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Books Help Teens Strategize for Life

September 12, 2000|LAURA SESSIONS STEPP | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Ava Kavyani, a high school senior from Vienna, Va., is giving some thought these days to the idea of success. Is success "having a nice apartment in New York, a beach house in Duck, North Carolina, four cars, two SUVs and a Porsche for the weekends?" Is it "writing for a newspaper, running for the Senate, finding a partner to share my life?"

Such ruminations are music to the ears of self-help authors who say they have found a new, receptive audience: 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds who are feeling increasingly overwhelmed by all they have to do. The same life-management skills that work for adults work for teenagers as well, these writers say, when they're reworded to be relevant to self-image, peer pressure and other vagaries of youth.

Two such books on the market are the new "Teens Can Make It Happen: Nine Steps to Success," by Stedman Graham (Fireside), and Sean Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens," two years in print and also published by Fireside. Both men write from an unusual perspective: They are successful businessmen who have observed legendary entrepreneurs up close. Graham is Oprah Winfrey's longtime friend. Covey is the son of Stephen Covey, management guru and author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."

Sean Covey says he decided to write his "Seven Habits" because teenagers would tell him they had read his dad's book, published 12 years ago, but couldn't understand the examples, many of which were taken from the corporate world.

Graham picked up his pen for a more personal reason. He grew up wanting to play professional basketball, made it to the European league but never hit the big time in the United States. He believes that was because when he was younger, he didn't think through the steps it would take to be good enough to play the arenas he coveted.

In the opinion of both authors, many teenagers are where Graham was years ago, not being directed by parents or teachers to consider their life paths. Their books can fill a void that amounts to neglect, they say. So what do they suggest teens do? And what do teens think about their ideas? We put the latter question to three high school newspaper writers from the Washington area.

The first step toward crafting a successful life, Graham and Covey say, is defining what you mean by success. Graham, a leadership consultant and author of the earlier book for adults, "You Can Make It Happen" (Simon & Schuster), says that success is not about making lots of money. "It's finding out your passion, being happy with what you do," he says.

Kavyani, who attends a Falls Church, Va., high school, agrees wholeheartedly. She used to hear the word "success" and picture the "s" as a dollar sign, she admits. Her freshman biology teacher, Connie Thomas, changed that. From the moment Kavyani walked into Thomas' classroom, which was decorated like a human cell, "I knew that there was no place in the world Ms. Thomas would rather be and nothing she'd rather be doing," Kavyani says. "Doing what you have a knack to do and love doing, that's success."

Covey defines success as living a life centered on moral principles, such as honesty, love and hard work. Jeff Davis, an Olney, Md., senior, likes that definition. "To be successful in life, you need to live a certain way and stay away from negative behavior and habits," he says.

Defining success also means envisioning the life you want, according to Graham and Covey. Graham, the more ambitious of the two, suggests that teenagers cast their eyes beyond college to the career and family they desire. Most people, adults included, don't think ahead, he says.

Older teens are less inclined to think long-term than they used to be, according to a national survey of last year's college freshmen. Linda Sax, director of the UCLA study, says students reported declining commitment to succeeding in business and social activism and increased attention to making good grades and paying for college. A record one-third reported feeling stressed. "They are preoccupied with immediate goals," she says.

Nonetheless, Graham insists that teenagers are dreamers and can shape their dreams. "Nine Steps" offers written exercises to help teens do this by thinking about their talents and strengths.

Kahina Robinson, a junior at Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts, enjoyed Graham's exercises. But though she likes to write and has attended a summer writers camp, "I haven't discovered a dream that I am living for," she says. "Even if I knew what I wanted to do now, that could change in college."

Kavyani, who thinks she wants to major in journalism in college, believes that it's unrealistic to expect most high school students to picture what they want to be doing far in the future. The request could even panic some teens into an identity crisis, she says.

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