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How to Succeed as a Teenager

You have a lot going on.

Lots of homework, your friends are texting you, your parents are on your case, you have to go to practice (piano, football, ballet, you name it), your Facebook page is out of date, you wish you could go on a date, you don’t have enough friends, your SAT scores are too low, your college applications are late, no one wants to go to the prom with you, your parents won’t let you use the car, your teachers don’t have a clue of how much work you have to do, you feel bad about the kid who is being bullied, your face is breaking out and you’re totally sleep deprived.

How can you manage it all? How can you possibly succeed?


Calm, Confident, and Focused

I’m going to give you the three keys to being successful from my book A Teen’s Guide to Success. You already know them from the book’s subtitle so my cards are on the table.  When you learn—really learn—to be calm, confident and focused, you’ll be amazed at how much you can handle and not just handle but do really well. You’ll be able to succeed in all kinds of ways: in school, on tests, in sports, on stage, with your friends, with your parents, your siblings and in a part-time job (if you have one).  Being calm, remaining confident and staying focused are the three keys to success in any endeavor of life.

How do I know this? I’ve been a psychologist for thirty-five years and my area of specialization is success and how people become successful. To figure this out I’ve studied, observed and coached people in many fields— sports, business, teaching, healthcare, the performing arts, to name a few—and over and over again I’ve seen that there is a foundation that every successful person has built.  Laying this foundation doesn’t depend on their circumstances—whether they have lived a less-than-privileged life or they were given a better lot at birth. It doesn’t matter if people have “talent” or not. It doesn’t even matter if they have failed many times. What matters is this: that they have learned how to be calm, confident, and focused.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

Shauna and Dave are in the same math class. Today is the day of their mid-term exam. Shauna had a study schedule and stuck with it. She asked her teacher questions and sought out friends who understood parts of the material better. She got a good night’s sleep and had breakfast. Dave was up until three a.m. cramming and downed a big cup of coffee on his way to school. He didn’t prepare much, preferring to hang out with his friends.  Now Shauna and Dave are sitting down at their desks to take the test. Dave is a bundle of nerves. His legs are bobbing up and down as he anxiously waits while the teacher hands out the exam. Shauna closes her eyes briefly to take a deep breath and center herself.  The first problem stumps Dave. His heart starts pounding and his mind spins out, “I’ve never seen this before!” It’s all downhill from there. He struggles through but when he has another tough question he gives up, thinking, “I’m not going to pass.” Shauna methodically works through each problem. When she has one that’s unfamiliar she slows herself down and reminds herself “I can figure this out,” and goes step-by-step with what she does know until she solves the problem.  Dave is so distracted by the thoughts that he is going to fail he doesn’t finish the test. Shauna stays focused—on track—and has a few minutes to review a couple of uncertain answers.

Simply put, Shauna is calm, confident, and focused. Dave is not.

We’ve all seen people at the top of their game—championship athletes, rock stars and successful business CEO’s—and we know what that looks like. As the Olympic gymnast prepares to do her vault, as the rock star looks out into the stadium filled with 20,000 people, as the executive seals the deal for $50 million dollars—what they all have in common is this: they are calm, confident, and focused.

I know, these people have talent and they work really hard.  But that’s not why they’re successful. I’m talking about something even more basic. I’m talking about the platform for success which everyone shares. I’m talking about what they do with their talent and what is actually going on when they practice, prepare, and when they perform.  What you see, over and over, is that they all use the same three keys: they’ve learned to be calm, confident, and focused, and they’ve practiced using these keys so they are second nature.

You too can learn to use these keys. You too can be successful.


What is Success?

Nearly everyone moans about how hard the teenage years are. Teenagers moan, parents moan, teachers moan.  I’ve heard some parents say they wish there was a planet their kids could go to when they become teenagers and then come back to earth when those years have passed.   But I have a different take.  I think that as challenging and chaotic as these years can be—and they often are—they can also be the most exciting, rewarding and growth-producing time of your young life.

Why do I say this? Because you are on the threshold of your future and all of your possibilities. You have the chance, now, to prepare yourself in the right way.  This is the time when you are growing into your best and brightest self.  While this might not make sense to you right now, and may even seem a little scary, I can assure you that as you learn and use what I’m giving you in this book these years will become much more an adventure than an endurance contest for you and for everyone in your life.  As you experience success now—and not have to wait until you’re “grown up”—your world will open up, right now. Rather than feel like life is just too much and you want to pull the covers over your head—and who doesn’t sometimes?—you will take on the challenges of being and becoming yourself, knowing that you are growing and blossoming. 

Let’s pause for a moment and consider what I mean by “success.”  Conventionally, the word conjures up a pile of money, a fabulous car, a big house, the ability to travel and have lots of things. While there’s nothing wrong with any of this, what I mean by “success” is actually much deeper and more lasting.  To me, success means being happy. It means feeling fulfilled.  If you’re thinking, “Well, I’d be happy with a Ferrari!” I won’t argue with you. I’d be happy with one, too. But lasting happiness never came from owning any great car. It comes from owning yourself—from being fully you.

As you read that last sentence you may have been thinking, “Ugh. He doesn’t get it. I really don’t like myself. I’m not as [handsome, beautiful, rich, talented—choose your adjective] as [Susie, LeVon, Ming, Scott—name the person].   All that may be true. But saying “I’m not. . . ” just gets you tied up in nots (excuse the pun!). You aren’t giving any positive attention to who you are.  The truth is you will never be like Susie, LeVon, Ming or Scott. Why? Because you’re you. You might as well dig who you are. Stop fighting, stop whining, and get with your own program. Unless you do—and until you do—you’re not going to be happy.

I’ll tell you a story about how I first discovered this. When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950’s I didn’t like the way I looked. I had a skinny body and a big nose. In magazines I saw photos of California surfer dudes. They looked really different. They were blonde. They were muscular. Their faces were perfectly proportioned.  There were lots of blonde bikini-clad girlfriends around them. I looked at those guys and I thought, “That’s what I want to look like. That’s what I want to be like.”  So, when I was 18 I made my first trip to California. I went to Malibu and walked along the beach. I saw these same guys that I’d seen pictures of and then it hit me, hard. I realized, I will never look like that. I will never be like that.  In one crashing moment I understood that I will never turn into something or someone else. I will always be me.

I wasn’t happy about it. My teenage years were mostly pretty miserable, and I had many years after that of feeling badly and struggling. I even felt like I wanted to give up. But I didn’t give up and, in the end, what happened? I learned to accept myself and like myself and appreciate what I could offer to the world.

You will save yourself a lot of time, energy and heartache if you learn how to be happy with who you are. Now. No matter how badly you feel at times—and teenage years can plunge you into many a pit of bad feelings—you are not that mess of unhappiness. You are the same person who was once a bright, shining, happy baby, and who can be a happy, fulfilled adult.  If that sounds like I’m saying, just get through these teenage years, I’m not. I’m saying that the happy baby and eventually-happy-adult are connected by the teenager: you. That can be a happy, successful teenager or a miserable one. You don’t have to suffer through your teenage years. You can be engaged and fully alive, right now.   You can be happy. You can be successful.  Right now. Your teenage years are the time to begin living, consciously, by choice, into the fullness of who you are.

Happiness—what I’m calling “success” —will be yours as you learn to be more calm, confident and focused.  I know this because I’ve coached many people like you to live this way and their lives have blossomed.

At this point some teenagers say to me, “Dr. B, you have your head in the clouds. You have no idea how hard my life is!”  But I beg you to remember that I was the skinny kid who was so unhappy that he desperately wanted to look like somebody else. Moreover, I wanted to be somebody else. I really really didn’t like who I was.  I didn’t think I was smart, I didn’t think I was talented, I didn’t think other people liked me, and on and on.  Ultimately, the way I learned to like myself was to learn to be calm, confident, and focused.  I’m writing this book because I believe you can have a much easier time of life—particularly of your teenage years—than I did.


How to Handle Stress

In this book I’m going to take you through a process. We’re going to look at how you handle stress. For instance, if you have a disagreement with someone do you get anxious and tense and storm out of the room or do you know how to stay calm and work it through? If you are facing an important performance—a test, a recital, or an athletic event—do you doubt whether you can handle it, or do you have the confidence that you can perform well?  When you have to study for a test do you procrastinate and then cram, or are you focused and study well?

Like everyone else, you have habits in dealing with life’s situations—particularly the stressful ones. Rather than labeling your habits “good” or “bad” we’ll call them “productive” and “unproductive.”  Productive habits create happiness and success. Unproductive habits create strife and disappointment. We’ll look at your habits. What are your productive habits? How can you transform your unproductive ones?  And we’ll look at all of this in the various situations you face on a daily basis—in school, at home and in other activities.

At this point you may be thinking, “My life would be OK if it wasn’t for _____ [fill in the blank: my sister, my teacher, my friend, my history final, my college applications]. If all that changed, my life would work!”  Well, I have news for you, that kind of thinking is unproductive. It won’t get you anywhere. Why? Because the only person you can really change is yourself. 

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Actually, my life works pretty well, I don’t really need this book.”  You might be right. But I say, give it a try. This book will validate what you are already doing and show you how you can do it better.

You may have noticed that the title of this book isn’t Dr. B’s Bag of Magic Tricks. There’s no kit with a top hat and a wand that you wave over your head and then, Presto! You can now sail through your life without doing anything. My job as a coach is to show you what to do. Your job is to do it. For some people, that’s not an easy thing. It isn’t that the information is hard or the message indirect. The material presented here is very direct and clear. The problem is that they don’t particularly want to work for a solution to their problem. They want someone else to solve their problems for them. Perhaps they’re hoping this book will do it.

Over the years, I have discovered that there are two groups of people: those who are ready to work for change and those who want a quick fix. The latter often come into my office cramped with anxiety or gloomy with depression.  After the first session, they are filled with hope and enthusiasm. They come to the second session all pumped up saying, “This is great, I get it.” But several weeks later they call or email, moaning in a most painful way, “Oh, Dr. B, I’m still so stressed out! I haven’t done any of the exercises you gave me. Do you have any more tips?” 

Yes, I do have more “tips,” but what good will they do if the person won’t follow them anymore than they worked with my original tips? If you want the results, you have to follow the coaching. Ultimately, you have to become your own coach. There’s no way around it. And if you do, the rewards are great. I have watched high school students raise their SAT scores by 200 to 300 points. I’ve seen athletes win games and musicians succeed in auditions. I’ve watched teenagers turn around their relationships around with their parents and friends. The bottom line is this: people who practice being calm, confident and focused overcome challenges and become their personal best.


Be Present

In facing the challenges, they learn life’s most important lesson: be present. You know that phrase they use at raffles? “You have to be present to win.” The same is true of life. Only by being present can we develop the awareness that we’re veering off track, and then get back on track. How many times in your life have you had to admit that you screwed up because you didn’t show up?

There is a real correlation between awareness and excellence, but awareness doesn’t happen accidentally. Usually, our minds are wandering far from home, leapfrogging from the past into the future, oblivious to what’s in front of us. To cultivate awareness and achieve your highest potential, you have to train yourself to bring your awareness to bear on the present moment and to practice being calm, confident and focused. When you learn how to master yourself you will feel empowered to take these skills into any part of your life. You will have taught yourself to be strong, responsible, and embodied when confronted with a difficult and challenging task. You can use that knowledge anywhere you go.

As long as you are willing to do the work to become a success, I can coach you through the process.


The Purpose of YOUR Life

Before we move on, I want to ask you a question: have you ever wondered what the purpose of your life is?  Here’s what I say: The purpose of your life is to become the person you are meant to be and to make a positive contribution to the world we share. Life is about becoming and being your highest self and offering what you can to others to help them along the same path.

When you want a flower to grow in your garden, you go to the nursery and buy a packet of seeds. You can see exactly what you’re going to end up with because there is a beautiful color picture of the fully-grown flower on the front of the packet. But when you open it, what do you find? Tiny black lumps that look like mouse droppings. Does that discourage you? No, because you know what these seeds are meant to become. You set up the environment for the seeds to grow. You prepare the soil. You plant the seed, and then make sure you give it the right amount of sunlight and water. When that tiny seedling finally sprouts, it is delicate, and you protect it and care for it until it grows into the flower it is meant to be. It takes its place in the garden and is part of a thriving landscape.

I believe that somewhere inside you there is a seed packet with your picture on it, a picture of the fully realized you. It’s not easy to grow this flower. There are challenges all along the way. But when you face them, you learn from them and you grow with them. Through this process, you grow into the flower in full bloom. Flowers cannot become fully realized unless they push their way up through the soil and share the sun and space with other plants. Our conditions aren’t much different. We have to find our way in the world, and all along we face challenges—tests in school, tests of friendship, physical illness, mental troubles, financial reversals, unfulfilled expectations and loss. 

Though we cannot choose most of the challenges we face in life, we can choose how we’re going to face them. Are we going to have a bad experience, crumble under the pressure, run away, or avoid challenges altogether? Or are we going to find the strength and inner resources to rise to the challenges and fully actualize our potential? That’s the term psychologists use for becoming the person you are meant to be. Facing your teenage years in the right way will give you this opportunity. When you face the challenges before you right now, learn from them and grow with them, you become that person. The challenges in your life require you to call on the inner resources residing deep inside you. By doing that, you come to know yourself and to develop your innate capacities. That is what we mean by actualizing your potential, and being challenged presents you with the opportunities to do it. 

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There are exquisite role models who have preceded us and can show us how to face the vicissitudes of life in a meaningful way. These are the teachers and masters, saints and sages, the divinely inspired women and men who dedicated their lives to finding meaning and purpose through their struggles. Jesus on the cross, Buddha under the bodhi tree, Moses in the desert, Mohammed in the cave. Each faced the challenges that life handed them, and they mastered the ability to learn and grow and become fully realized beings. We may not all be sages and saints, but we all face challenges on a regular basis, and some of them are severe and daunting. Do we have the strength to overcome, the fortitude to persevere, the humor to see things in a lighter way? With these capacities, it is possible to do more than just get by. We can do something inspiring with our lives. Great beings create a memorable path through life’s tests. Because ultimately, that’s what life is—a path with tests at every bend in the road. And every test is there to help us grow and to fully become the people we are meant to be.

If you’re committed to thinking “My life sucks and I can’t do anything about it,” this is probably not the book for you. But even then, I invite you to test out what’s in here. Many people I know and have worked with have turned their lives around, just as I did. It’s entirely possible for you, too.  You can learn to be calm, confident, and focused. Why do I say that?  Because the bottom line is this: you are meant to be successful.

I can coach you. Let’s go for it.

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:

The world’s teenagers have never been so challenged as they are today. The constant demands of parents, school, work, peers, social media, athletics, music. . .  has created a generation …

A Teen’s Guide to Success

Ben Bernstein

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Ben Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Test Success, is an award-winning educator and clinical psychologist. He has taught at every level of the educational system. He coaches individuals in high stress/high performance jobs including professional athletes,… Read More


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