Matthew Syed

Dare to be Brilliant!

31st August 2018

Lisa Botwright finds out more about a new motivational book for children…

“The problem is that children only see the end result. They don’t see all the effort that goes into that result,” explains writer, speaker and former sports champion Matthew Syed. He gives the example of David Beckham: how much time and effort the young David put into his beloved football throughout his childhood. At the age of seven, it’s reported, David could manage a pretty average three keepie uppies; after practising every day for six months, he was up to a more impressive 200 – but by the age of nine he was able to perform a staggering 2,003… which took 15 minutes in total and made his legs ache.

Matthew’s already written about his belief that ‘toil transcends talent’ in his bestselling motivational reads Bounce and Black Box Thinking – and now he’s written a new book especially for children: the funny, moving and inspirational You are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything.

The crux of the book is that “nobody hits the perfect note on the first attempt at singing, or finds they can effortlessly dribble a football straightaway.” As Matthew points out, “it’s a question of learning from experience and recognising that any learning experience involves making plenty of mistakes.”
Matthew argues that it’s the fear of making mistakes – the anticipation of academic, sporting, even social failure – that’s getting in the way of young people reaching their potential.

“Our brains can be pretty fragile… and sometimes it’s our thoughts and worries that hold us back.… When faced with something tricky, it’s easy to go ‘nah’ in order to avoid giving it a shot and risk the shame of failing badly.”

Psychologist Dr Carol Dweck, whom Matthew references in the book, has brought her term ‘growth mindset’ into the mainstream as a way describing successful people who are unafraid to ‘have a go’, in contrast to people with a ‘fixed mindset’ who believe inflexibly that they’re either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at something. It’s an important distinction, since a recent study by psychologists from the University of Bath, the first to examine generational differences in perfectionism over the past three decades, reports that young people’s desire to be flawless has skyrocketed over the past thirty years – leading to a growing number of cases of mental illness, including eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

For the social media generation, already competing with their idols’ and peers’ seemingly flawless but digitally edited lives, an intrinsic desire to succeed can easily mutate into a paralysing fear of failure. While this might manifest as a manic, anxiety-driven work ethic – often, to the chagrin of teachers and parents, it presents as debilitating apathy.
Reading this book prompted me to share four decades’ worth of fiascos, failures and flops with my teenage son. As parents, we need to do more to model how we’ve overcome and what we’ve learned from the mistakes we’ve made.

Matthew – three times men’s singles champion at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships and Great Britain Olympian in 1992 and 2000 – shares how his life could have been very different without his own growth mindset when his parents brought home a second-hand table tennis table back in the 80s and put it in the garage. The boy who grew up to be lauded by international judges and sporting peers for his lightning reflexes, was initially crushed and humiliated – first by his dad’s superior ping pong skills and then his brother’s. He claims he could so easily have given up at that time, and nearly did so, but he ‘felt some kind of knot in his stomach’ and persevered…

This is a wonderful, uplifting page-tuner even for reluctant readers. I left it on my PlayStation-fanatic son’s bedside table, and amazingly, not only did it get read, but it also opened up a dialogue about his ambitions and worries.

I regularly tell my children that they’re awesome – but sometimes they need some outside input to help build that level of positivity too…

‘You Are Awesome’ by Matthew Syed (pictured above), published by Wren and Rook is available from all good bookshops RRP £9.99

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