I guess that Dad’s attitude emerged, in part, from his own experiences. He moved to England from Pakistan to study law, moved into the civil service after meeting and marrying my mum (a flame-haired Welsh teenager), but found his path upwards blocked by endemic racism. It was tough, but he developed remarkable resilience, studying in his spare time, enriching his mind and eventually moving into academia, where he excelled.
We tried many things growing up: judo, football, clarinet, piano, table tennis, acting, you name it. Dad wasn’t bothered about the specific activity, but wanted us to develop a “can do” attitude. Mum was the same, although she put it in a slightly different way: “It doesn’t matter if you lose; I’ll still love you.” The one thing they both pushed back on was a failure even to try. Dad often talked about a friend at his school in Pakistan who was a superb musician but never wanted to play in public, despite yearning for a place in the school orchestra. The idea of failure, of messing up in front of so many eyes, was too much. “That became a habit,” Dad said. “He was held back from the things he wanted to do.”
You see this attitude everywhere. You might call it the curse of perfectionism. Social media has so many images of perfect bodies, perfect lives, that the idea of blemishes, setbacks and mess-ups has become anathema. I remember going to a local school to teach a media studies A-level class. I started by asking a question: “If you were editing a national paper, what would you put on page one tomorrow?” This was a group of bright students, with doubtless wonderful ideas, but nobody risked venturing a response in case it turned out to be wrong. They sustained their pristine image by staying quiet, but this meant they never got to test their ideas, the better to improve them. I read a wonderful story in the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It is about a ceramics teacher who on the first day of class, divided his pupils into two groups. Half the students were told they would be graded on quality. They were to design the one, perfect pot. The other half were to be graded on quantity. On the final day of term, the teacher would weigh the pots they had made. They would get an A for 50lb of pots, a B for 40lb, and so on. The results were counterintuitive but very revealing. The works of highest quality were all produced by the group graded for quantity. Why? Because they were trying, failing, learning. Those being graded for the perfect pot never took any risks, which is why they didn’t grow. As Bayles and Orland put it: “They had little to show for their efforts other than a pile of dead clay.”
The curse of perfectionism can especially afflict young girls. Evie, our five-year-old daughter, is already feeling the cultural pressure to look perfect, to be perfect. This may explain why talented girls, in particular, can so often struggle when they leave school and move into the workplace. They are so used to getting straight As that their self-esteem becomes bound up with their flawlessness. When they are put in a situation, common at work, where they have to step outside their comfort zone, they are flummoxed.
In addition to Evie we also have Teddy, who is a year younger. When they were born, Kathy and I were as clueless as most new parents (we still are!). But there is one thing that we have been pretty consistent about: trying to ensure that they don’t have a fear of failure. I don’t mind if they go on to live lives that are utterly unconventional and don’t earn a penny, so long as they live with the passion and resilience that is such a feature of healthy, happy people. They are already loving tennis, ballet, swimming and many other activities.
A think tank estimated that two-thirds of children in school today will end up doing jobs that haven’t yet been invented. I would suggest that is an underestimate. The world is changing fast, hurtling towards an exciting future of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Isn’t it a world where a“can-do” attitude is even more important? In Silicon Valley, companies are realising that credentials such as exam results, while important, are less predictive of success than softer skills: the ability to take risks, embrace the unknown and rebound from failure. In other words, character.
My new book is about trying to offer youngsters stories and ideas that can challenge their self-limiting beliefs. It is not about telling them what to do, but removing the constraints, typically self-imposed, that might be holding them back. There is lots of cutting-edge psychology out there on resilience, mindset and mental dexterity, and lots of popular books for parents. I wanted to put all of this in a language that an 11-year-old would understand — and hopefully even apply.
I met Sir Richard Branson recently for a documentary I was making for BBC Radio 4. He was full of wisdom. “Success is often about who fails fastest,” he said, pointing to his many setbacks. “People who fail the least typically fail to grow.” I was reminded of the story of a computer programmer who had the idea of creating a web service that would allow people to post text articles online. But instead of putting it out there and giving customers a chance to use it, he kept making changes, seeking an elusive perfection. In the end, he was beaten to the prize by other engineers who put their flawed efforts into the market, received crucial feedback and eventually had a working piece of software. As Branson said, failing fast.
When Mum read my book she smiled. I think she could see her parenting style and the advice she gave me growing up playing out on the pages. Dad hasn’t read it yet because he has been quite unwell over the past few months, but I am pretty confident he will be delighted that I have stepped outside my comfort zone to write a children’s book. I can almost hear him saying: “I am so pleased, son, that you gave it a go!”
This piece was first published in The Times on 24th March 2018.
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