Making Intelligence Cool

This guest post is by Chris Frank, Founder of Ignition Tutoring

When you’re a teenager, it’s hard to see how success in school leads to a better life.  Teachers and parents are always warning you about this thing called “the real world”, but it seems impossibly far away.  Teenagers are notorious for not thinking ahead, so how can we help them see the path to adulthood?

Daniel Coyle may have found the answer.  For years, he traveled the world to find out how talent hotbeds like the Meadowmount music school produced so many world class performers.   He discovered that mentors had a huge effect.  Having a role model just a little further along on the path was a remarkable motivator for soccer players, musicians, and math students.*  But why?

Humans are hard-wired to learn from each other.  We naturally look for role models.  I have a 2 year-old niece and the thing she wants most in the world is to be a “big girl.”  She wants to be just like the 4 year-olds at her pre-school.  If you have kids, I’m sure this sounds familiar.

For a two year-old, the specific choice of mentor is not so important.  If she can walk and talk, that is inspiration enough.  For teens, though, the choice of mentor is hugely important.  A Stanford pre-med student is going to make a better mentor than, say, a drug-dealing community college dropout.

What makes a great mentor?

A mentor lights the way from where you are now to where you want to be.  The social bubble that teens live in can blind them to the outside world.  A mentor outside the bubble can help teens find the way out.

Ideally, a mentor should be just a few years older.  Once you pass a certain age threshold, teens start to group everyone as “adults”, and they don’t listen to adults.  At IgnitionTutoring, we hire college students, and that seems to work pretty well.  They are old enough to be seen as role models, but too young to be seen as an authority to rebel against.  They can also still easily relate to the pressures of being a teenager.

A mentor should be smart.  The teen world doesn’t value intelligence, but in college, the tables will be turned.  Intelligence is cool in college, and in the real world.  When teenagers connect with someone in that world, they can put it together that being smart is important, and they’re more likely to work at it.

It’s worth repeating that the most important job of a mentor is to show a path from where you are now, to where you want to be.  Why are so many tech companies started in Silicon Valley?  Why did 15th century Florence produce so many great artists?  I think the answer in both cases is a well-developed system of mentors.

Silicon Valley has hundreds of successful entrepreneurs who are willing to help new entrepreneurs get started.  Michaelangelo was apprenticed to a sculptor at age 12.  In both cases, the effect is the same:  the mentee sees the path from where he is to where he wants to be.

This guest post is by Chris Frank, Founder of Ignition Tutoring

* Coyle published the Talent Code in 2009, a fantastic summary of his research into how to build skill.

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2 Responses to “Making Intelligence Cool”

  1. Chelsea
    November 8, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    Whenever you ask an adult to name a few qualities that are very important in someone they are interested in romantically, “smart” is almost always one of them. It’s a shame that some younger people have a disinterest in becoming smarter. Whether it’s peer pressure about not doing your homework, or a fear of not being intelligent enough to make progress, teenagers need to know that building their intelligence is going to take them far in life.


  1. 11/12/10: Articles for Parents This Week | Radical Parenting - November 12, 2010

    […] Making Intelligence Cool Chris Frank, founder of Ignition Tutoring, explains why mentors are key to fostering your kid’s thirst for knowledge and success. […]

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