I am sure you have heard the motivational statement: “You could do anything you set your mind to.” Parents will say it their children, teachers will say it to their students, actors will live it out in movies, and speakers will say it to all of us, providing we pay the entry fee and earn access to their auditorium and their platitudes.
Now of course, I understand why they do it. Nothing ever gets accomplished when people think that they cannot do it, and so this is to ensure that people will have the confidence and self-belief to take risks. It lifts people out of a compromise mindset and encourages them to shoot for the stars.
But honestly, I cannot think of a more dangerous philosophy. Because the truth is, you CANNOT do whatever you put your mind to.
Have you gotten over your shock yet? Are you wanting to delete this blog right now, worrying that I am going to depress the crap out of you and leave you without any desire to achieve anything in life? Well, I encourage you to continue reading.
For those who truly believe you can do anything you put your mind to, all I need to introduce is the ambition to be the fastest sprinter in the world. Imagine you have the greatest motivation and desire to achieve this. Not only that, let’s assume you have more than enough financial backing, so that you get the highest quality education and coaching. You get the best equipment, state of the art facilities, and the best biomechanical analysis by the top professionals in the world.
You start your training very early in your life, to ensure that you get the best head start. Then, you train religiously each week, getting plenty of rest and the best nutrition in between. Your body is constantly monitored for innumerable variables, and your progress is tabulated and analyzed in detail.
With all of this, would you win the World Championship for the 100 m? Absolutely not, because there are some key components to success that you cannot alter through training and education. Essentially, you need to have the genetics. There is a lower leg to upper leg ratio that is consider optimal, there is an ideal fast twitch muscle fiber percentage, and each of these (as well as many other subtle factors) is determined by … your parents.
This can easily be extended into the realm of education. Students have been indoctrinated with the idea that if they listen in class, complete their homework, and study hard for their exams, then they will do extremely well in the class. They can do well in every subject, providing they put their full mind and effort into it.
Is this so bad? Does this not encourage them to work hard in each class?
Certainly, but here is the problem. What if they did all that they were asked to do, and yet, when the exam is given, they performed far worse than many other students in the class, far worse than they deserved to do, considering how much they put into their preparation? I mean, based on the philosophy that we can do anything we put our minds to, then if students end up failing an assessment, then what is the only conclusion possible? There is something fundamentally wrong with the students themselves. The test has revealed that the students themselves are absolute failures with fundamentally weak minds. This is devastating … and completely false.
My philosophy is quite different. It is my opinion that we all have a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, and it is the point of education … and of life itself … to reveal these qualities within a person and to lead this person to the proper life intended for them. The marks that students get on exams does not reveal the inherent worth of an individual, but rather, they give evidence of talents and weaknesses – both of which are very useful in helping make a decision as to what to do in a future career.
I need only think of my own situation. I have a certain natural talent in math and science, not to mention athletics, and with applied effort, I can perform very highly in these subject areas. But, no matter how well I listen in class, no matter how many hours I work on the homework, and no matter how well I study, I will never excel in social studies, the arts, in music, or in the workshop. Now, does this make me a failure? No, not at all. I was never designed to have a career in those latter areas, and my low marks in those areas made this crystal clear, helping me make sure I did not choose a career that was never meant for me.
So, what are we supposed to say to our children, our students, and the people who are seeking our advice about how to strive in life? Some might think that since I am espousing the revelation of natural abilities, then there is really no need to try at anything. If it comes easily, then it is something worth doing … if it is a struggle, then avoid it like the plague. But that is not my proposal at all.
Instead, and this is something I learned from a former step-mother, it is very important that we place our full effort into all endeavours that are placed before us. This reveals good character, which is a very admirable trait to have in this world. I have ever strived to uphold this as a father to my two boys. If one of them scored a 98% on an exam but did not really apply themselves, then I would be seriously disappointed in him – the mark meant nothing, since it was merely natural ability, but the lackadaisical effort revealed a deficiency in the character, which needed to be addressed immediately for their ultimate benefit. However, if one of my boys scored a 70%, but put their whole heart and soul into the preparation, then I would be so very proud of him.
There is another reason why the students need to put their full effort into each of the subjects. Only then can the marks they receive give them valuable guidance into a future career. You see, if the student does very little and performs poorly on an exam, well this is would be simply because they were lazy or unmotivated, but it has little bearing on their ability or potential in the area. Only when they put in their best effort do the marks have any value for future decision making.
Many times, as a teacher, I have met with students who were heartbroken because they did all I asked of them to prepare for exams and they performed far worse than expected or wished for. They would look at me with eyes that express betrayal (my advice proved to be ineffective) and self-castigation (since they failed in their objective), which is so very heart wrenching for me as a teacher who cares so very much for their success. What startles them is that the first thing I would say to them is how proud I am of them for working so very hard, for doing their very best. I would applaud their character and remind them that if I was a boss or manager, then they would be the kind of worker I would want on my crew, since they have proven themselves to be reliable and hard-working, which I value higher than innate intelligence.
But I would not leave it there. I would also mention to them that receiving such a low score may in fact be directing them in a clear manner towards a different area in life. Physics might not be the career for them. Now I am careful not to make such a pronouncement too early, since there is always a chance that things can change over the semester, year, or decade. But I encourage them with the idea that the marks are merely guideposts, indicators of possible career options for the future. It is their job to observe them carefully and use them to find the best path. A fish out of water fails in every way imaginable, but put it in water and it is nothing short of magnificent.
So, can we do anything we put our minds to? Absolutely not. We tell this to children to bolster their confidence and to encourage them to strive to be their best. But as the children grow up and become teenagers, this message is nothing short of poison that could lead failing students to depression and despair.
Far better to know that we are all full of strengths and limitations, and it is the wise person to become aware of them all, so that they can be guided to a future that suits their unique nature and leads them to complete fulfilment. Success and failure in school should never be associated with a person’s self-worth. A person’s value is instead better represented by their character, their work ethic and determination, things that they have control over and that can be improved.
I felt compelled to share this message in my blog, and I truly hope that it reaches at least one of you when you need it most.