Book Review: “How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results,” Esther Wojcicki, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019
The Power of Reflection
If you have any time to reflect while you are raising your children, thoughts go through your head. Should I have brought these children into this world? Will I do well by them? Will what I do to them now put them in a shrink’s chair in 20 years?
Like Esther Wojcicki, my wife and I raised three successful, interesting, kind, responsible people who differ from Esther’s kids by being boys and being younger. But Esther’s style of parenting, or appropriately setting the stage for the freedom for her children to develop and evolve, was not contained to her three daughters. It has extended to literally thousands of students who passed through her journalism classes and went on to great things, or soaked up her brand of wisdom as they worked on the award-winning newspaper she championed at Palo Alto High School, the Campanile.
And it does not stop there. Esther’s influence on the young cadre of Googlers as the company was forming in her daughter’s garage and during its evolution is legendary. All of this from a woman who grew up in poverty, suffered losses early, and had an unyielding father from the Old World.
So, while I might lay claim to coming up with my own schemes with my wife for co-evolving with our children, my “n” (number) is confined to three, to co-founding a charter school, and counseling friends about learning with their children. Esther’s “n” is huge. All the more reason to listen carefully to Esther as she has been visited by what only serendipity, fearlessness, and exploration can bring you—if you are open to them.
Esther’s track through life, beginning with her own self-construction, leads to five principles that govern raising her kids, managing her classrooms, and imparting to the young Googlers. This is well-captured in a recent but normal day of teaching for Wojcicki, where the boundaries between news, interaction and opportunity often are a blur.
Before the release of her new book, How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019), Esther learned that California’s newly elected governor, Gavin Newsom, was nearby talking to a group of Silicon Valley moguls. By getting through on the phone to one or two to his staff, something only a journalist-mother-teacher might be able to do, an hour later Governor Newsom spontaneously entered her classroom-newsroom for a rare back and forth with her confident, self-governing journalism students.
Parenting Is Not Only About Kids
No matter how we parent, we are affecting what the next generation is to become. In many ways, the quality of parenting determines the quality of society. If we measure our efforts with our children some of us move the needle forward, some of us leave it in the middle, and others, often because of uncontrollable circumstances, allow the needle to falter and move backwards.
At its heart and in its best sense, parenting, mentoring, or co-evolving (my term) with children is an act of inter-generational transmission, and hopefully, transformation for some aspects in the world.
All young people eventually occupy and contribute to a different world from their parents, but they all bring with them the positive, negative, and neutral experience of “being raised.”
For Esther, the daughter of poor Jewish parents who escaped bigotry and the racial inhumanity of Europe, who as a child experienced the crush of urban poverty in the near-ghetto of the Lower East Side and then suffered a father who did not acknowledge the value of his daughter, and further, who had to bear the loss of a little brother, hers is an inauspicious beginning.
A Well-Developed Will
Esther’s detached communication of will is packaged in a warm and friendly wrapper but nonetheless has very distinct behavioral boundaries. This is something to emulate. As a parent, it is hard to draw lines where you know growth will happen for your child in adverse circumstances, but it takes strength not to intervene, unless it is necessary. Esther mastered this line, observing and propagating it constantly and consistently. I am sure had she grown up in the “privilege” others might ascribe to her now, instead of abject poverty and the experience of a sibling’s death, this might not be so easy to practice in her family, with her students, or mentoring early on in what is now an Earth-changing corporation.
In reading the first section of How to Raise Successful People, this will belongs to a little girl who literally reads her way into a new world. This is a stark contrast to what I saw the day I first visited the grown teacher in her Palo Alto High School classroom. As I entered the classroom, or newsroom, nearly a decade ago, I knew nothing of Esther’s background that I later learned from her book. But I knew full well that her daughter was married to the co-founder of Google and Esther and her husband and children could routinely jump on an airliner-sized Google jet and ski in Chile, or meet a head of state or the President. That was enough to make my head spin.
But that did not square with the Esther I experienced in her classroom, and have since come to know, who clearly was not only unaffected by the sudden wealth and prominence, it likely reinforced her already well-formed sense of self and life even more. Esther has lived her life and so has the family in the economy of money, mind, and purpose that she and her husband instilled in their children when they were without much money early in their careers as school teacher and university professor.
As I watched students come and go seemingly helter-skelter, I marveled at what was hard to describe. What was Esther’s relationship to these students? She was not a peer, she was not an authority figure, and she was not acting as the expert. Yet her school’s newspaper won every award possible. Somewhere in this, as I reflect, was a person who has a pretty good sense of what it means to guide from the side, stay out of the middle, and likely learn from each of her students.
For those who have reviewed Esther’s book and spoken of her coming from a place of “privilege,” I would argue that few who have made those comments lived the first half of their lives “without” at the level Esther did, nor put together the will that carried her, her family, and her students forward.
Esther’s book is pure “Esther.” It is a thoughtful, meaningful, and life-filled romp through the special synthesis of personhood, parenthood, and parent-to-students all carried out with iconoclastic emotional control, enthusiasm, and fun-loving. Her book is designed to set the ground for young people to go forward by co-evolving the armor and attitudes they need to succeed.
Three Books in One
How to Raise Successful People is really three books in one, blending (a) what is a compelling biography, (b) a self-help, lesson-filled set of the five pillars (and more) proven by massive experience, and (c) personal commentary with a subtler sense of what it means to be human, to make mistakes, to be honest, and to affect young people at scale to create positive effects in the world. This makes for a readable, but complex read.
There are reviewers who wished that Esther had written a self-help book and step-by-step guide, with less of her own experiences from childhood poverty, to managing a self-governing course for an award-winning journalism program in a wealthy school district, to the Silicon Valley corporate heights. It is not easy for us relate to these experiences.
However, I would argue that the underlying rules of the road or truths that Esther extracted over her entire life are universally valuable and meaningful coming from her unique personal context, which may have allowed her the lenses and reflection to produce them, to look at herself and her subject from a distance.
We need to know Esther’s path and that of her family to evaluate the depth and merit of her Five Commandments. Being a mother is a complicated, emotional-rational, and bittersweet business, and sharing her path is invaluably delivered in this largely biographical book.
Her blend of lived wisdom certainly affected three (her daughters) as described by them in the book’s forward, but also thousands (her students) whose experience is detailed throughout, and maybe to millions (through her mentoring of early Googlers), as the Google “Mother,” now “Google Grandmother.”
Esther’s Five Commandments
The wisdom, common sense, and every day actual examples (hundreds of them), petty and profound, are synthesized by Esther into five pillars: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness, easily remembered by their acronym TRICK.
As a teacher with daughters who now run YouTube (media for the world), 23andme (genetic self-testing for the world), and an accomplished pediatrician on a mission to end childhood obesity worldwide, Esther is both reporting on her life and summing up what she believes are repeatable, well-thought out lessons she has distilled over her 78 years.
Understanding “T.R.I.C.K.” This is the heart of the book, what is to be read and absorbed, what has been extracted and boiled. It is an essential philosophy for the times and it is both deep and carefully crafted and full of unique-to-Esther anecdotes. In our busy world—from the bombardment of media, the social-technical engagement of our children, the adult pre-occupations that come from wealth, the anxiety of parents in the shrinking middle class or the difficulties facing those in poverty—adopting the five pillars is not easy. Each has its challenges, and equally, their rewards.
Trust, for me, in this reading, is that bond between people of any ages that allows lessons to be learned and exchanged, in both directions, without fear of ridicule, reprisal or being singled out.
Respect, which came as a pleasant surprise to me in co-evolving with our children, is that kids are essentially adults minus experience. They are often as smart or smarter that we are, but simply have not lived as much. Getting them to hear that experience about their possible future is not particularly easy.
Independence, Esther may go to extremes in terms of free-range parenting, but letting life happen and watching little people rebound is both hard and ultimately rewarding, she practically invented this as a practice.
Collaboration, here Esther “shines by her own kind of light” (Waylon Jennings’ lyric), she is a master. Pages 191-199 under the subtitle, Children Hear What You Do, Not What You Say, contains 12 enumerated items that I think are the soul of her book.
Kindness, this is the hardest. It is too easy in today’s world to let it slide away, especially when politics has all but worshipped its antithesis. But it feels so good. And kids can feel this difference if they are secure enough to try it out, repeatedly.
Keeping Us From the “Brink”
We are on the brink of many things in this world: unprecedented species extinction, clean air and water that are growing ever more scarce and toxic, continents of plastic waste swirling in the oceans, a denial of science and human contributions to changes in climate, social and racial exclusion, poverty on levels that readers of these words may not be able to comprehend, to the issue of whether women can manage their own bodies or instead are wards of the state.
Finally, there is the slide downward in education and learning that is removing critical judgment from society, just when we need it most, which could have devastating economic, health, political, and well-being consequences.
We are far away now from the post-World War II order and the Cold War competition, left in the wake of rampant wealth creation by the few and growing totalitarian-leaning governments fueled by this wealth with journalism almost on the rails, and new technologies and media distracting us minute by minute.
These issues cannot be tackled—nor can we fight those who willfully ignore them—without soundly raised or co-evolved children who both teach us as parents as we try to build the platform for them to succeed, enjoy, and make a better world. Esther’s unlikely and unexpected contribution to three, thousands, and potentially millions is a call to action not just about evolving with our children, but to managing ourselves as responsible adults trying together, across generations, to navigate an ever-changing, hopefully, better world.
Journalism plays a role here in a big way. Esther may have influenced and helped evolve solid ground for many of her journalism students who have gone on to do good things and become journalists as well, but she has through her career contributed to keeping the light on the truth.
That said, Esther is a very “human” human, quirky, unexpected, and relentless in her belief in free-range and responsible parenting and very clear on reporting on herself as the backdrop to the guidance she has supplied us in How to Raise Success People. I know few people in the world who have influenced so many by essentially being themselves.
Thank you, Esther.
Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.