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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

I once lived near a kid who walked everywhere carrying his skateboard. It was a pretty snazzy board, too, with eye-popping colors and glistening wheels. I realized one day that I’d never seen him ride it.

It dawned on me that I often saw kids carrying skateboards, never once climbing aboard and riding. The cool thing was just to be seen with one, and if it was merely under your arm, so what? The board was just a prop.

This week I laughed when I saw a university study claiming that guys who carry a guitar case are much more likely to get a girl’s phone number. No, they don’t actually have to play the guitar; just carry one.

In other words, the guitar is simply a prop, too.

Guys used to join rock bands in order to meet girls; now you can accomplish the same goal, it seems, without the tiresome guitar lessons followed by endless rehearsals. And you can look cool with your skateboard without risking a broken arm. Genius!

Or is it?

The style-without-substance track has been around for a long time, and it’s always a tempting course. Why? Because we’re lazy. With skateboards and guitars it’s harmless fun; but what about when it comes to education and career?

Let’s not kid ourselves, there are plenty of props in these areas, too. They sometimes masquerade as degrees and resumes. You likely have people in your office who carry those around like skateboards, but who don’t know the first thing about what they represent.

That’s why – when I interview applicants – I skip past the “Where You’ve Worked” section and ask, “What did you accomplish? What specific tasks did you implement?” It’s another way of finding out just what’s inside the guitar case.

If we’re going to build a better student, as parents our mission is to teach the importance of substance. Too often we focus on Matthew and Madison getting a sterling grade-point average while neglecting the actual knowledge itself. That’s at the core of my non-profit foundation, The Big Brain Club; rather than making it all about grades, we prefer to help young people become the best version of themselves.

That best version comes from fully assimilating the information at their disposal.

A friend of mine has a teenage daughter who put together a flashy powerpoint program for a science project. It looked fantastic, and would certainly impress a teacher. When my friend asked her daughter about the subject of the presentation, the teen returned a blank stare; she’d retained not a single thing. But her class project sure looked good!

Instead of powerpoint you could have called it powerprop.

Props are another form of shortcuts, a way for people to sometimes con their way to success. It might work in a sprint, but will nearly always fail in a marathon. Education and careers are the marathons, requiring actual knowledge and experience; just hanging a diploma on the wall might get Taylor a job, but it won’t keep one.

Here’s what you can do to help. When your child’s teacher sends home an assignment, pay attention to how the student approaches it. Is he simply trying to finish it as quickly as possible, or is he really absorbing the information? Is she trying to wow the teacher with a pretty poster, or does she really understand what the poster is conveying?

Be upfront with your intent. Explain the importance of the information, and how it applies to the assignment and to real life. Kids easily can fall into a memorize-and-regurgitate mode; to truly learn something, however, renders memorization less important.

Style is a prop; substance is success. In a world that grows increasingly competitive, schools and businesses don’t need any more skateboard carriers. They want someone who rides, and rides well.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people embrace the idea that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

Image courtesy of Riverside Museum via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.