Judge the journey, not the destination
In a recent Headmaster’s Assembly, I stated that the sign of a good team is one that learns from experiences, knows how to lose well and picks themselves up after defeat. Of course, the general principle can also apply to individual pursuits as well as collaborative teamwork. However, whilst this may be easy to say, it is not always so straightforward for pupils to follow. One of the main reasons for this is that nowadays there seems to be so much emphasis placed on ‘outcome’ rather than ‘input’. We attach too much value to the ‘destination’ and not enough to the ‘journey’ that took us there: even though it is the journey and the lessons learnt along the way that enrich us, at least as much, if not more, than the actual result of our endeavours.
If we do not value the individual effort, the persistence, the determination and the resilience, but instead attach a disproportionate value to the final result, then this can lead to significant problems. For example, if it is only the outcome that matters, then some may be tempted to cheat, to take short cuts that yield that all-important ‘win’ or ‘grade’ or ‘performance’, or whatever else is being sought. How often have we heard, for example, about doping in professional sport: participation alone is not enough – there has to be a win at all costs!
Furthermore, too much emphasis on the ‘perfect outcome’ can lead to unnecessarily high levels of disappointment and defeatism – if I cannot get the perfect result then why bother at all?
Striving to do well, to improve, and to be better than they were yesterday is what we should encourage all pupils to do, but this is not the same as striving for perfection, which is not only unrealistic, but can be detrimental to character and even harmful to well-being.
I sometimes hear pupils say ‘I am no good at maths, or art or singing’, and too often, what underlies these comments is the idea that they are not, or will not, be outstanding or perfect in a particular skill, rather than a belief that they can get better with practice. None of us is perfect, we are all works in progress and we will all get better with effort. I believe that I am a better Headmaster this year, than I was last (although some may disagree), but I fully intend and expect to improve in my abilities over the coming year.
I asked the pupils in chapel to think back to when they were 5 years old, for some this is only 7 years ago. I asked them to consider what their ability to draw, or to do maths was like when they were 5, or how rich their vocabulary was, or their ability to speak fluently. Of course, their progress since then has been amazing, and this has occurred in a relatively short period of time. It is so easy for pupils to forget this, and to judge their outcomes not by the journey that they have made, but by their results compared to others.
Our Deputy Head regularly makes this point, and he is right to do so: do not waste time comparing your abilities and outcomes with your neighbours, but instead, consider how what you have achieved relates to the effort that you have made. If pupils are disappointed by their outcomes because they recognise that they could have worked harder, been more conscientious, listened more to advice, then fine – they can work on that. However, if they are disappointed because their results are not as good as their neighbour’s that is not fine, that is not what they should be judging themselves by.
They should also be avoiding the trap of striving for perfection. We see apparent perfection all around us. Open up a magazine and see the adverts of the perfect family, eating the perfect breakfast cereal, in their ideal family home – all happy, never arguing, never a dull moment, always exciting and fun. Then there are the adverts for fashion, with the ideal clothes adorning the perfect bodies – perfect body shape, perfect complexion, brilliant teeth, not a hair out of place. Social media is awash with messages which highlight how perfect other people’s lives are compared with our own. Everyone is always happy, gets on perfectly with their families and friends, is achieving amazing things, and never makes a mistake. It is only ‘you’ that is not perfect.
Every school is run by a better Headmaster, their pupils love them, their teachers think they are wonderful, parents are overcome by their inspirational leadership, their Governors want them to stay forever. If only I could be like them.
There is a well-known story, albeit varying in detail, about Pablo Picasso, who was said to be sketching in the park one day, when a bold woman approached him.
“It’s you – Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist, and I will pay you want you think it is worth.”
So, Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait, and handed the woman his work of art.
“It’s perfect!” she said. “You have managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
Picasso replied “Five thousand pounds.”
“My goodness!” the woman exclaimed. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
To which Picasso responded, “No Madame, it took me 40 years to draw that picture.”
Picasso makes a good point, that our achievements today are based upon our efforts made yesterday. When a pupil compares their results with that of another, is it really a fair comparison? Have they spent as much time as their neighbour in studying maths, or have they invested more time than them in practising an instrument, or playing sport or supporting their family and friends? Rather than judging their outcomes by those of others they should judge themselves by the effort and progress that they have made, the journey they have travelled, that is far more important.
Matthew Syed, the sports journalist, and author of Bounce makes the point that it takes 10,000 hours of committed training to become outstanding in a particular skill. He also asks the question: out of an amateur or World Champion Ice skater, which will have fallen over the most? The answer, of course, is the World Champion, who in their 10,000 hours plus, will have fallen over many more times than anyone else. However, after every fall, they got up and tried again. They could easily have judged their early performance by that of better skaters and given up after the first few falls. But, they persisted, learnt from each mistake or setback, chose to travel the journey, and measured success by comparisons with their own progress.
The perfect family, the perfect body, the perfect friends the perfect life does not exist. Failure is to believe otherwise, success is to recognise that we are all imperfect, we are all works in progress and that is perfectly okay.