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Perfection Paralysis

5/12/17: This week Sarah Thomas considers why we shouldn't let a focus on perfection prevent us from doing our best.

I’ve been thinking recently about perfection. I think it’s true to say that I have, from my earliest years, known that whilst I would like everything to be neat and tidy and practically perfect in every respect (Mary Poppins being something of a role model of mine, closely followed by the wonderful Joan Hickson as Miss Marple), you can’t, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger, always get what you want. Indeed perfection can be paralysing.

It worries me that the notion of perfection is so prevalent in the media and elsewhere that it can be all too much for our children. Please don’t misinterpret me, I am absolutely clear that we should all aim to do our best. I’m rather thinking of the pursuit of perfect cleverness, perfect appearance, perfect lives. But it’s hard to do your best if you feel from the very start that there’s no way you can be as good as some seemingly perfect peer; or if you know that, despite your best efforts, you are unlikely to achieve as highly as your teachers or parents would like you to. And it’s hard too being the seemingly perfect one. That’s what I mean about perfection having a paralysing effect.

It’s why at Bryanston we focus so much upon how each pupil does according to their abilities and interests and efforts, as opposed to how they compare to others, either in or outside the school. In this age of league tables, where it seems everything, even the uncomparable, must be compared, ours is a radical approach. But the value we add by the sixth form in terms of both academic and other outcomes is something of which I am very proud, as I am of the achievements of Old Bryanstonians and the contributions they make to the wider world. I very much hope, for a multiplicity of reasons, no Bryanstonian thinks that the world owes them a living. And that they all go on to lead happy, fulfilled and contributive lives.

The way to deal with all this focus on perfection and the fear of helplessness in the face of it is, in my view, to remember your Voltaire (“le mieux est l’ennemi du bien”) and aim not for the perfect, but the good. This approach has a profound effect upon your sense of self-esteem: if you know what you are doing is your best, and that it is recognised as such rather than belittled, you are likely to feel much better about yourself. It allows you also to divest yourself of the feeling of desperation or helplessness that can creep in, often from consulting social media or the popular press about the world at large.

We live, perhaps sadly but certainly bracingly, in interesting times. I think our job as educators is to recognise and react to the changing world, ensuring pupils leave ready to embrace the new opportunities that will open up (so, for instance, we are strengthening our computer science provision with a new high-level appointment from September 2018), but also maintaining the framework which has proven its worth over generations, in terms of teaching pupils how to learn and, as it happens, how to be positive. 

At Bryanston, I see this philosophy in action every day, through our remarkable tutorial system. I see it also in the approach of our Director of Sport and the exciting new developments he has introduced, so that all can enjoy sport both in and beyond school. I see it in the exceptional music and drama (and if you didn’t see My Fair Lady, I am very sorry for you, as you missed an enormous treat: I saw it twice!). I see it on every occasion that we place our trust in our pupils to rise to the challenges that face them. I am enormously proud, for instance, of our First XV Captain, Ellis B (P, A2), who has shaped a team which lost more than they would have wished before half term into one which was unbeaten this side of half term until, agonisingly, their very last game. Because of that experience, the boys now form a fully committed team with a sense of common purpose and individual drive. And Ellis is to be congratulated for his major part in that and also for his very recent selection to the U18 Wales squad. I am proud too of how the whole school rose this term to the challenge of raising our annual amount of £1,000 per house (which would mean a school total of £12,000), to support our long-standing school link with charities in Nepal. The total currently stands at £17,000 and rising. And I was beyond proud to hear of how our money raised for the fantastic David Nott Foundation (the charity chosen by last year’s A2 in spring 2017) has been helping fund training courses for surgeons around the world and has specifically helped in Bangladesh, supporting doctors treating the Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing, often with cruel injuries, from ethnic violence in Myanmar.

This year’s Heads of School, Harry G and Lotte T, are now planning for the A2 Charity Weekend for next term. They’ll be in touch with pupils, staff and parents early next term and they are eager to make sure they lead another successful and contributive charity event in February. They also, incidentally, provide me with some of the best conversations of my week and are outstanding role models to the school.

It’s a privilege running a school like Bryanston. My main role is to ensure that all pupils can leave here ready for this world of ours, whatever shape it will take, and knowing that doing your best, in the classroom or outside it, is always good enough and can sometimes be absolutely brilliant. And that’s the way to stay sane, avoid perfection paralysis and enjoy life with all its ups and downs. Have a super Christmas and all best wishes for 2018.