The Doors of Opportunity Are Not Closing

A dark hallway with closed doors

Do you worry that your teenager is throwing their future away by making bad choices? That, by doing poorly in high school, they’ll be unable to attend college, greatly limiting their career opportunities?

Are you afraid that the doors of opportunity are closing? That your kid is just incapable of long-term thinking?

This parental fear is both common and understandable. It’s very difficult to watch your teenager make poor decisions that will have a negative impact on their future.

But this parental fear is also wrong.

The Conventional Timeline

It’s true that if you do poorly in high school, you won’t get to attend the university of your choice right after graduating. And that means you probably won’t get to start the career of your choice in your early 20s.

But these limitations only apply to the conventional timeline:

High School → College → Career

Many people do well in life without following the conventional timeline.

Let’s look at three examples of people who’ve done just that.

The Slow Path

a tortoise walking

High School → Crummy Jobs → Community College → University → Career

A good friend of mine named Samantha did poorly in high school. She’s very bright, but family dynamics and personal difficulties caused her to deprioritize school when she was a teenager. She graduated, but not with the kind of grades that would get you into a good university. And since she wasn’t interested in school anyway, she moved to Snoqualmie Pass to be a ski bum.

For the next eight years, she worked crummy jobs for the ski area, barely making more than minimum wage. The lifestyle was good, though: snowboarding all winter and hiking all summer. Mountain life is low-stress and high-fun. But she eventually got tired of it and found herself craving something more. So she applied to Peninsula College, and moved to Port Angeles.

Samantha wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, so she tried a variety of courses. The exploration eventually sparked an interest in engineering. At 27 years old, she now had a clear goal: get an associate’s degree that set her up to transfer to a 4-year university to study engineering.

Samantha was paying her own way, so she couldn’t afford to be a full-time student. She took her time, careful not to overload herself. Getting an associate’s degree normally takes two years, but she took four.

During this time, she learned how to be a good student, got good grades, and impressed some of her professors. She applied to the University of Washington and was accepted to the aerospace engineering program.

Three years later, Samantha graduated and accepted a job with a prestigious aerospace company that works with organizations like NASA and SpaceX.

When she was floundering in high school, or when she chose to become a ski bum, there were surely adults shaking their heads saying, “Samantha is squandering her potential. She’s throwing her future away.” But they were wrong. She just needed to take her time. And now she’s literally a rocket scientist.

Rocket engine construction

The Road Less Traveled

Another friend of mine, Johnny, took an even less conventional path to success:

High School Dropout → Crummy Jobs → GED → University Dropout → Crummy Jobs → Career → Entrepreneurship → Early Retirement

He dropped out of high school junior year, got a job at a fast food restaurant, and moved into a studio apartment. For the next year and a half, he lived that way, causing his parents much anxiety about his future. Then, when his best friend graduated from high school and made plans to attend Montana State University, Johnny decided to come along.

He got a GED and applied to MSU, where he was accepted. (It was not, at that time, any more selective than a community college.) He studied computer science sporadically for two years, before deciding it wasn’t for him and dropping out.

Over the next several years, Johnny worked a wide variety of crummy jobs, the last of which was washing dishes for the deli of a local grocery store. One day, the store was having trouble with its computer systems, and Johnny stepped in and fixed them. Upon discovering that he was very skilled with technology, they hired him to be in charge of IT.

While enjoying this accidental career, he kept learning and exploring opportunities at the frontiers of the internet and technology. He hit upon a very lucrative niche, and through some creative entrepreneurship, made a boatload of money in just a few short years.

Johnny, the two-time dropout, was able to comfortably retire at the age of 35.

an empty winding road

Figuring it Out Late

High school → University → Crummy Jobs → Career → Self-Employment

Unlike my two friends, I did very well in high school. I could have gone to a selective university and gotten my career started on the conventional timeline. But alas, that was not my path.

My priority in life, at that time, was having as much fun as possible. So, rather than choosing the best college I could get into, I chose the college with the best skiing – Montana State. After graduating, I didn’t pursue a career or graduate school; I moved to Snoqualmie Pass to become a ski bum.

I lived that lifestyle as long as my body allowed. But after five years and a half-dozen injuries, I was forced to move to the city and finally grow up. I stumbled into Northwest Educational Services (on crutches) and was hired as a tutor and blog writer. This eventually blossomed into the career I now enjoy, working for myself as a tutor, writer, and habit coach.

Because I figured out my career a lot later than most people my age, I’m “behind” my peers. But so what? It’s not a race. It’s life.

When One Door Closes, Others Open

The supposedly poor choices your teenager is making right now might actually be for the best. Obstacles frequently turn out to be opportunities. Failures make great lessons. And the pain of working a crummy job for a few years can be very motivating.

The path to success is not necessarily linear, and it doesn’t have to be walked at the conventional speed or in the conventional way.

I’m happy with where my path took me, and I wouldn’t change it if I could. And I’m sure Samantha and Johnny would say the same thing.

6 Reasons Teenagers Struggle with Long-Term Thinking

A teenage boy looking confused

Teenagers sometimes seem incapable of long-term thinking.

They get home and spend hours on their phone instead of starting their homework. They go out and play with their friends instead of doing their chores first, even though they’ll get in trouble for it. They stay up late playing video games instead of getting a good night’s sleep. They procrastinate on big projects, resulting in last-minute panic, late penalties, and low grades. They appear unconcerned about how their decisions impact college and career opportunities.

For parents, it’s worrying to watch them make choices that will hurt them down the road. And it’s frustrating because their behavior doesn’t seem to make any sense. I mean, the better long-term choices are so obviously better.

But as baffling as it may be, it’s actually quite normal. And, critically, there are things we can do to help them become more skilled at making wiser decisions. So here are six reasons teenagers struggle with long-term thinking and what we can do about them.

1. They Have a Developing Prefrontal Cortex

The most basic reason teenagers struggle with long-term thinking is neurological. The part of the brain in charge of long-term thinking, delayed gratification, and executive function in general is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is still developing until you’re 25 years old, and it undergoes massive changes during the teenage years.1 Imagine an “Under Construction” sign posted on your teenager’s prefrontal cortex and lower your expectations accordingly.

a black and yellow under construction sign

Now, I’m not suggesting that they can’t use that part of their brain or that you shouldn’t encourage them to do so. Quite the opposite. Since the brain is like a bunch of muscles, the more they use their prefrontal cortex, the stronger it will get. That’s why it’s essential for teenagers to be given responsibilities like chores, to be put in charge of their own learning, and to be given the freedom to make choices. Those choices will often be bad, but the pain of failure is a powerful motivator to learn.

2. They Keep Getting Rescued

Of course, they can’t learn from the pain of failure if they keep getting rescued by well-meaning parents who don’t want to see their child suffer. Rescuing comes in many forms: reminding them they have homework to do, helping them with projects that they’ve put off too long, letting them stay home “sick” to delay taking a test they’re not ready for.

One of the most important things parents can do to promote long-term thinking in teenagers is to allow them to fail. They need to learn sometime, and the stakes of failure just keep getting higher as they get older, so the longer you wait, the worse it will be. Failing a test isn’t that big of a deal, and it might be what motivates them to study. Failing a class is embarrassing and comes with the natural consequence of summer school, which might be what motivates them to start doing their work.

So please, stop rescuing them.

3. They Haven’t Lived Long Enough

Another reason teenagers struggle with long-term thinking is they simply haven’t lived long enough. It can take many years to experience the consequences of bad choices – years they haven’t lived yet.

As adults, we take for granted the wisdom we’ve accumulated over decades. And we routinely forget how hard-won that wisdom was. We screwed up, it hurt really bad, and we learned our lesson. Or, we didn’t learn our lesson, screwed up again – only worse this time – and then finally figured it out. (Sometimes it takes many rounds of failure before we learn.) Think about how many difficult life lessons you learned during your 20s. Your teenager can’t have learned those lessons yet because they haven’t even turned 20.

However, it is possible for teenagers to learn from the experiences of adults (despite what you’ve surely experienced when you’ve tried). It’s all in the delivery.

a mom trying to give advice to her teenager

Most adults use their life experience to give advice. They say things like, “You should ______ or you’ll experience ______.” This usually backfires because “You should…” feels like criticism, so it gets resisted.

A better approach is to tell stories from a first-person perspective: “I used ______ and it kept leading to ______. Eventually, I got fed up and tried ______ which led to ______.” This approach presents the same lesson without sounding like judgmental advice.

4. Human Nature Doesn’t Predispose Us for Long-Term Thinking

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have GPAs, resumés, or 401Ks. They had more pressing concerns, like finding their next meal and not getting eaten by leopards. They were lucky to live to 35. Thus, it’s not in our genes to be particularly good at long-term thinking. So, like other recently* invented skills – such as reading and math – long-term thinking is something you have to practice to become adept at.

*Recently in anthropological terms. Humans have existed for about 300,000 years,2 but reading and math are only about 6,000 years old.3

We can’t change our genetic predispositions, but we can get a better handle on them. Knowing about human nature is a good first step; it’s easier to mitigate an innate tendency if you know you have it.

It also helps to normalize the struggle of long-term thinking by framing it as something natural. Many teenagers think there’s something wrong with them, which is depressing, demotivating, and disempowering. Knowing that the problem is not you encourages you to seek out strategies for overcoming it.

5. Modern Culture Discourages Long-Term Thinking

a megaphone blasting out internet icons

Despite the value of long-term thinking in modern life, our culture doesn’t actively encourage it. We love stories of overnight success. Advertisers promise an endless supply of quick fixes for our problems. And kids dream of getting rich quick by going viral on TikTok.

The adult world is just as guilty of this mindset. Congressional representatives have to get reelected every two years. CEOs have to generate a profit for shareholders each quarter. 24-hour news networks lurch from scandal to scandal, forgetting today what was “major news” yesterday. All of this discourages long-term thinking in favor of short-term wins, cash grabs, and appealing soundbites. It’s no wonder we can’t seem to effectively address long-term problems like climate change, crumbling infrastructure, and the national debt.

So when your teenager appears to be deaf whenever you talk about long-term planning, consider that they might be thinking, “But what about you (meaning grown-ups in general)? You’re not solving any of the world’s long-term problems.” If you want them to listen to you, you’ll probably need to take more steps that show you’re a part of the solution.

6. Tech Addiction Probably Inhibits Long-Term Thinking

Studies have shown that addiction can inhibit long-term thinking, possibly because addiction is associated with prefrontal cortex dysfunction. 4

When researchers “asked people addicted to opioids and healthy controls to complete a story that started with the line: ‘After awakening, Bill began to think about the future. In general, he expected to …’ opioid-addicted study participants referred to a future that was on average nine days long. Healthy controls referred to a future that was on average 4.7 years long.”5

In other words, when an addict considers “the future,” they’re not thinking long-term at all. Or, perhaps, what an addict considers “long term” is radically shorter than what a healthy person considers “long term.” This makes sense. When you’re addicted to something, your top priority is always getting another hit. And while this study used opioid addiction, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar pattern with other addictions.

a teenager on her phone

About half of American teenagers say they’re addicted to their phones.6 Thus, it’s likely that tech addiction is inhibiting teenagers’ ability to pursue long-term goals and make wise decisions about their future. And it’s not just because they’re spending too much time on video games and YouTube at the expense of studying; it’s that addiction itself inhibits long-term thinking.

Helping young people manage technology in a healthy way is one of the trickiest things modern parents have to wrestle with. It’s the #1 topic of discussion in the Q&A sessions of our Parenting for Academic Success course. There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.

First and foremost, parents need to lead by example. If you’re always on your phone (even if it’s checking email for work) your kids will learn that it’s normal for people to always be on their phones. But if they see you put your phone into Do Not Disturb Mode or Airplane Mode or leave it in another room sometimes, they’ll learn that it’s okay to not be constantly connected.

Secondly, you need to establish family values around tech. Not punitive restrictions, but healthy norms based on what you, as a family, see as important. That could mean a rule where there are no phones at the dinner table. Or it could mean leaving your phones behind when you go for a walk in the park.

Lastly, instead of tech-based entertainment being the default option, you can create alternative rituals, such as board game nights, after-dinner reading time, and fun outdoor adventures. It’s not enough to say “no screen time.” You have to provide an appealing alternative to fill the void.

a family playing charades

Parents Need to Think Long Term Too

None of the advice I’ve just given offers a quick fix. It’s natural for you to wish that your teenager would just figure it out, so you could stop worrying about their choices. But developing the capacity for long-term thinking takes, well, a long time.

So you need to get out of the fix mindset and into the grow mindset. You’re not repairing a robot; you’re tending a garden. This takes patience.

Rescuing them from failure and telling them what to do might lead to better results on paper today, but they don’t produce independence and good judgment down the road. The slower path – giving them responsibilities, letting them face the consequences of failure, and modeling – is ultimately more fruitful.

1 “The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know.” National Institute of Mental Health.

2 “What does it mean to be human.” Smithsonian National Museum of National History.

3 Kennedy, Lesley. “6 Early Human Civilizations.” History.com. February 6th, 2024.

4 Goldstein RZ, Volkow ND. “Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: neuroimaging findings and clinical implications.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2011 Oct 20;12(11):652-69. doi: 10.1038/nrn3119.

5 Lembke, Anna, MD. “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.” Dutton, 2021.

6 Wallace, Kelly. “Half of teens think they’re addicted to their smartphones.” CNN. July 29, 2016.

Praising a Process-Based Identity

A father giving his daughter praise while she's studying

Any parent or educator who has read about growth mindsets knows that you’re supposed to praise process rather than character traits. It’s best to praise effort and strategy rather than intelligence or talent.

When a student does well, you don’t say, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so good at math!”

You say, “You must have worked really hard!” or “The way you studied sure paid off!”

This type of praise is helpful because it emphasizes the choices kids have made rather than the genetic gifts that are outside their control. Being praised for good choices encourages them to make similar choices in the future, leading to more growth and greater success.

There is, however, a version of character-based praise that supports the cultivation of a growth mindset: praising a process-based identity.

And it might be even more effective than the type of praise described above.

Here’s how it works. You take standard growth mindset praise, but then you tweak it to assign a positive characteristic to the student.

  • “Good job studying so hard for that test” becomes “Good job being such a dedicated learner.”
  • “You worked really hard to figure that out” becomes “Figuring that out looked tough. I’m proud of you for being such a persistent person.”
  • “Thanks for your help” becomes “Thanks for being such a good helper.”

You’re still praising their process – their choices – but you’re taking it a step further and claiming that those choices are aligned with who they are. This causes those choices to be easier to make in the future. If I’m “a dedicated learner” or “a good helper” then it’s only natural for me to act accordingly.

If you’ve ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, then this might sound familiar. Psychologists call this technique Positive Trait Attribution. When someone claims that you possess a virtuous characteristic, such as being helpful or hard-working, you’ll want to live up to that vision of yourself. You’ll act as though it were true, which, in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, makes it true.

a student happily studying because they self-identify as a hard worker

Praising a process-based identity helps kids develop a better sense of self – an identity that’s based on choices and values rather than based on being smart or successful. When you have this kind of self-identity, success is a natural byproduct of the way you live. The student who studies every night earns higher grades. The basketball player who practices every day continually gets better. The professional who never stops learning advances their career.

Ultimately, the most effective way for someone to develop a growth mindset is to experience growth via effort and strategy. So encouraging kids to “try on” a process-based identity by praising them as though they already have one is one of the most powerful things parents and educators can do to cultivate growth mindsets. And all it takes is a simple change in the way we give praise.