The summer before seventh grade, I worked incessantly on plans for an invention: a hovercraft that you ride like a sport motorcycle. I drew sketches, designed a scheme for lift and steering, and imagined all the money that I was going to make when I became famous for the invention.

That same year, I took up the saxophone. I didn’t really know what jazz music was, but I searched everywhere to find out how to play it. Mentors and friends pointed me to prominent jazz musicians and later I began playing along with CDs to learn the solos of jazz greats. That year I also became student body president of my class.

I desperately wanted to be great at something but I wasn’t sure which direction to go, so I plunged into all sorts of interests in an attempt to pursue greatness. I may have been an especially ambitious teenager, but I don’t think that my desire for greatness is unique among teenagers. I think different teenagers handle this desire in different ways; some charge forward into different pursuits while others hold back for fear of failure and settle for the things they think they can succeed at. As a parent, here are a few helpful scriptures to begin motivating your teen to pursue the greatness they desire inside.

Desiring greatness

When David son of Jesse, who was a teenager according to some historians, was asked why he wanted to fight a huge, bloodthirsty, giant, he responded this way:

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

1 Samuel 17:34-36 NIV

Have you ever wondered why David would risk his life to fight a lion and a bear over sheep? We know that he was tasked to shepherd his father’s sheep and spent long periods away from his family to fulfill this responsibility (1 Samuel 16:11, 1 Samuel 17:15). Some might argue that David fought the lion and the bear out of duty to keep the sheep safe or out of care for individual sheep. Would you fight a lion for your pet or a bear to protect your father’s financial asset? I wouldn’t. I think David fought this lion and this bear because he wanted to be great! I imagine that David was bored, felt forgotten and had bit of a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove that he could do more than just look after sheep. Our teenagers want to be great as well. They don’t want to hear about the great things that we did, they want to do great things themselves.

Greatness requires building character

The July-August 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review contains an interesting article “The Making of an Expert” by Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely. The article argues (on the basis of scholarly research since 1985) that outstanding or elite performance in any field is predominantly “the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate talent or skill.” Experts (and elite performers) are made, not born. The research suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery or greatness in athletics, academics, arts, or science.

Mastery is difficult. The only thing that makes the tedious practice worth it to me is the pursuit of greatness.

The hungrier you are, the harder you work.

Proverbs 16:26 CEV

As my saxophone playing progressed in high school and college, I spent long hours working to master the alto saxophone sound. Saxophone practice involves standing in the corner of a cement and metal room that looks a lot like a prison listening to your sound as you play.

My favorite alto saxophone player is Kenny Garrett. His sound is completely distinct and I constantly tried to imitate it. I thought that if I sounded like Kenny Garrett, I would surely become a great saxophone player. My hunger for a great saxophone sound drove me to work hard at it. I even played along with Kenny Garrett CDs changing the position of my throat and tongue while I played to try and match the exact tone.

If your teen is not pursuing greatness, they may be missing the motivation they need to go through these hours of practice. They need vision that practicing has a purpose – it produces character and eventually something great.

For example, sometimes our teens participate in sports or music, but they don’t really practice. They may attend basketball practice or band practice, but it’s the work they do on their own that produces greatness and fulfills dreams.

Fathers, do not provoke or irritate or exasperate your children [with demands that are trivial or unreasonable or humiliating or abusive; nor by favoritism or indifference; treat them tenderly with lovingkindness], so they will not lose heart and become discouraged or unmotivated [with their spirits broken].

Colossians 3:21 AMP

I am not a parent, but I have worked with many teenagers over many years and seen how strongly parents’ perspective and parenting influences their teenager’s motivation. This scripture warns us about a variety of qualities are sure to squelch motivation in our teens.

Do you just tell your teen what to do, or do you motivate your teen by encouraging their ambition? Talk with your teen about their dreams. Who do they want to become? What talents do they want to develop? Do they destined or drawn to do something special?

Until the time came to fulfill his dreams, the Lord tested Joseph’s character.

Psalm 105:19 NLT

Joseph dreamed audacious dreams of leadership as a teenager. God insisted that Joseph build his character before he allowed him to reach his destiny and fulfill his dreams. The same is true for our teens.

A few years ago, I taught a saxophone student named Chris. Chris was hungry to be a great player. I told him that if he devoted himself to the exercises I gave him, he would become a great player. Chris devoured every exercise, practiced feverishly on his own, and listened to everything he could get his hands on. Eventually Chris became a better player than me. I got a note from Chris a while back telling me about his graduate studies in music. Besides becoming a skilled musician, Chris developed significant character that I believe will point him toward his destiny.

Greatness can’t be achieved alone

Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade. That’s the value of wisdom; it helps you succeed.

Ecclesiastes 10:10 NLT

A dull ax means harder work [If the ax is blunt and the edge is not sharp, then he must increase his efforts]. Being wise will make it easier [ The advantage of wisdom is success].

Ecclesiastes 10:10 EXB

I studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Davis. The demanding coursework challenged my work ethic and built character in me that had atrophied from me leaning on my natural talents.

I remember taking EME 142, a class about how medical imaging technologies like MRI and CAT scans work. This class was way beyond my preparation even though I technically fulfilled the academic requirements. I remember reading Ecclesiastes 10:10 and realizing that the only way I was going to make it in the class was to get sharpened and get help. For the first time ever, I called classmates, compared notes, and asked for help on difficult problems. It took a challenge that was beyond my natural capabilities to show me that I needed friends.

How can you encourage your teen to accept challenges that push them beyond their natural abilities? Do you help your teen see that needing friends and mentors is a good thing? Do you model this for your teen by having friends and mentors in your own life? What friends and mentors do you need to welcome into your home that will sharpen your teen and help them succeed?

God activates greatness

You have given me your shield of victory. Your right hand supports me; your help has made me great.

Psalm 18:35 NLT

It amazes me to think that God is interested and even stoops down to help me become great. Jazz music, engineering, and leadership have proved great training grounds for me but the closest encounter with greatness that I have ever experienced is getting to know God.

God is the definition of greatness. Every great person and great action in the Bible was imagined, inspired, animated, and even demanded by God. I think about Joseph building the conviction and character he needed to guide Egypt through a devastating famine, Moses overcoming failure to lead an enslaved people out of Egypt and Esther risking her political status and her life to save thousands of people. All of these great men and women were inspired and supported by God’s love and belief in them. It was the fatherly relationship with God himself that inspired the greatness.

What a person desires is unfailing love; better to be poor than a liar.

Proverbs 19:22 NIV

God is love.

1 John 4:8b NIV

I’d be a liar if I said that I don’t deeply desire unfailing love and we’d be remiss if we neglected that fact that our teenagers want the same thing. Each of our teenagers may not become a David or Moses or Joseph, but each of our teenagers desires the kind of unfailing love that activates greatness in them. As our teenagers pursue greatness, they will have the opportunity to experience God’s helping and supporting love.

Encourage your teenager to pursue greatness in one of the following training grounds:

  • Academics
  • Athletics
  • Art & Music
  • Coding & Programming

If your teen is already involved in one of these areas, are they attempting the deliberate practice that leads to mastery and builds character?

For further reading:

  • Psalm 18
  • 1 Samuel
  • 2 Timothy 2:22
  • The Making of an Expert by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, Edward T. Cokely (Harvard Business Review)
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