The numbers don’t lie

According to a June 2021 article by an Australian Government agency, the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, our young people aren’t doing too well.

“In 2013–14, 1 in 5 (20%) young people aged 11–17 had either high or very high levels of psychological distress (13% and 6.6%, respectively).
In 2017–18, an estimated 339,000 young people aged 18–24 (15%) experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress.
In 2013–14, an estimated 245,000 young people aged 12–17 (14%) experienced a mental disorder, with males more commonly affected than females (16% compared with 13%).
In 2019, there were 461 deaths by suicide among young people aged 15–24, a rate of 14 per 100,000 young people.”

Those are some pretty scary numbers!

The article goes on to ask whether the rates of mental health are the same for everyone. It turns out they aren’t.

“In 2013–14, based on the Young Minds Matter survey, the prevalence of mental health disorders among young people aged 12–17 was:

5 times as high among those born in Australia as among those born overseas (16% and 6.2%, respectively)
6 times as high in Outer regional areas as in Major cities (21% and 13%, respectively)
3 times as high among young people living in areas of lowest socioeconomic status as among those living in areas of highest socioeconomic status (23% and 9.9%, respectively).”

You could reach a lot of conclusions from these numbers, but what jumps out at me is that the people who appear to be having the hardest time are those that could be described as having fewer choices in life or may have cause to consider their situation in life as hopeless.

In his book The Self Illusion, experimental psychologist and philosopher Bruce Hood, says, “If you remove an individual’s perception of control, then they experience uncertain situations as stressful, thereby generating anxiety that impairs both the immune system and the capacity to think clearly.” He goes on to say, “Giving people choices, or at least the perception of control, empowers them to tolerate more adversity.”

In my opinion, there are two areas worth considering. What Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Angela Duckworth calls grit, which deals with the value of perseverance over talent, and the different kinds of talent that kids may have.

It’s all about grit

In her book titled Grit, Angela Duckworth talks about her early work with a range of organisations, including the US West Point military academy and the US Special Forces Green Beret program. These organisations recruit candidates who are high achievers in all areas – track stars, academic high achievers, and proven leaders.

They wanted to work out whether it was possible to predict which candidates would complete the gruelling selection process and which of them would throw in the towel. It turns out that ability or talent had nothing to do with whether a candidate would finish the selection process, what mattered was how high they tested for grit, which according to the Cambridge Dictionary is “courage and determination despite difficulty”.

If grit isn’t something that’s seen or modelled at home, then school could be somewhere it might be learnt, giving children the tools to weather some of the storms they’ll face, not only at school but as adults.

Different kinds of talent

The school system is centred around fostering academic excellence and the kids all know where they fit in. The smart ones, the average ones, and the ones who find school a struggle.  The ones who take comfort in following rules and the ones who struggle against a system that expects them to care about things that hold no interest for them.

The system is essentially modelled on something that was designed to produce workers for industry. Workers are required to remember relevant facts, follow instructions, and take comfort in the familiarity and certainty of continued employment and a regular wage.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but our children are going to need to solve more complex problems than any we’ve had to solve before. I’m not suggesting we should dump this responsibility in the laps of our school principals and walk away, but if this many children are experiencing this much distress, perhaps it’s time to consider talking about the qualities and intelligence they have that sets them apart, and the relationship between intelligence, determination and success.

What I’m talking about are the qualities that are immediately observable in a child, that they wouldn’t notice themselves. Maybe they’re great at reading people and smoothing the waters, or never taking no for an answer, or disregarding the rules if they don’t suit them. Instead of labelling the kids who disregard the rules as bad, I wonder what would happen if we helped those kids see that being able to disregard the rules is one of the skills that innovative thinkers normally have – provided they can think through the consequences of the rule breaking and decide whether the consequences are worth it? We could challenge them to consider what other rules could be up for grabs if they could anticipate positive outcomes that are being prevented from coming to life because of outdated and unhelpful constraints.

The kids who never take no for an answer and probably irritate the hell out of the teacher could be helped to see that this can be a fantastic trait to have. Determination like this is one of the superpowers that’s a predicter of success, provided they learn strategies for turning it on and off and for using it for unselfish motives.

The adults I work with as coaching clients often still aren’t aware of the qualities that they have that other people and potential clients are drawn to or repelled by. Once they’re aware of them, it’s so much easier for them to be objective about themselves and create an accurate identity.

So, if we could give kids the benefit of this wisdom, imagine how much heartache could be avoided when they feel like they don’t compare to the studious, sporty, or beautiful kid who gets all the attention? Wouldn’t it be more productive to give kids who are likely to slip out of the system and into the illegal economy or psych system a more accurate sense of their own identity as someone who has the tools and capacity to be a force for change?

When they’re given the opportunity to see what achievement could look like for people like them, perhaps through modelling and mentorship (more about getting the right sort of people back into the economy in society on day 10) imagine how many problems could be solved in one go? That my friends, is called a circular solution.

The building blocks for success

The third age of man is a knowledge economy, informed by science and tempered by philosophy. If we want enlightened world citizens, we need to create them. To do this, kids need to understand what the building blocks of success at anything are. A person doesn’t have a tidy desk because they’re successful, they are successful because they have a tidy desk.

By the time our kids pass into adulthood, they should know how to think for themselves and care for themselves, what habits translate into achievement, and how to break down a big goal into small, actionable steps. They should know how business works, how money works, what philosophy is, why what you spend is more important than what you earn, and that happiness is a choice.

They should get a chance to see how people like them do great things. If they’re lucky, they’ll have a mentor in their life who’s wise and kind.

They need to know that adversity is inevitable and that bouncing back from failure is something you get better at with practice. The people who they consider to be successful haven’t won every fight they’ve stepped into the ring for, they’ve just gotten back up more often than their opponent. They should learn that it’s okay when other people don’t like them, because odds are they don’t like everyone either.

They should understand where food comes from, that how you look is only important to people who have no other cards to play. They should know that being kind is like making magic and showing compassion for no return, addictive. They should know that they’re not powerless, ever. Even if they think they have no choice in a situation, they do. Choosing how they’re going to feel about things that happen to them is the most powerful weapon they’ll ever have.

The people we need in our future are risk takers and audacious thinkers who can balance altruism with ambition. People with a single-minded determination that probably irritated a few teachers along the way. People like Elon Musk, who’ve redefined altruism and success.

A matter of perspective

I’ll leave you with a final observation from Bruce Hood that’s relevant here, “Consider ten-year-old children who were told that their performance on a test was either due to their natural intelligence or their ability to work hard. Both sets were then given a really difficult second task that was well beyond their capability, which no one could complete. However, in a third test, the children who thought their initial successes on the first task were due to their intelligence, also gave up more easily because they attributed their failure on the second task to their limited natural ability, which made them less likely to persevere on the last task. In contrast, children who thought their performance was all down to hard work not only stuck longer on the third task but also enjoyed it more. So it’s better to tell your kids that they are hard workers rather than simply smart.”

What you can do

If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.

The Self Illusion : Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head – Bruce Hood
Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success – Angela Duckworth