My younger days as an aspiring classical pianist taught me two unexpected lessons about life. The first lesson was about grit and how to ‘stick’ with something when things became difficult, frustrating or – worst – boring. I learnt very early on that you cannot cheat your way around hard work and practice, and that there was no magic or secret to learning the piano. It was simply hard work, persistence and more hard work.
The second lesson was about confidence, and how confidence could often be more important than competence when it comes to the moments that really count. It doesn’t matter that you might have played a piece perfectly a million times before, if you cannot nail it on the day of the performance. Performance anxiety is cruel, but the blessing and curse of being a performer is the fact that constantly confronting self-doubt enables you to eventually come to terms with fear.
I had a conversation with a friend recently about why some people end up more successful than others. I’ve been thinking a lot about the determinants of success since then, and particularly success in the context of “ceilings”. These ceilings, that are said to unfairly impede certain groups of people from progressing in their careers, include the “bamboo” ceiling (Asians), the “glass” ceiling (women) and the “class” ceiling (underprivileged backgrounds).
There are various explanations offered for why these ceilings exist, but the common theme throughout is the understanding that being technically proficient – that is, having good grades or the relevant qualifications and experience – is not enough.
In the same way that mental toughness is often cited in sport as being what separates the good from the great, I think confidence and grit is what separates those who are seen to “break” the ceiling from those who remain trapped underneath. Our education system is designed to focus on teaching the things that are easily tested and measurable. The “soft” skills (or, what could equally be called “life” skills) tend to be forgotten and abandoned. Yet it is often the education that occurs outside the classroom that really matters.
Confidence and resilience are two sides of the same coin. You need to first believe that what you want to do is possible, and then to push on despite failure, pressure and set-backs in order to achieve it. Confidence and resilience is the difference between someone who has the courage to ask and to take opportunities when they come knocking, and the person who never dares to raise their hand and who will give up at the slightest glimpse of failure. As a mentor once reminded me, you miss 100% of the shots you never take.
The problem is, however, that a lack of confidence can quickly lead to a negative cycle of disengagement – and that’s a very difficult thing to recover from.
It’s a shame that our schools and universities don’t teach students to become confident and mentally resilient individuals because many people – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – often lack the resources at home to develop these skills on their own. I have a hunch that an important step in overcoming ceilings is to think harder about the education that young people need for the real world, and what we can do to ensure that all children – irrespective of their background and circumstances – have the opportunity to grow into confident and resilient individuals.