I’m 50, and, by any reasonable measure, ‘successful’. Not successful as in rich, but successful in that I have more than enough to meet my needs, a happy family life and plenty of exciting things to get up in the morning for. Statistically, I’d say that puts me well into a small global ‘elite’ of happy, fulfilled people.
Yet, almost every molecule of my personal success came from me – and me alone.
Fast-rewind forty or so years or go. I remember my poor, embattled primary school teacher Mrs. Walsh shooing me away so she could talk to my mother in private on parents’ day. When I looked back through the window, all I could see was my head teacher shaking her head from side to side and gesticulating in despair.
And I knew why.
I knew why because it was written on every report card I had ever got from her – and from almost every other teacher in the school. To paraphrase:
“Very intelligent, but doesn’t apply himself”
The poor lady was at her wit’s end with me. I honestly believe she looked on me as her pet ‘rough diamond’ project – and I didn’t polish easily! Like all the teachers before, she saw a potential for something in me that I basically had no interest in. Perhaps she imagined I would make a great doctor or lawyer some day. Looking back now, I can imagine how frustrating that might be to a teacher.
But there was – and still is – something in me. And it had nothing to do with the academic obstacle course that someone else had planned for me. I was insatiably creative and curious. I was brimming with creative ideas. I was bursting with music. I wanted to make things. I built my own radio transmitter when I was 11. I learned guitar and piano, composed and recorded my first (dreadful) ‘album’ at 12 on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder with my own ‘invented’ multitrack techniques.
Everything I applied myself to, I would find some book to get a grasp of the fundamentals then learn the rest myself from trial and error. That was how I learned. That’s how I still learn.
But there were other things in me too. I was shy and lacked confidence. I had anxiety problems and night terrors – brought about most likely through a tumultuous upbringing which included violence and alcoholism. So, while I was by all respects a ‘comfortable’ middle class kid, there were long shadows drawn on my life – that I only managed to escape relatively recently.
When I hit my teen years, my already teetering self-confidence nose-dived. I started becoming reclusive and spent almost all my time recording music alone. I dragged myself through secondary school with little or no interest and finally got served up to the adult world at 17 with a ‘failed’ Leaving Certificate (GCSE) to show for it.
It should come as no surprise then that I found adulting extremely difficult. Finding ‘jobs’ was one thing, keeping them was quite another. I think six months stands to this day as my personal job endurance record. At that time, all I wanted to do was to play music, but everything about the world screamed ‘no’ – and with near zero confidence, I didn’t fight back.
Finally, in the early 90s, I found one job that I could keep. One employer that I could really get along with: Me. I became self-employed in January 1993 and have never worked for anyone else since.
And it was a business I could thrive in: A recording studio. It was no Abbey Road; it was a humble enterprise, but it basically fed and clothed me for twenty years and paid for my house.
So here’s the thing.
All my life, I lived under the shadow of being branded a ‘failure’ by our educational institutions. And much as I tried to ignore it and push ahead anyway, it always hung over me like some inescapable ‘truth’ that I was keeping myself in denial about.
It is really only within the last ten years of my life that I finally found the acumen and resolve to realise that I was incredibly wrong about that and vanquish this debilitating falsehood forever.
It wasn’t me who failed. It was the educational methods that failed to predict my success.
What failed was not me, but the system that tried to rubberstamp me a failure through an inherently flawed testing regimen. Because, as it turns out, I have added considerable value to the world in my various endeavours over the years – yet no academic test or method was ever able to identify or nurture those traits in my early years.
It wasn’t me who failed. It was in fact the educational methods that failed to predict my success.
I am definitely a late bloomer, that’s for sure, but bloom I did. And now I’m in a position to try and right this wrong. If education failed me, how many others have been erroneously sidelined – and continue to be sidelined – because they don’t quite fit the prescribed model?
A few years ago I decided to do something about it and started the LifeGames Company, to explore different avenues of personal development within the existing education system. In 2017, myself and a small group of writers teamed up to create a set of kids’ games that could help foster traits like self-confidence, empathy, social skills and self-actualisation in a fun way that could be done in the classroom alongside traditional lessons.
Amazingly, we’ve had huge interest from teachers all over who also want to try and bring important life lessons right into the classroom.
It seemed to me that what got me through better in life was not facts, figures or tests, but having the ability to express my wishes and communicate properly, be true to myself, understand other people better, and learn how to deal with external and internal adversity. To me, these are infinitely more useful.
Sure, I have used Pythagoras on occasion, but nowadays I don’t even need to. I could just punch that into Google and get the answer much faster than any calculator or pen. But learning how to manage my expectations, realise my goals and prosper emotionally and socially – those are a bit more tricky.
I hope some day that my own destructive educational experience might actually become a positive force towards helping to change it.
Since Einstein is perhaps the most famous example of education failing the person, it’s fitting to close with this quote: (NB. It’s highly unlikely that he ever said this, but it’s often attributed to him and sums up my quarrel elegantly)
Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
PS. I would love to hear from other people who believe they were adversely affected or held back in life by traditional educational methods. Please drop a comment below and let’s swap notes?