Being the sort who’s occasionally predisposed towards futile contrarianism, I resisted reading American blogger Mark Manson’s seemingly omnipresent book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck for a long time. This decision was based on nothing more than the simple fact of its ubiquity, along with an attitude which has stayed with me since my days as a music critic – namely that if something is everywhere, it has more to do with the commercial marketing machinery than artistic merit.
This Christmas holiday, however, I relented and the book was predictably brilliant. I recommend it to anyone who has ever devoted too much of their head space speculating on what other people might be saying about them, or who constantly finds themselves in unequal relationships, having their reserves of kindness sucked dry and receiving little in return.
There was one part, however, which echoed sentiments I’ve often heard expressed by Americans – namely that the "self-esteem movement" is single-handedly responsible for a generation of entitled young people, unable to deal with failure, constructive criticism or the harsh realities of life. I don’t know if the "self-esteem movement" is fundamentally different over in the States, or whether this misunderstanding of its methods and what it seeks to achieve is deliberate straw-manning, but it is concerning.
The nurturing of self-esteem (growth mindset, self-compassion, confidence, resilience, whatever you want to call it) done right, in fact has the opposite impact to the one Manson describes. Yet the idea that focusing on self-esteem in schools is at odds with academic attainment, or that there is a stark, binary choice between exam results and mental health, persists. Michael Gove, for example, famously described "bogus lessons on self-image" in 2011, during his streamlining of the curriculum to focus on "core academic" subjects (whatever that means) as education secretary. But it’s 2019 now and it’s time to put that particular myth to bed once and for all.
Numerous controlled studies have shown that if you take two groups of children, give them a series of tasks and reward one group for getting it right and the other for trying their best, the latter give everything their best shot and the former avoid anything they fear they might "fail" at. Assuming most teachers want to create classrooms where every pupil is giving their best effort, regardless of their objective ability, we must then ask ourselves how we can avoid the fear of failure which, it is well documented, causes many young people simply to opt out of some aspects of school life.
The first step is to try to mediate the cult of perfectionism which has arisen in modern society. There was a fascinating research paper by Dr Thomas Curran at the University of Bath published last year, looking at the impact 30 years of neoliberalism has had on our collective cultural mindset and, in particular, on young people. One of the paper’s conclusions is that the pressure to be "perfect" not only damages teenage mental health, but that the perfectionist mindset is one categorised by avoidance of activities at which one is likely not to be the "best". This, in turn, means a generation of perfectionists are missing out on activities in which there is potential opportunity for progress or (whisper it) intrinsic value that falls outside the parameters which can be measured by grades.
Contrary to popular belief, having high self-esteem does not necessitate the harbouring of a belief that one is brilliant at everything in spite of empirical evidence. Rather, it is about acknowledging the impossibility of always being top of the class and throwing your best efforts into the task at hand regardless. It is about accepting your weaknesses as much as recognising your strengths. Self-esteem is also key to teamwork – a lack of self-esteem feeds the ego, which in turn demands individual recognition. Similarly arrogance is actually indicative of a lack, rather than a surplus, of self-esteem.
The next step is to look at what will allow children to take the risk they might fail. The answer, in my opinion, is that they must know they will be valued either way. If they believe their identity is dependent on consistent achievement, a fear is created around deviating from that pattern. If, however, they exist in a supportive environment which acknowledges them as a unique and flawed human being, this fear dissipates.
There are of course always a few pupils in every year group who need what their teachers would describe as a "kick up the bum". But for the majority, if we impress upon them that they are valued for who, not what, they are, the superficially counterintuitive result is that their academic attainment will increase. It won’t, as critics claim, encourage them to rest on their heels, but rather to embrace challenges fully, without accompanying anxiety about the outcome.
You can, after all, only ever try your best.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here