Being organized and adaptable is as important as getting straight A’s. Nurturing authentic friendships is as valuable as getting into an elite college. Knowing how to prioritize tasks is no less critical than the tasks themselves.
Pearls of wisdom like these form the broad premise of academic adviser Ana Homayoun’s new book "Erasing the Finish Line: The new blueprint for success beyond grades and college admissions," published by Hachette Book Group.
The book highlights the core skills students can lean on to go beyond what she calls the “prescribed path” to success in both school and at life at large, skills that produce mental well-being, resilience and social and emotional health.
Her stance is markedly countercultural for a place as competitive as Silicon Valley, particularly Palo Alto, where many students approach their academic goals from a place of anxiety and work on college admissions in a pressure cooker-like environment.
“We’re so hyper-focused on elite colleges as a society,” she said during a Zoom interview with this publication, talking about the mental stress this sort of atmosphere has spawned.
In her experience, even after students make it to their college of choice, they don’t necessarily thrive unless they have also inculcated the core personal skills that Homayoun believes are foundational to a successful life.
“We were seeing more mental health issues than ever before (at colleges). Students were having to take leave; students were under-prepared; they were overwhelmed. They were getting there and saying ‘Why am I here? What was this all for?’” she said.
It is these broad trends that prompted her to write "Erasing the Finish Line," Homayoun’s fourth book. Her other works include "That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping disorganized and distracted boys succeed in school and life" (Perigee, 2010), "The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping our daughters find authentic success and happiness in school and life" (Perigee, 2013) and "Social Media Wellness: Helping tweens and teens thrive in an unbalanced digital world" (Corwin, 2017).
Among Homayoun's success stories is a student she worked with, whose story she included in both her first and current books.
The student's mother emailed Homayoun after "Henry" (the pseudonym she had used in her books) entered the workforce.
“‘Henry uses the very same skills he learned in your office in his job today,’" Homayoun said the parent wrote.
"He’s thriving in ways that he or his family or his teachers might not have expected when he walked into my office at 15 years old,” Homayoun said, with pride and joy writ large on her face.
In fact, one of the most rewarding parts of her job is hearing back from the families of students whose lives she has touched through her work.
Recently, she got a call from a woman whose grandson worked with Homayoun 15 years ago.
“She was calling me for her other grandchild,” she said.
“She reminded me about her grandson’s college essay, saying it was incredible. I still remember that essay — it was a powerful statement of his identity” and not just something he wrote to get into college.
Pushing back on the pressure
Homayoun said it's her mission to help students find their “sense of purpose within the world." And part of that is equipping children with the toolkit they need to better navigate pressures.
Simply telling children to get straight A’s is not enough without also teaching them how to “organize, plan, prioritize, meet deadlines, adapt when things don’t go as planned,” Homayoun said.
And it turns out this pressure is often self-inflicted.
“A lot of times, people from the outside assume that in Palo Alto it’s the parents” who hold their kids to an impossible standard of achievement, she said.
“But after 30+ years of living in the community I can tell you that many times students put this pressure on themselves. It’s among the peers. Often parents don’t know how much kids are internalizing,” she said.
Over the last decade, the Palo Alto Unified School District has taken proactive steps to push back on these academic pressures that weigh down heavily on students. From imposing limits on the amount of homework assigned to conducting training sessions for parents to rolling out mental health and wellness initiatives, schools have acknowledged the invisible burden children carry and have been working hard to mitigate it.
Homayoun hopes her book will help parents, families and caregivers support children across grade levels.
“A lot of people think (the book) is only focused on college admissions – it’s not. It’s about the fundamental skills that you can support children with, starting in kindergarten, that are critical for their overall well-being,” she said.
Among these “executive functioning skills,” Homayoun said, are “inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility” – terms people are aware of but don’t really understand fully.
Inhibitory control is essentially our ability to think before we react.
“Students who struggle with inhibitory control may blurt something out in a fit of anger or become easily distracted by physical stimuli,” she explained.
“Students with good working memory are able to hold information in their minds and use that information to create connections that might be logical or creative. They also may be able to relate this new information back to previous experiences.
"A person who has strong working memory skills might be good at mental math or might learn something today and then relate it directly to something from the past with a creative connection,” she said.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt and think critically in order to come up with connections and solutions that might seem outside-the-box or not self-evident.
“They can adapt to change and to new information, even if it means that their previous conclusions are incorrect,” she said.
According to her, one of the most overlooked aspects of these executive functioning skills is the sense of agency and confidence they can lend.
Her goal is to give students the skills, habits and routines they need to “build feelings of competence,” which in turn supports better decision-making.
Coaching tomorrow's adults
Homayoun runs two Los Altos-based organizations: Green Ivy Educational Consulting, which is an academic advising firm, and Luminaria Learning Solutions, a nonprofit initiative that brings the same work into schools.
About the former, Homayoun said, “We work with students from middle school through college on developing foundational executive function skills including organizing, planning, prioritizing, starting and completing tasks, and adaptable thinking.”
Each student starts with a 90-minute introductory organizational workshop, which comprises a range of topics related to organization and life-management skills.
“Over the course of weekly sessions, we find that habit change is highly dependent on age, learning style, receptivity and motivation. All of our work is highly personalized, and I often remind parents that there is no one-size-fits all solution or timetable for results,” she said.
About the latter, she said, “We are currently working with K-8 (kindergarten-through-eighth grade) schools and high schools across the country, where we provide a weekly student advisory curriculum, train teachers, and offer background support to families.”
Homayoun has been working with students for over two decades now.
“The reason I took on this book and this message is because so many students and families get caught up, year after year, in this college admissions frenzy and we lose sight of the fundamental skills all kids need to thrive,” she said.
How does she reconcile her ideology with the pressures of the real world, though? After all, there's good reason for this “frenzy.”
“I’m not saying either-or. I’m not saying ‘Don’t create your own path that might include elite colleges,’” she clarified. “What I’m saying is – when we hyperfocus on just the grades, scores and college admissions without also focusing on the underlying skills, we are losing sight of the long-term vision of success.”
Drawing from her own well
A lot of the material she draws on while coaching students comes from her own life and experiences. Recalling her own student days, she said, “It was because of these executive functioning skills that I was able to make and maintain friendships that are genuine and non-transactional, expand my perspective beyond just one pathway to success and accept who I am in the process. All of this is my own, real experience.”
Being raised by Iranian immigrants helped her create her own unique definition of success.
“Being the child of immigrants, one of the best gifts I received was – I was able to see the world through multiple lenses. It gave me increased empathy and an increased understanding that there are multiple ways to live within the world. It gave me an expanded perspective,” she said.
“I was also really lucky that my parents were supportive of us – my sister and I – finding our own blueprint for success. They didn’t have one set goal for either of us.”
Her sister, Allia, has been teaching at Santa Clara University for nearly a decade; she’s an interdisciplinary teacher-scholar with a specialization in Literature, Performance, and Cultural Studies.
Paly to get a dose of countercultural academic advice
Homayoun will expound on this subject at Palo Alto High School's Haymarket Theater on Dec. 6, at 6:30-8 p.m. in a talk organized by Rise Together Education, Paly’s initiative for low-income students. The event is a fundraiser for the organization, which provides college scholarships.
The event is special to Homayoun for more than one reason.
“I feel very fortunate that I’ll be in conversation with my seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Leslie Crane, who is now a principal in the Palo Alto school district,” she said.
When Homayoun was 12, she moved from Connecticut to Los Altos.
“It was a huge culture shock for me. Ms. Crane was one of the most influential people during that time for me. She was a teacher and coach at my junior high,” she said.
“This is a person who has known me now for over 30 years. When I was going to get my master’s in counseling, I interned at the junior high that, at that time, she was a principal of. I’ve kept in touch with her over the years; she has followed my work. This is going to be a very special conversation.”
Homayoun is a graduate of Duke University and earned her master’s degree at the University of San Francisco.
While Homayoun has been talking about her book at schools across the country of late – New York, Memphis, DC, Denver, Atlanta, etc. – this is the only event she is doing close to home.
“One of the most unique parts about this special talk is that this is the only one I’m doing in the Palo Alto-Los Altos area. So it’s hyperlocal, really. The kids I talk about in the book are from the community; it’s homegrown,” she said.
Her session will focus on helping students redefine and personalize the meaning of success.
“The conversation at Paly will be about how we can support the expanded definition of what success looks like in a hyper-stressful environment,” she said.
Speaking of stress, Homayoun’s schedule – packed with interviews, events and multi-city book tours – sounds dizzying. She insists, however, that staying energized in the midst of it all is not hard, not least because talking about her work always energizes her.
Also, she knows when and how to switch off.
“I am really cognizant of my downtime; I protect it,” she said. In her free time, she loves to hike by the water, meditate, read and knit.
For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, go to risetogethered.org/events.