When wandering the corridors of South Hampstead, taking in the buzz of lunchtime activities, or attending any one of the seemingly infinite number of performances, exhibitions and competitions that pupils are involved in, it’s hard not to be struck by the fact that our pupils really are very lucky.
The opportunities in front of them are boundless. The community is energetic, positive and high achieving. The staff are wholly committed and give support that goes well beyond the classroom. Lucky, indeed.
But it is also the case that this very luck can, to some, feel like an inherent source of pressure – a knife edge on which ‘success’ balances carefully but precariously in clear view, with everything else perceived as ‘failure’. Having such a wealth of wonderful experiences and role models can lead some young people to feel a sense of guilt. They can feel that they are somehow not demonstrating enough gratitude – or letting someone down – if they don’t replicate absolutely everything that is put before them.
No one would wish to take away the good fortune to have such opportunities, nor the aspirational and inspiring role modelling that surrounds our pupils. It would never make sense to seek to diminish or reduce the experience of a young person. So, what can be done to help young people not to let their awareness of being fortunate turn into a sense of expectation or obligation that weighs heavily on their shoulders, stifles their sense of individuality or inhibits their sense of self-directed personal discovery?
We, the adults in their lives, are hard-wired to want to do whatever we can to help children put together the best life they can. But young people, whatever hand they have been dealt, need to be reassured that they don’t bear any responsibility for that hand. We would, of course, reassure a pupil who has faced hardship and challenge that those things are not their fault and that they mustn’t blame themselves. We need to give the same reassurance to the pupil who has had seemingly smooth sailing through their early years. Yes, a sense of gratitude is important, but not a sense of a debt to be repaid or an obligation to be fulfilled.
The pupils at South Hampstead are all so very capable. They are all so clever, so interesting and so interested. They all have so very many strengths. So it breaks my heart when such amazing young people sometimes describe a feeling that they are not living up to expectations. Whether this expectation is real and clearly articulated, or implied through subconscious messaging of what ‘success’ looks like, makes no difference in the heart of the pupil who feels a failure. Inevitably these pupils exhaust themselves by trying to be at the top of every group or activity, by trying to get perfect scores on all tests. They end up aiming for these things in order to receive the attention they have learned that they get from each ‘success’. They worry that, unless they are collecting ‘trophies’, they are not doing well in the eyes of those who love them. They have lost track of the authentic joy of doing the thing; instead, they do the thing in order to feel the sense of relief at being approved, to provide proof of their ‘success’.
It is heart-rending to hear some pupils describe their anxiety over ‘failing’ when failing consists of getting 70% in test, or not getting the lead role in the play, or being asked to join the netball C team. They can carry the belief that the adults in their lives measure their worth against such things. At South Hampstead, we work hard to explain to our pupils that the whole point of any assessment is to challenge them, that it would be pointless to give them a task that was so easy that they all could execute it perfectly. They understand this as an intellectual concept, but some will still privately revert to the self-punishing mindset of thinking ‘yes, that’s fine for the others, but I am still going to be perfect’.
All of our pupils are amazing young people and none of them deserve to feel like failures just for coming up against the normal cut and thrust of life. Sure, sometimes 100% is what’s required – perhaps if you expect to win a gold medal at the Olympics. But for most of life, 100% is unsustainable, impractical, unrealistic and unpleasant. There are trade-offs and it’s not possible to give 100% to everything. Young people need our repeated and concerted guidance to understand that choices always need to be made; 70% is sometimes jolly good. ‘Good enough’ is the best choice in many areas of life so that we have enough bandwidth to really devote ourselves to the things that matter most to us individually. And what matters to us individually should be truly individual, not prescribed.
Good enough is the best choice in many areas of life so that we have enough bandwidth to really devote ourselves to the things that matter most to us individually.
Success should be judged on contentment and self-fulfilment, not fairy-tale images of ‘perfection’, with perfect test scores, lead roles in performances, friends flocking around, and physical presentation to rival a Disney heroine.
We work very hard at South Hampstead to counter the assumption that there is a single prescription for ‘success’. We emphasise the importance of carving one’s own path, of valuing and nurturing relationships, and of being proud of the things that are exciting to the individual – even if they are less exciting to their peers. As a school, there is a delicate balance to strike between celebrating excellence where celebration is due and seeming to dwell disproportionately on precisely the ingredients of that model of ‘success’ that pupils can tie themselves in knots to achieve. We aim to celebrate every sort of achievement, both the obvious and the less obvious. It was moving and wonderful, for example, to see the vigour and authenticity with which the acting cast in The Addams Family recognised and celebrated the backstage team members, who were absolutely fundamental to the production’s brilliance – just one example of how the message is getting through. Parents can help with this aim too. Parents can encourage their daughter to be herself, to embrace the joy of ‘doing’ rather than fixating on ‘achieving’. Parents can also reinforce the value in strategically accepting ‘good enough’, so she has the energy and brain power to throw herself into the things that really matter to her, when they matter most.
Success should be judged on contentment and self-fulfillment, not fairy-tale images of perfection.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.