My dad thought I couldn’t survive in the world unless I studied physics and chemistry.
When I was 15, dad made it clear that these subject were non-negotiable: I had to study them in year 11 and 12.
So I rote-learned my way through physics and chemistry. And I hated these subjects with a passion! It killed my love of learning. But I studied just to get by, pass the test and please my dad.
What a big mistake.
I can’t recall a single thing from physics and chemistry.
Looking back, I wish I had pursued subjects that I was genuinely interested in, such as human biology, cooking, drama and ancient history. But it was hard standing up to my dad as a teenager.
After I graduated from law school, I told my parents I didn’t want to be a lawyer. They were super disappointed. They sat me down and said, “What will you do if you don’t become a lawyer Jane?”
But by that stage, I felt strong enough to pursue my own path and live my own life.
At the time my parents had a particular definition of success: it was a set of A’s on a report card, awards, getting a high status job and having a big house.
But over the years, my parents and I have come to question what it means to be successful in a world that has finite resources and huge environmental challenges.
What does success look like to you?
We live in an achievement oriented world. For many of us, success looks something like this:
• Acquiring lots of money and material possessions
• A high status job
• A large number of Instagram followers
• A perfectly curated social media feed
• A perfectly toned body
• A perfectly decorated house
Ideas about what it means to be successful are promoted to us through the media, 24/7.
None of us are immune to these messages. They bleed over into all areas of our lives and influence our perspective on life and learning, including what it means to be a successful student.
What does it mean to be a successful student?
Success at school isn’t measured by depth of learning or fun derived from the learning process.
It’s all about getting good grades, awards and certificates.
Good Grades = Good Degree = Good Career (with Good Pay) = Money, Happiness and Freedom
But it’s time to start questioning this ‘success’ trajectory.
Because it’s somewhat flawed.
Research shows being too fixated on external things (e.g. grades, accolades, money and material possessions) is making us miserable. But not only that, it results in us trashing the planet.
Researcher Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, conducted several studies that found people who are overly fixated on extrinsic pursuits (e.g. striving to acquire more money, having an attractive appearance and higher status) are more likely to be depressed, have lower levels of vitality and life satisfaction.
People who are oriented towards more extrinsic pursuits are also more likely to act in less environmentally friendly ways than people who value more intrinsic pursuits (e.g. cultivating strong relationships and connecting with nature).
Let me make it clear . . .
I’m not saying don’t do well at school. I’m not saying don’t bother going to university and/or getting a good job. Not at all.
You want to apply yourself, expand your mind and do your best at school and in life.
All I’m saying is don’t fall into the grade/prize obsession trap.
I’ve found whenever I’m obsessed with achieving a particular result, it gets in the way of me just doing the work. It can also suck the joy out of the learning/creative process.
The downside of grade obsession
When I was in school I became obsessed with winning awards. How did this happen?
As a small child, I saw my brother win a lot of awards. I saw him receiving applause and praise from big crowds and teachers. So I came to associate awards and academic achievement with being loved. Naturally, I wanted that too.
So I worked really hard to get awards at school. My brother and I also entered a lot of art and colouring in competitions. And our hard work paid off (if you consider colouring in to be hard work) – my brother and I won a lot of stuff.
But there was a big difference between the two of us: my brother actually enjoyed the process of learning and he loved creating art. It was intrinsically rewarding for him. I was more focused on extrinsic rewards – praise, prizes and awards.
When I didn’t get any subject awards in year 8, I was devastated. I came home in tears.
My brother was concerned. He said, “What’s wrong Jane? What happened?”
I told him that I didn’t win any awards.
And you know what his reaction was?
He laughed in my face.
He thought, “How stupid. How shallow.”
He kept saying to me:
“The awards don’t matter. It’s not a big deal.”
I couldn’t see it at the time, but my self worth had become so strongly connected to receiving awards and prizes.
So in year 9, I set myself a goal – to become Dux of my year (i.e. the top student).
I sacrificed fun times with family and friends to rote-learn my way to top grades. By the end of the year, I won the Dux award but I didn’t feel happy like I thought I would. Instead, I felt tired, miserable and empty inside.
I had put my happiness on hold for a stupid certificate.
But this is what we do.
We think as soon as we achieve our goals then we’ll feel happy . . . but it doesn’t always work like that.
We can see this at play when it comes to choosing a career path and making money.
Our cultural obsession with fame and fortune
I recently had a conversation with a year 10 boy. It went something like this:
Boy: “I’m interested in studying psychology and becoming a psychologist.”
Me: “Great! What interests you in psychology?”
Boy pauses to think for a few seconds
Boy: “Because it seems like a profession you could make lots of money from.”
I’m guessing this boy saw money as his ticket to freedom and greater happiness. But money can’t and should never be the sole driving factor for choosing a career path (can you imagine a world full of money hungry psychologists? I shudder at the thought).
Similarly, the pursuit of fame should also be questioned.
I often meet students who want to be famous. But hardly anyone becomes famous (1 person in every 10,000 becomes famous).
If you do become famous, it’s never quite how you imagined it would be. In the book Happy, Healthy Minds the authors from The School of Life highlight some of the downsides of fames. These include:
• Other people being jealous of you
• If you make a mistake everyone knows about it
• You can’t enjoy doing ordinary things
• People constantly ask to have photos with you
• You can’t enjoy just having a quiet meal at a restaurant
We also forget that the vast majority of famous people have worked really hard to get to where they are. We overlook the hard slog, the knock backs, the criticism and risks they had to take to get to where they are now.
So be careful what you wish for.
Money matters but not as much as you think
Studies have found if you’re living in poverty, money makes a massive difference to your well-being and happiness levels. But once your basic to moderate needs are met, more money doesn’t significantly increase happiness.
One research study involving data from 1.7 million people in 165 countries found after we make $65,000USD per year, happiness levels plateau. After you make $105,000USD, you start actually thinking you are doing worse in life (the compare and despair cycle kicks in).
Whatever degree or career path you choose to pursue, do it because it interests you. Do it to build new skills and contribute to the world. Have the money be a bonus extra.
Because here’s what I’ve come to realise . . .
Success isn’t about being smart, rich or famous.
It’s more about developing your passions and interests. It’s about cultivating your personality, depth of character, having a sense of purpose and standing for something in the world.
The most successful people I know are passionate about something and have strong values and a purpose that guide them through life. They also persevere in the face of challenges and refuse to give up.
In The Art of Frugal Hedonism, the authors state:
“. . . having more personality is a seriously excellent substitute for constructing a persona via consumption patterns (like what you own, wear, eat and drive; where you live and holiday). You don’t have to become one of those old men who get about in bare feet and a pinstripe suit with a six-foot python wrapped about their necks, but you do have to hone-in on things you’re interested in and pursue them, develop your own opinions, or let some of those quirks and eccentricities that you may have been suppressing blossom into visible traits.”
With that in mind, it’s time to abolish our obsession with grades, money and stuff. But how?
By redefining success.
It’s time to create new metrics for success.
Instead of measuring your self worth based on your grades, number of followers and what you have, focus on developing your personality and character (who you are). For example, here’s are some of metrics for personal success you may want to consider living by:
• Books and news articles read each month
• Interesting podcasts listened to
• Kind acts performed and kind words offered
• Community events attended and/or organised
• Time spent moving/exercising each day
• Conversation with people with different points of view
• Time away from screens each day
• Random conversations with complete strangers on public transport
• Home cooked meals made each week
• Serves of vegetables and fruit consumed each day
• Hours spent outdoors and out in nature each week
As Psychologist Dr Helen Street, author of Life Overload, states:
“In modern society the pressure to be seen to be living well rather than to experience living well has given extrinsic gains undue importance. There is enormous pressure to appear to be successful – to have the material signs of success. To have beauty and youth, fame or celebrity. This false inflation of the importance of all things extrinsic has made it incredibly hard to understand proactive motivation in terms of intrinsic gains.”
To sum up
It takes something to go against the grain of our culture and embrace intrinsically rewarding pursuits over extrinsic ones. When everyone is focused on grades, money and appearance, it’s easy to fall into that trap, too.
But if you want to be happy, you’ll need to shift your focus. Stop obsessing about your grades. Study things that interest you. If you focus on enjoying the learning process, you will do well at school and in life. But I want you to consider, the grades and cash will be a bonus extra.
Don’t be afraid to follow your own path and set your own direction. A good place to start is by creating your own definition of success to live by.