Back to school and my children are both beginning an exam year. It seems like only moments ago I was dropping them off in the morning to play in the reception class sandpit and now it’s all coming to some sort of interim conclusion. At times like these its hard to avoid a little anxiety over how effectively we communicated the message “you know you’re worth more than your achievements don’t you?” It’s hard to know how to succeed, and what success really is.
Reading about this survey in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago I nearly choked on my toast, and then realised that it wasn’t surprising at all. Of course parents worry about academic success because firstly we’re brainwashed into thinking it’s all that there is, and secondly it’s much easier to measure than happiness and so offers us a clearer barometer of where we’re going, right?
But if we think we’re doing our kids any favours by telling them how smart they are we’re frighteningly mistaken.
Perspective is a powerful thing and what’s disturbing, if you spend every day sitting in my chair, is the frequency of neurosis clearly underpinned by an immovable fear that “I wasn’t good enough”. Most people I see have some serious shortfall in self acceptance. Many of them equate achievement with value and they probably learned it from their parents. We praise achievement, often admonish or at best ignore what we see as failure, and we celebrate anything which suggests our offspring are smarter than other kids in some way.
If we overemphasise the importance of achievement we seem to undervalue effort. “Trying” just doesn’t seem to cut it when we are deciding whether or not we’re good enough, but psychologist Carol Dweck’s extensive research into the area suggests that effort is a much more accurate predictor of success than mere results. When we praise effort we are creating a foundation of self belief, of continued thriving rather than picking out the sporadic diamonds of obvious success.
This same theory plays out in the way we approach our own intrinsic value. To be human is to mess up from time to time, but it is in our response to our inevitable cock ups that we either proliferate or subdue the likelihood that we’ll make more mistakes in the future. We don’t always get it right, but how well do we deal with that? Research clearly shows that happiness leads to success and not the other way around. No wonder we’re so messed up when we think that we have to be successful in order to be happy, and what is success anyway?
I used to work with a guy in the corporate world whose favourite phrase was “What does success look like?” I hated this sentence and I still do. It encapsulates everything that I most detest about the business world, the myopic focus on results without any consideration of the effort or indeed the people required to propel us towards it. It was and I suspect still is all too rare to find leaders in any field whose focus is more on making sure their people are content in the full knowledge that their results will be exponentially better as a result. When we think about what success is we will all come up with different definitions but sadly many of them will be about “stuff” we can easily measure (money, status, qualifications, houses, holidays, cars) rather than emotion and feeling which we can’t. So if happiness is the foundation of success how do we drive a greater level of it, and isn’t that a targeted achievement in itself? Probably.
This week I was pondering with a client the possibility of leading a happy life and we agreed that the idea of wall to wall happiness is both inconceivable and actually a bit dull. So when we talk about happiness perhaps we really mean something else, maybe we are really after contentment. There is a breadth to it which could encompass sadness too but a general foundational state of satisfaction with ourselves and our life.
The constant striving for improvement, for more, for better is so exhausting. In a meeting recently with a colleague who changed his career because he was burnt out he describes how he is working twelve hour days now in his new field. By his own admission work life balance has got the better of him again and friends, hobbies and relaxation are taking a smaller and smaller part of his time. So, was it just the previous job which was the problem or is it also his constant demand of himself to keep going, keep achieving when all he really wants to do is stop? We can’t change these dynamics by changing what we do or even how we do it, we can only change it by redefining how we derive purpose, meaning and success in our own lives.
We are not getting happier and more content, we are becoming dissatisfied, disconnected and dismayed. We are all products of this meritocratic society where we are told that more choice, driven by better education, better results and more money will make us much happier. It’s a lie and it’s actually making us miserable because while we are letting go of our lives, denying the value of our relationships with others and with ourselves believing them to be of insufficient value to our contentment we are coming badly adrift. Despite all of this irrefutable evidence we continue to push ourselves and our children the same way, selling the snake oil of academic achievement and financial success when the evidence of the damage it does is monotonous in its uniformity.Telling kids they are smart is nothing compared with encouraging them to experiment, to invite mistakes and to gradually expose themselves to more knowledge. When the focus is on acquisition of experience rather than A* grades we are able to do remarkable things.
I hope my children make the best of their knowledge, work hard and do themselves justice. I hope they get the results they want. I hope the same for me too. But what I remind myself most of all is to keep asking questions, to stay inquisitive, to be unafraid of making mistakes, and that none of this has anything to do with how valuable we are or how content we are able to be. That feels like a success well worth having.