10 Strategies to Help Children Define Success for Themselves

Ryan Makhani

I recently gave a talk where I asked a group of parents, “What do the following four men have in common?”

  1. Peter Diamondis, founder of XPrize and Singularity University
  2. Salman Ahmed, Pakistani musician and lead of the band Junoon
  3. Pau Gasol, basketball player now on the Chicago Bulls
  4. Ken Joeng, comedian from the movie Hangover

Besides being male of course, these four men have something else in common – they all went to medical school. And guess what – all four are not practicing medicine now.

Pau Gasol and Ken Joeng practiced medicine and Peter Diamondis and Salman Ahmed never practiced. More importantly, all four are now pursuing their passions and have ultimately defined success for themselves.

Many students and parents today follow a success formula which goes something like this:

Good Grades + Good College + Good Job = Success.

Sadly, I have seen this approach lead to mediocrity and unhappy people living comfortable yet unfulfilling lives. To avoid this trap of the success formula, we must help our youth discover what Voltaire and Jim Collins addresses: “Good is the enemy of Great.”

As a child in San Jose and then East Bay in California, I grew up following the same success formula. But everything changed when I joined my first job after college.

I was 25 working as an applications engineer in semi-conductors. My younger brother was 18 and my dad had just entered his 50s. This is when my mother’s colon cancer had come back. Her condition was getting worse. I was laid off from my job and it was a blessing in disguise. I was able to spend six months with my mother before she passed away on March 8, 2005.  Depending on when you are reading this, it could be exactly 10 years now.

You see, when my mother passed, it didn’t matter how much I was earning, what my job title was or how popular I was. Everything changed on that day. The formula of good grades, good college and good job shattered for me.

Luckily, after a few more years of searching, I was able to discover my true passion –working with teens and helping them recognize their extraordinary gifts and potential, which led me to create BuildMyIdea.org, which inspires students to be innovative leaders.

I share this story with you today because I have seen many youth across many cities in the world make the same mistakes I did. These mistakes include caring about grades over learning, letting others influence what they want to do, and most importantly, not defining success for themselves.

There are a million ways to be successful, but each of us needs to find our own.  

Today, we live in world where we can make a living out of just about anything. We can pursue our passion, serve the world and make money at the same time. I strongly believe that youth can start as early as possible in playing and exploring their passions. They can take part in various activities they enjoy, take a variety of courses to figure out which ones they like, talk to mentors, spend time with someone they admire, join causes they support, or even create an organization. Such activities can help them find their purpose in learning and guide their future journey in education.

The parents that I have seen who help their children define success for themselves usually do the following:

  1. The parents are aware of their own fears and dreams.
  1. The parents encourage and challenge their children rather than control all their decisions.
  1. The parents do not impose their definition of success onto their children, rather have conversations to help guide what success could be and what it could look like for their child.
  1. The parents ask questions that encourage their children to find their passions and define their goals.
  1. The parents provide tools for the child to explore and imagine their possibilities.
  1. The parents help the child not compare themselves to others, but rather to their own selves and own growth.
  1. The parents support the child’s curiosity and listen in ways that the child can feel supported.
  1. The parents take time to know their child in regards to what pushes their buttons, how to motivate them and what they love.
  1. The parents encourage the child playing in areas that could become a life-long passion.
  1. The parents recognize that the context in which their child is growing up is significantly different from their own childhood.

The ten ways listed above may not be easy to practice as adults. I have seen parents just trying to get by and keep up in the busy life that exists. The above tips are practices and may take time to bring into the family. A “tiger” mom or “helicopter” dad may be able to get their child to get good grades in a certain subject, go to a particular college or even finish grad school.

But happiness and living a dream can’t be forced.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents Series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, see:

Ryan Makhani is the founder of BuildMyIdea.org. Follow him on Twitter with @buildmyidea.

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1 Comment


I think that this post is beautifully written. I am currently a college students and everyday I observe my peers that are struggling through their majors in order to be successful after college. Although I do see the importance of this and understand how expensive it is these days to raise children, I do not think that anything is worth while if your not happy. I challenge myself, as a future educator, to help students reach their full potential and find success in areas of their life that make them the happiest.

Thank you for sharing!

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