“Don’t over-engineer it”

My sixth-grade English teacher was a badass. In the best possible way. Many of the things she taught me have stuck but the phrase that comes to mind often is, “Don’t over-engineer it.”

She advised thus when I would try to make my writing too flowery, too dramatic. “It doesn’t ring true because it’s not your voice. Don’t over-engineer it, kiddo.”

As many of my friends’ children reach college age, I am tempted to use this phrase multiple times each week.

Because I think they may have lost their flippin’ minds.

Blueprint detail from isometric view with depth of field
“Don’t over-engineer it.”

Most of us would admit to existing in an age of helicopter parents; some of us would cop to having been one for at least a portion of our children’s formative years (mea culpa, see here).

But when you see your perfectly sane, well-adjusted friends talking in the royal “we” about the dorms, sororities, potential roommates and classes their children could end up with, you begin to worry. As in: “We’re really bullish on Dartmouth because we really loved the campus and the Appalachian Trail is right there for our early morning runs.”

I had to ask this dear, sweet friend if she was planning on setting up a cot in her daughter’s room so they could take “their” run each morning. I had visions of how the death threats Harvard’s admissions officer says he has received come to be. Don’t deny parents “their” runs, “their” study abroad opportunities, “their” chance to be somebody.

Perhaps I am stymied because of my humble Midwestern roots. My parents were bullish on a private, Catholic education. They paid for private schooling through twelfth grade. Six girls, six tuitions, small ranch home. You do the math. Our money went toward education but the pot did not extend beyond high school.

I was the first and only of my siblings to be able to go away to college. My sisters went to the local commuter school.

You would think this would have made me extremely appreciative. Nope. I went to school with girls who were traveling the country, visiting college after college. I assumed I should have the same privilege.

My parents allowed me to apply to some very expensive, tough schools. The problem was, I got into most. But financial aid and scholarships did not flow then as they do now.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, which in-state schools I could consider. No out-of-state—no Cornell or Vanderbilt. We simply didn’t have the money. I did earn a partial scholarship to the local Jesuit school based on my admission test scores, but it was too close to home in my mind. So I lobbied for what I considered the crown jewel schools.

Cornell Chimes Bell Tower in cornell university campus
Cornell Chimes Bell Tower

As I wailed and moaned, my mother reminded me that even if they could squeak together the money for a school such as Cornell (they couldn’t), I would be surrounded by kids with far more money. She pointed out the mean grade point average of admitted students, attesting I would go from being a top-drawer student in a class of 250 to being one of roughly 20,000 top-drawer students.

“While they’re taking ski weekends, you’ll have to sit out because you won’t have the pocket money. When you spend days on a paper, they may have spent weeks. You’ll be a very small fish in a very exclusive pond.”

Mom was not a fan.

Oh, and remember, we didn’t have the money. So there was no over-engineering to be done.

Fast forward 30 years. I’ve done ok.

I graduated from a state school that probably would have graduated monkeys, but I earned decent grades and made some great friends. Landed a job. And then another one. And another one. Built a network. Went to a top graduate school. And somewhere in there, had a life in which, beyond my first job interview, a rare few ever asked where I went as an undergrad.

Reread that last sentence. This fact is one most of my friends forget, whether they went to Yale or Schenectady County Community College. The Yalies realize, at some point, that the only people who really care that they went to Yale for undergrad are other Yalies. And that talking about that experience at age 50 is really pushing it (yawn). And the community college graduates generally got pragmatic really fast. Most never looked back; they earned that degree and just used it to start small and humble. Many have gone far beyond small and humble in their careers.

I understand many of us want green rolling hills and Georgian architecture for our children. We want opportunity and a network and—goddammit—the Appalachian Trail.

Yep. I get it. I wanted ski weekends with pocket money and professors who made my brain snap, crackle and pop.

I got those in grad school. And if I never had, I would still be ok. Truly.

As I watch my friends try to map out every little step, account for every eventuality of their child’s possible college experience, I find myself glad I was able to cut the whirring rotor. My helicopter was grounded years ago. I’m keeping it simple. They will do and be and grow because of who they are. And if I’ve done my job right, they will make the most of the opportunities they are provided. Success comes to the persistent usually and to the privileged only sometimes.

And I’m sure Mrs. Haffner would smile if she could read that.

Nothing over-engineered in this corner, Mrs. H. At least not today.


30 Comments Add yours

  1. whoa firstly your blog looks so different now! Nice!

    I loved this post because I can relate to this. Not only did we have not enough money but somehow my parents were able to send me in one of the most prestigious college of the city. Bravo Parents!

    And I agree, only people who care about which university you graduated from are those who graduated from the same university. Great post as usual Kay!

    1. candidkay says:

      I’ll second that–bravo, parents! And thank you for the kind words on the new look and feel. It was time for a change!

  2. srbottch says:

    Excellent commentary. My wife and I felt the same about our kids, UG had to be in budget. GRAD was on your own, if you continued. We went to a small school in northern IL, met there and married there. My folks never saw the school until I graduated. I never felt deprived and after awhile, I adjusted to the corn fields. You could do a lot more than walk in their concealed stalks. In western NY now and for those interested, you better have strong legs if you plan to walk around Cornell…

    1. candidkay says:

      I had to get used to corn fields too! Felt so foreign for the longest time.

  3. Kat says:

    I absolutely agree with you on this. Most employers do not ask about your undergrad university except for the first job. After that, it’s all about the relevant work experience, skills…and attitude. I know of so many people who have the aptitude but fail in attitude in work and life in general.

  4. You are absolutely right. Undergrad school does not matter. I actually think community colleges are the way to go for eighteen year olds who have no idea what they want to do. Give them a few years, and then they can move on. Nothing wrong with it. I am 42, and still figuring out what I want to do, and that expensive liberal arts education didn’t help much but only because of my mindset and immaturity, not because of the institution.

    1. candidkay says:

      I agree with you. Have several friends whose kids needed to figure out some things/mature a bit more. They spent a couple of years at a cc before moving on to a more traditional college and it worked like a charm.

  5. Aunt Beulah says:

    You and your teacher speak such a strong truth in this post. I hired many people over my career and never once did the college where they got their undergraduate degree matter. I, too, yearned to go to Stanford or at least the University of Utah, but for financial reasons ended up at Utah State, and being an Aggie didn’t hold me back from doing anything I wanted to do in my career.

    1. candidkay says:

      Stanford seems to be the Holy Grail for so many! And their acceptance so tough.

  6. Catherine says:

    I like the advice your teacher gave you, and I need to remember this in my own life as it will make like sweeter and more simple.

    1. candidkay says:

      You’re right. It’s good advice for life in general, isn’t it?:)

  7. Great post! My kids are getting close to college age, and I will keep your insights in mind. Thanks.

    1. candidkay says:

      It’s so easy to slip over that edge from concerned parent to kook, isn’t it?:)

  8. Having grown up in Canada, where the only way into a great school is top grades (not SATs and tutoring, etc) — college still costs $3-9,000 (yes) a year for even the best universities there — the whole American arms race to get into a Big Name School seems so weird to me.

    I went to Canada’s best/toughest school (U of Toronto) which has plenty of cachet there — and here all anyone can say is “Hook ’em horns!” as if I attended UT in Texas. i.e. no one here has a clue of the value of my education there. But that was also a LONG time ago and I’ve done fine without a more recognizable-to-Americans name on my resume.

    1. candidkay says:

      Can’t help but laugh because I can’t think of two universities that are more different:). An arms race it is here. Definitely.

  9. RuthsArc says:

    Great advice. Give kids roots, wings and let them go. They’ll appreciate it and you.

  10. I think your Mum and Dad made the right decision, and believe these experiences do ground us. We have a system here at the end of Yr 12 where the students aim to obtain a very low score. There is so much pressure on them to do so. This leads to stress in every household, but as you say, a year later in college and university, no-one ever asks what was your score?! It’s really quite insane. You will be a better Mum knowing this wisdom.

  11. Thanks for drawing attention to this important issue facing so many each year. I’m between stages of trying to avoid the destructive whirring rotor of over-the-top parenting related to college selection. My son is a freshman at a great university that seems to suit him. My daughter is a high school junior, so we’re catching our collective breath before college app mania hits her with full force. The best thing we did for our son was to let him choose his university, and he chose well. He understood our financial situation and worked with it. He seems to be very happy and loves being in control of his education. We expect there to be bumps in the road. I hope if we can help, he will let us. But this is his journey. He can be stubborn and rebellious, so dictating to him would have been counter-productive. What would we have done if we didn’t like his choice? Perhaps we would have tried to reason and explain. In the end, though, we knew we had to step back. How did we know that? Because we tried to steer too many times in other ways when he was younger. It didn’t work and I hope we never try to interfere or control again, even if we find ways to rationalize our actions. He’s on his own, where he is meant to be, and we’re focused on offering proper parental support if and when necessary.

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, such a lucky son:). The freedom to make mistakes or succeed and be loved either way. To find his own way, knowing there’s love and support. You sound like you’ve struck the balance with which so many struggle.

  12. Great post! I just might print a few copies to pass out to the parents of my 8yo’s classmates — I kid, but the thought makes me grin. Today was a rare occasion where I was able to leave work and sneak over to my boys’ elementary school to watch the annual book character parade, and I swear I’ve never seen so much parental orchestrating in my life. I was hoping these parent people would outgrow the “we” speak by high school, but this post makes me realize it’s unlikely. I was trying to snag a shot of my little character and I could hardly focus listening to a fellow mom — “We’re so busy. We’re doing karate on Mondays, theatre on Tuesdays, and we’re considering art lessons and youth choir.” After the most hectic year of my life last year, “we’re” simplifying and trying to jump off that crazy train…at least until they’re a little older. Thank you for the laugh! It’s so easy to get caught up in over-parenting these days!

    1. candidkay says:

      A book character parade! What an awesome idea:). I love that, being a book nerd and all. What was your son? Yes, I laugh when I hear “we” are doing karate, youth choir, etc. Reminds me of the commercial in which the boy is wrapped in bubble wrap and his mother is running up and down the soccer/football field with him:). Hang in there. Sanity will win, right?

      1. I LOVE the book character parade! This year mine were both characters from The Magic Treehouse series — one was the main character, Jack, and the other was a knight. This must be a relatively new thing, but mine are in 1st & 2nd and have participated since PreK. It’s such a fun idea, especially for us book nerds!

      2. candidkay says:

        Magic Treehouse was such a favorite for my guys! Love that:).

  13. Great piece – and so true! I, too, had to “settle” for a commuter school when my grades would have gotten me into any college I wanted because my parents thought my younger brother should go to college instead of me. Education was wasted on a girl, they thought, and they were saving their money to send him instead. My younger brother had no intention of going to college – he didn’t have the grades and he had no desire. To make a long story short…I paid my own way through night school and learned skills in time management and financial planning. I was the only student in class who was angry when class was canceled for 2 reasons: I paid for the class and I had to drive there after working all day. Don’t get me started…LOL!! Maybe I’ll write a blog about that someday. Again, as usual, I loved your writing!!

    1. candidkay says:

      Ouch. I do see a blog entry in the making:). That had to be an extremely hard pill to swallow! I’m guessing you applaud Malala, our youngest Nobel prize winner. I saw her on Oprah Super Soul Sunday a couple of weeks ago and love what she and her father are doing to change attitudes about educating women around the world.

  14. George says:

    Great post, Kay. Your English teacher was genius in her advice, on so many levels. That mentality of going to a name school that only impresses others that go or have gone to similar institutions seems to carry over into other aspects of their lives…homes, cars, clothing, pre-school. It’s more about where or what than who and why.
    Your comment about no one ever asking about where you went to school is also spot on. There are very few companies where that may carry some weight and my guess is most of us wouldn’t want to work there anyway. Great advice.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you, George. I think we all get carried away sometimes, neglecting the fact that smarts and persistence work regardless of credentials.

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