It would seem to be a ‘given’ – an unquestioned truth – that everyone wants to be successful – or wants their children to be. Instead of swallowing assumptions about success we need a conversation about whether this is either valuable or valid in terms of a life well lived.
There is no real consensus about what it means to be successful. Is it achieving high grades in exams, having lots of money, winning prizes, being elected, being famous, having high status?
When I look at the term in educational policy documents it seems to refer primarily to one thing only – getting high marks – usually in traditional ‘academic’ subjects. In the days of the eleven plus exam in the UK the vast majority of children were dismissed as ‘failures’ because they were not ‘successful’ in getting into grammar schools. My cousin, who at 50 plus won a prestigious early years art-teacher of the year award in Canada, emailed me with the words ‘not bad for someone who failed the eleven plus’. The feeling of not being ‘good enough’ had stayed with her ever since. She wasn’t the only one.
You may need qualifications to achieve what you would most like to do in life, so getting good marks can open doors but they do not necessarily enable you to flourish. We all know people who were A* students with great promise who lost their way because of a myriad of other factors. We know others who were middle of the road in their educational achievements but went on to write a best selling book, set up a thriving business or win an art prize. We know that there are more students from privileged independent schools who drop out of university than from state schools, because they have been coached carefully to pass exams rather than spend time discovering their strengths and what they love to do. Most importantly, we do not need everyone to be lawyers, doctors or company directors – but we do need to value those who may be on a different trajectory – aiming to work in child or aged care, as drivers or plumbers, in trades rather than professions. Our society needs all these people but how much respect and honour is offered those who take this path, instead of fostering pride in their choices. It is almost like they weren’t ‘successful’ enough at school to have a ‘prestigious’ job.
I met a young Indian man recently who gained his degree in business – but is now a taxi-driver. He told me that his children were four and 18months. Taxi driving is flexible, he told me. I can spend time with my boys – this for me is more important at the moment. I thought about how this man was defining success – a strong, healthy, secure and loving family. Compare this with the ‘success’ of the richest woman in Australia who is in a long legal battle with her own children!
Sometimes people comment that I have been ‘successful’ and I wonder what they mean by this. It is certainly not something I have aimed for. I never had any ‘ambition’ as such – just a rage about how unfair some kids lives were and wanting to do something about that. This came from my first teaching job and has been a lodestar ever since. As a result I have taken further study, done some research, had books and papers published, and sometimes get asked to talk at conferences and run workshops. None of that counts as success in my mind. Success is when someone lets me know that something I have said or written has changed – even just a little bit – how they thought about a child or the students they teach and consequently what they did to impact on those lives and perhaps change a life trajectory. That can put me on cloud nine for days – who needs a gold star?
Nelson Mandela was ‘successful’ – but not in the terms commonly defined as success. People who spend half their lives in prison are not usually thought of as having done well! He was, however an influential part of a bigger movement to change things in his country. If you had praised him for his achievements he would probably have shrugged and said – it wasn’t just me – look at everyone around you. Power was never his goal but having influence for the common good most certainly was.
Positive psychology has already done a good job in shifting what we prioritize from a focus of mending what is broken in our lives to how we increase wellbeing for both individuals and communities. Using strengths-based perspectives, valuing diversity and acknowledging that everyone can be a winner we now need to shift our conversations and conceptualisations about what success in life actually means and stop letting others else tell us how to define it and what to aim for. It will inevitably be different for everyone. And how good is that!