get the message that the fall was no big deal and get right back up. But if the adult looks alarmed, yells, “Oh, no! Are you okay?,” and rushes over to check for injuries, the child may in turn become alarmed: Wait, am I okay? I thought I was okay, but maybe I’m not!
Later, if the child doesn’t get the lead in the school play—despite how talented this child may be—she’ll also take her cue about what this means from the adults around her. If her parents say, “That’s so unfair! Jane only got the part because the drama teacher is friends with her mom,” or “Jane’s parents are on the board,” the girl might think, Yeah, this is so unfair. Jane’s not nearly as talented as I am. The world is rigged. Why even try?
If, on the other hand, the parents say, “We know you really wanted the lead and we hear how disappointed you are. You worked so hard preparing for the audition. Maybe you’ll get the lead the next time around, but meanwhile, the part you did get will be fun, too,” their daughter may still be disappointed, but she’ll be learning about resilience. She’ll take in the message that sometimes we don’t get what we want, even when we’re qualified to have it. She’ll learn that sometimes we might be really good at something, but someone else is even better. She’ll learn that there’s not just one thing that can be enjoyable or fulfilling, but many things—like acting in a play she loves, even if she’s not the lead this time around. She’ll learn that the world is not an all-or-nothing place, where you either succeed or fail. She’ll learn that if she really wants something badly enough, she can try again another time and figure out what would increase her chances. She’ll learn that even if Jane got the role mostly because of her talent but partly because the teacher (consciously or not) favored her, there will come a time when she, too, will get something—an award, a job—not only because of her talent, but also because of, say, the boss’s strong relationship with the colleague who referred her, or the fact that they both grew up in the same town, and an equally qualified candidate will be rejected.
The kid who learns these lessons early on will probably still be upset if despite her stellar application, she doesn’t get admitted to her top-choice school. But she won’t walk through the world feeling as though there’s a conspiracy going on, nor will she walk onto campus the first day of freshman year believing that she won’t be challenged and that her peers are either similarly overqualified or simply beneath her. And if she does find that she’s not getting what she wants at her very good but not Ivy League school, she will know she can talk to an adviser to see what opportunities might be available that she’s not yet aware of, or even apply to transfer elsewhere. Either way, she won’t spend her senior year of high school anticipating how unfulfilling her college experience will be, thereby creating a very unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy.