Teenage Dreams: A Model for College Success
By Jared Crum '11
In America, anyone can become president,” said Adlai Stevenson. “It’s one of the risks we take.” In the days of Michele Bachmann and “Jersey Shore,” Stevenson’s comments on the democratic and egalitarian nature of American success seem quite pertinent and accurate. In reality, however, the paths to success in life generally — and college specifically — are fewer and narrower than all that.

Success can be conceived under two models. One is the Palin Model. One is the Barack Model. Under them fit their namesake political leaders, and examples as diverse as football coach Lane Kiffin and “California Gurls” Candyland pop starlet Katy Perry. Who fits where? You’d be surprised.

The Palin Model is how Sarah Barracuda beat a path to Fortune’s door. It’s called winning by losing. The same sulfurous traits that made her toxic to some made her a superstar to legions of others. Independent voters saw someone unknowledgeable, inarticulate and immoderate. Fans on the right saw folksiness, lack of pretense and a worldview of moral clarity. They have rewarded it with millions of dollars and adoring crowds ever since. In many other job interviews, Sarah Palin would have been kicked out the lobby. In this one, losing meant success.

People who stumble into success, like Paris Hilton and Lane Kiffin, exemplify the Palin Model. Hilton’s sex tape with Rick Solomon made her an accidental star and she’s spun it off into a lucrative career. Hilton’s stint in jail earned her a flattering and fierce bidding war for her first post-Big House interview. Offers reportedly reached $1 million. If messing up were so lucrative for everyone, I would be in jail right now.

Lane Kiffin fell flat on his face into the top spot at USC football. He spent his early coaching years on the shifting ethical sands of the early 2000s Southern California football program (a program so corrupt the NCAA later vacated an entire season’s wins during Kiffin’s employment). He then somehow wound up coaching the Oakland Raiders, leading them to 15 losses in 20 games before being fired and called a “disgrace” by Raiders owner Al Davis (widely regarded as the NFL’s craziest owner and hence the least entitled to dispense the word “disgrace” on others). After the University of Tennessee (again, somehow) hired Kiffin, he falsely accused another coach of violating recruiting rules just days before he violated the rules himself. And yet, despite his record and demeanor, Kiffin is now head of one of the country’s most prominent collegiate athletic programs.

And you thought success was all hard work and pluck, right?

Actually, you thought right. The Palin Model of falling headfirst into achievement is the exception, not the rule. There is another model that works better. It’s the Barack Model. Apply it to life. Apply it to college.

Barack Obama triumphed with a set of tried and true best practices. In law school, he slept “four hours a night” and was working all the time, according to a fellow Harvard Law ’91 grad I spoke with. He was utterly focused on achieving his goals and disciplined in his work habits. In the Illinois Senate, he drove all up and down the state in the early 2000s, building name recognition and familiarity that would propel him to the U.S. Senate. Obama put in the long hours of toil and sweat.

Not everyone could see the Barack Model in action. Longtime Chicago confidante Valerie Jarrett, and even his wife, Michelle, counseled him against running for the Senate. He was too young, it was too tough a race. But part of the Barack Model is complete self-confidence. He knew his strengths and knew he could defeat the pretenders in Illinois.

A complementary trait to self-confidence is self-awareness, and that is part of the model, too. Katy Perry mastered it years ago. Her musical life was born in the manger of the Christian Gospel music industry, but Perry realized that what she wanted to do (and what she could do really well) was be a pop star. She knew herself before she knew anything else, and set her goals accordingly. Only then did she do the rest: long hours, sharp focus and total confidence when others doubted her. She captured her teenage dream.

In college, follow the Barack Model. Sit down and think hard about what you want, how you get there and arrange things accordingly. Expect setbacks! We all lose a Congressional race to an ex-Black Panther, or get dropped from our record labels twice. But it happens, and hurdles will help clear your head and improve your vision for your goals if you spend time in reflection about yourself, getting to know your own strengths and shortcomings.

Lean on your friends, your professors and your parents. Copy from the successful. Apply the Barack Model, and you’ll do well. Apply the Palin Model, and you probably won’t, unless you are really, really lucky.

After all, this is America, and people use both models. It’s one of the risks we take.

Issue 01, Submitted 2010-09-20 20:12:49