Breaking the ceiling

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.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking the ceiling

  1. In the words of Lombardi –
    “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later, the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” 🙂

  2. Hi Alice,

    Great post – what you’ve written reminds of something I read recently about the work of psychologist Martin Seligman who started a pilot programme at Geelong Grammar School a few years back in which he worked with the school to integrate aspects of positive psychology (e.g. resilience, engagement, meaning, nurturing signature strengths) into the wider curriculum. It’s an ongoing project that’s still in its early days, but there is an interesting introduction to it in a chapter of Seligman’s book ‘Flourish’ which you may find interesting.

    I agree that grit and confidence are two crucial character traits to successful and flourishing people. If I think about the people I know who have these traits in spades, there’s one common thing that comes to mind about them: the way they perceive and narrativise setbacks and challenges.

    While the predominant mindset in education (and sometimes in parenting) is that mistakes/difficulties/setbacks should be avoided at all costs, many successful people see them as crucial opportunities for building a personal reservoir of gritty experiences – the very experiences that result in unshakeable confidence.

    An example is to compare winning a raffle prize to breaking one’s arm. Winning a free prize by chance is a pleasant experience, but it isn’t something that provides a lot of scope for character-defining action (except perhaps donating the prize to someone else who needs it more). While breaking an arm is initially unpleasant/painful, the ensuing period of time is an opportunity for them to make a choice about how to respond. That response (e.g. rehabilitation, learning about their body, understanding how to take better care of themselves, etc.) then becomes a ‘keystone’ part of their identity capital that they can draw on in the future, providing a building block towards resilience.

    Of course, I am in no way advocating that we go out of our way to make kids lives more difficult, or that we race towards carelessness (as some mistakes are still best avoided if possible). But I think it’s important to cultivate an attitude of embracing setbacks and challenges as an ordinary part of the marathon journey that is life, and to see every event as an opportunity for growth. After all, it’s not about raising kids who expect perfection (from life or from themselves), but it’s about giving them the faculties to find fulfillment and meaning in what is often an unpredictable and tumultuous world. This of course requires that we also take a good look at what and who we lionise as a society, in our media, our classrooms and our living rooms (but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion… ).

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