Joe De Sena's latest book, 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families, is a guidebook for parenting from a position of resilience. Pre-order your copy today, and click here for 5 reasons why every parent needs to read this book.
On the morning of March 12, 2019, seven days before his 53rd birthday, Gordon Caplan received a call from an FBI agent, who proceeded to arrest him. Caplan — who at the time was the co-chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, one of the most prominent law firms in the country — wasn't told why he was being arrested, but he didn't have to ask. He knew exactly what he had done.
As he sat behind the police car with his hands behind his back, he knew it was over.
"I'm f***ed," he remembers thinking to himself on the morning of his arrest. "I know I'm totally f***ed ... It was like my life is over. Everything before that moment no longer mattered."
Caplan was arrested for his role in the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, also known as Operation Varsity Blues. He was one of the first parents in the scandal to plead guilty and was sentenced to a month in prison. He served 28 days.
Reflecting on how he got caught up in the scandal, and why he felt the need to clear an "impediment" in the college admissions process, he came to an interesting, refreshing conclusion. He did it for himself, not for his child. Though it's clearly unethical and immoral to cheat, the popular narrative — especially in the wake of the significant media attention that Operation Varsity Blues attracted — is that parents take these shortcuts to help their children, to clear the way for them to succeed.
Caplan can only speak for himself, but in his experience the opposite is true. Unfortunately, he didn't come to that realization until it was too late.
"This is all about the parents," Caplan told Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena in an incredibly raw, honest interview on the Spartan Up! podcast. "It's not about the kid. And that took me a long time to figure out. I was too stupid to figure it out at the time. I'll never forgive myself for being that stupid. It had nothing to do with my kid. It had everything to do with me.
"...All parents wear their kids' achievements as partially their own achievements. We love to be proud, and a lot of kids love to get that pride from their parents. That's not why you should be proud of your kid. It's ephemeral bullshit. I wasn't smart enough to get that."
Parents Need to Create Obstacles, Not Remove Them
For years, De Sena — himself a father of four — has long encouraged parents to make it hard for their kids. Encourage them, guide them, and love them, but let them make their own mistakes and solve their own problems. The idea is that the harder you make it for them now, the easier it will be — and the more prepared they will be — later, when life will inevitably throw all kinds of curveballs their way.
As De Sena explains in detail in his newest book, 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families, parents should create obstacles for their kids, not eliminate them. With the benefit of hindsight, Caplan wholeheartedly agrees. Caplan's child never asked for him to intervene, and she didn't need him to. She was more than capable of finding success on her own.
'None of This Shit Is Worth It'
Caplan, who currently spends much of his time helping those in the prison system stay connected to their families, has had ample time to look in the rearview mirror and take stock of the horrible mistake he made, a mistake that cost him almost everything. His uncomplicated, straightforward conclusion? It's just not that important.
As stressful as the process of getting into college is — and make no mistake, it is incredibly stressful — parents need to rest assured that as long as the student has a good head on his shoulders and applies himself, and as long as the parent motivates, encourages, and guides, it will almost always work itself out. No amount of string pulling is worth it.
"Any logic I put behind it is idiotic," he said emphatically, "because there was no logic behind it. I was in panic mode for something I didn't have to panic over ... None of this shit is worth it. Nothing's that important, nothing at all. My friends and people that I know that have teenage kids, they get themselves all revved up [about getting into college].
"I got myself all revved up. It's not that important. They'll find a college. They'll be fine ... [The kids] don't need any of this crap."
A Profound Effect on Joe
De Sena has been greatly moved, challenged, and influenced by dozens of his podcast guests over the years, but perhaps none made him reassess his thinking and perspective more than Caplan.
The conversation made him look in the mirror and ask himself a hard question: Why am I pushing my kids so hard? If the answer is to make them more resilient, to teach them the value of hard work, to teach them to be better citizens, then it's purposeful and valuable. But if it's because he'll feel better if they win a wrestling tournament or get into a great school, it's misguided and potentially counterproductive.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, De Sena sent his kids to wrestling tournaments all over the country, and even he admits that their always-on schedule was crazy. Looking back on it, he wonders why he did it. Was it to help them grow and blossom, or was it because he got such a high from seeing them win? The eye-opening conversation with Caplan is forcing him to check himself and his priorities, and he's thankful for it.
"I think we should push them," De Sena said. "I think we should hold them accountable. I think we should make them learn hard work and be resilient. But it's gotta be for the right reason."
Shortly after the podcast was recorded, with De Sena employing a slightly different approach to this parenting, he decided not to attend one of his kid's wrestling practices for the first time in a year. He also gave his children a day off from working out for the first time in a very long time.
"We don't want to go SO far that we burn them out," he explained. "We don't want to do SO little that they don't learn the value of hard work. You've gotta do a head check every day. There's a lot at stake here."
Make no mistake: He's still going to push them and motivate them and challenge them day in and day out. But the key word there is them. He's only going to do it if it benefits them. It's not about him, and it shouldn't be. Prior to hearing Caplan's story, and what he learned from his experiences, he never really considered the distinction. Now firmly embedded in his psyche, it will inform every decision he makes as a parent moving forward.