As Stanford University's popular dean of freshmen for the past decade, Julie Lythcott-Haims sometimes encountered students who were "trying to undo the life that others," including well-meaning parents, had set out for them.
"It can be hard to know your passion when you're this young, but you ought to be interested in figuring it out," she said, urging Gunn students to gravitate toward pursuits that bring them joy and align with their values.
"It's a myth that failure is bad, and it's a myth that our parents always know what's best for us," she said.
A roomful of hands went up when Lythcott-Haims asked the audience of 1,000 sophomores and juniors whether Gunn students are "more stressed out than they ought to be."
"I'm not averse to hard work and achievement -- I believe in it wholeheartedly," she told them. "But I'm concerned when the pressure gets to be too hot, or when you lose sight of the human in the center of it all, or when it gets ridiculous."
She advised students to broaden their college searches to find schools that match them personally.
"For some reason we only talk about 10 or 20 schools, but there are 3,000 colleges in the United States and at least 150 of them will offer you a fantastic education," she said.
"I encourage you to find the ones that speak to you, where you can find yourself and be valued for who you are."
In 2012 Lythcott-Haims left Stanford after 14 years to study poetry and creative writing and to work on a book about the dangers of "helicopter parenting."
Stanford students, she said, "were somewhat failure-deprived," which could lead to a lack of resilience when things went wrong.
"They'd done so well, they'd been coached, protected, tutored, pushed to this and that achievement, this and that competition, and gotten to this point.
"But if they've been deprived of the chance to get it wrong, when things go wrong -- and they will -- they fall apart, they're crushed."
That leads them to ask whether they're still worthy, still loved.
"Of course the answer is yes, yes, yes," she said.
But if you're not risking failure, she told students, "then you're not trying hard enough.
Struggle and failure, she said, are "essential in the life of a growing human."
She described her earlier venture into a career not of her choosing before she moved to Stanford in 1998, where she felt better suited.
"I went to Harvard Law School and I wanted to go into public interest law … but everybody was going into corporate law and I felt I had to go corporate to meet everybody else's approval," she said. "So off I went, and I was good at it and they were paying me a ton of money, and every day before I went to work I had a knot in my stomach because I hated it.
"I did it because of what other people would think. But when you have the courage to pay attention to who you are, what you're good at, what you love, then you make good choices on behalf of yourself.
"I'm not saying that you shouldn't be a corporate lawyer. I'm saying that I shouldn't be a corporate lawyer."
Many parents today have crafted what she called the "check-listed childhood," making sure their kids attend the right camps and programs to get into the right college.
"But if you're leading a life that someone else has crafted for you, you'll come to a point when you'll say, 'Who am I? What is this? What am I doing?'"
Lythcott-Haims shared the Spangenberg Auditorium stage with Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky, who asked students to power down electronic devices and "for a moment, detox yourself from technology.
"Don't answer that text from your mom asking about how your quiz in A Period was," Jacoubowsky said.
"It's important for you to have your own world to travel in… One lesson we want to give you is the freedom in your mind to chart your own course."
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