💡 Spikes can be an antidote to the toxic achievement culture felt by teens

💡 Spikes can be an antidote to the toxic achievement culture felt by teens

💡 Spikes can be an antidote to the toxic achievement culture felt by teens 600 586 Lloyd Nimetz

The 2022-23 school year was an incredible year for Spike Lab in terms of our student developmental outcomes, spike outcomes (real-world impact) and college outcomes. One of our students raised over $1 million in venture funding for their Spike. Another sold their service business for a 5-figure sum after less than two years of operation. 89% of our spike alumni were admitted into one of their “reach” colleges (see outcomes info here) and they are now on campus acclimating to their new community and lives. Let ‘er rip!

Passion project (“spike”) coaching is now more common

After almost 8 years of Spike Lab, it is becoming apparent that spike coaching is no longer a newfangled concept at the vanguard of education. It’s entering the mainstream! This is very exciting for us, but it also brings new challenges and questions. How do we ensure that spikes are enriching teens’ lives and not fanning the flames of the toxic achievement culture driving teen anxiety and depression?

Jennifer Wallace’s wonderful, new book, Never Enough, is about how to build healthy AND high-achieving teens, and it is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz among our community of educators and parents of high-achieving teens. It’s no coincidence that Wallace mentions “spikes” in the first 30 pages of the book. If you listen to conversations at education consultant conferences or browse chat threads on Reddit or College Confidential, passion projects are becoming a hot topic, and the word ‘spike’ is starting to become common parlance. For instance I was baffled (but also proud) when the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently rejected our application for a trademark for Spike Lab on the grounds that the word ‘Spike’ is common parlance for passion projects! When we started 8 years ago, nobody had a clue what we were talking about.

When is it unhealthy to pursue a spike?

We need to be honest about what’s going on; spikes are getting more common for both good and bad reasons. In our experience, most families are approaching it for the right reasons – prioritizing student growth and vitality. They see the great developmental and psychological benefits of seeking out their passions and pursuing them. But many are indeed doing it for extrinsic reasons and from a place of fear: “if I don’t have a spike, then I won’t stand out to colleges”. The latter can indeed be harmful to students, and it’s something we take very seriously as a company and as a group of educators who are doing this work to have a positive impact on our students and the world.

For clarity, our stance is that there are four primary benefits of spike coaching, and all are real and important.

  1. Learn How to Build Something With Real-World Impact
  2. Develop Purpose and Pride
  3. Develop Lifelong Innovation Skills
  4. Boost College Results

If a student’s primary reason for pursuing a spike is extrinsically motivated (wanting to stand out more to colleges), then it is likely to be net harmful to the student. In this case, we strongly discourage students (and parents) from doing a spike. As Wallace elaborates on eloquently in her book, there is a teen mental health crisis in high-achievement communities. The US Surgeon General is calling teen mental health “the crisis of our times”. A CDC report from 2021 reported that 4 of 10 (42%) of high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health. 1 in 5 seriously considered suicide and 1 in 10 attempted suicide. The levels are off the charts right now, and it’s primarily because teens’ feel their self-worth is tied to an escalator of one seemingly unattainable goal after another, including admission to highly-selective colleges. If the only reason for doing a spike is to stand out/be impressive to others, then we’re just part of the problem.

Spike coaching instills intrinsic pride which helps high-achievers stay healthy and resilient.

The whole Spike Lab team and I are doing this work because we offer a very exciting opportunity for our students to do exactly what Wallace talks about: reach their full potential (achieve great things) but in a healthy way. We do this by putting the student first and not their achievements. We focus on the values and identities of the student and help them pursue passion projects that they are proud of, that help them feel a special type of intrinsic pride that only comes from a feeling of mastery as well as feeling like you’re doing something meaningful for the world. Wallace and her friends identified and put language to what we’ve been doing. She realized that feeling like you matter (called “Mattering” by psychologists) is the best way for high-achievers to stay healthy. She is also starting an organization, the Mattering Movement, to promote this, and one of its primary focuses is to encourage students to pursue social impact projects… spikes!!

Therefore as spikes become more common, we feel that it’s incumbent upon us to maximize the net positive impact of a spike on every student. Wallace’s book reminds me that this requires us all to periodically step away from our very busy working lives to reflect on what we’re doing. For Spike Lab, that means to step back and reflect on our coaching model and processes. We actually did this a couple years ago and realized that our marketing messaging had become too college oriented so we went through our website and all our marketing collateral and took it out. This year we plan to review and improve our new student screening and coach training processes.

In Conclusion

Over the last 8 years, Spike Lab led the way to show both the importance of spikes and how to nurture and support students through the process. We met considerable pushback and still do, but we’re proud to have helped forge a new education category that thought-leaders like Wallace are starting to notice. I don’t want to presume that they’re noticing Spike Lab but they are definitely advocating passion projects for teens. Now, we want to lead perhaps an even more difficult process: to ensure that the teen passion project, as a pedagogical model, is the powerful force for good that it can be. We can’t let it get co-opted by the influence of the toxic achievement culture that’s also at work in our communities and in ourselves.

If you want to learn more about spike coaching and how we help students feel a deeper sense of intrinsic pride and “mattering”, please reach out to talk to me.

Lloyd Nimetz

Serial entrepreneur, educator, investor, milonguero, dog-lover and Coach, Founder & CEO of The Spike Lab

Read more by: Lloyd Nimetz