18 June 2018

Learning to sail my ship

I saw a young couple with their three or four year old son the other day; the boy was on a bike and they were going up a small hill. The son was complaining and wanted to get off and walk the bike, but both the mum and dad told him to keep going. He got to the top without too much difficulty and the parents did not make a big deal out of the situation. This captures two elements which I think are very important - developing the capacity to keep going and not over-praising. If we want young people to be able to deal with difficulty and make the most of every occasion, then we have to challenge them in lots of small ways every day. And we have to normalise that approach; taking on small challenges helps to prepare them for bigger ones and it is a part of everyday life. It is not something we should expect to be rewarded for every time we overcome some difficulty.

We ought to remind ourselves and young people of the importance of resilience and grit, which Angela Duckworth defines as persistence plus passion. We should do this on a regular basis. I coach Rowing and each year at our end-of-year wind-up, I encourage the boys to continue with rowing even though they often find it hard going. I worry that, as a society, we are teaching young people to quit when things get hard. Of course, we all have to be careful about continuing down a pathway when that road is not leading to where we want to go, but sometimes I think we should walk a little bit further just to see if it is actually the wrong way before we turn around or take a new direction. Life is a constant effort to maintain a balance and we should accept that there will be times - a lot of times - when our lives are not as balanced as we would like. Things will not go as planned or hoped, and we have to equip our boys so that they can handle this. This can be done each day in little ways, such as the example of the young boy on the bike.

Louisa May Alcott once said, "I'm not afraid of the storm, for I'm learning how to sail my ship." This is the lesson to share with our boys. Fine weather does not teach us how to be a good sailor; testing conditions are where we can learn so much more about ourselves. As Mark Manson explains in his book, too often we look for who is at fault, rather than taking responsibility. Sometimes things happen and they are somebody else's fault. Sometimes, they are nobody's fault - bad things happen. But until we take responsibility for doing something about the situation we find ourselves in, little is likely to change. Each of us gets to choose how to see things and how to respond to circumstances.

Another important element in resilience is flexibility. I read somewhere that when it snows, the branches on trees bend with the weight of the snow until the snow slides off and the branch springs back into position. If they did not bend, they would snap. So it is with people.

Creativity is another crucial element in becoming resilient. If we have a flexible mindset, we do not become trapped by tunnel-thinking and we can explore alternative solutions. It is one of many reasons boys should be encouraged to study the Arts. Having said that, I strongly believe that all great achievements are a result of creative thinking and persistence. Stephen Hawking is a fine example of creativity, and flexibility and indeed of resilience. He made us think differently about the universe and he did so whilst showing us the courage that goes with handling adversity with dignity. And he was perhaps far more grateful than many of us are for the life he had, because he was confronted by the fragility of his own life and this made him aware of the opportunities that exist.

Happiness is an outcome of resilience; it is the by-product of tackling problems and overcoming challenges and being curious and enjoying all that life has to offer. Sometimes we will make it to the top of the hill, and sometimes we will not but there is happiness and a sense of satisfaction to be found in both if we have learned to look for them.

Mr James Hindle
Director of Student and Staff Wellbeing