Do you remember being told as a child that ‘you can do better’? Do you recall how that made you feel – encouraged, perhaps? Despondant? The other day I posted an oft quoted phrase on a well-known media platform and asked for comments. What I didn’t say was WHY I was interested in the feedback. This is the reason.
Some years ago a young person experienced severe self-doubt over school-related performance, which compounded already very low self-esteem. In the course of therapy, this person was told, ‘The enemy of the best is the good enough.’ Devastated, the young person interpreted the quote to mean that only the best is good enough.
Redoubling their efforts, the young person excelled in their chosen subject at university, only to suffer a complete breakdown as a result. Despite attaining academic excellence, they never felt that they had earned the accolades they had been given, because ‘good enough’ wasn’t ‘the best’.
Subsequently, when the young person recently heard the phrase again, their reaction was one of dismay – much to the surprise of the person who quoted it. And this is why.
The Soviet T34 was fast to manufacture, easy to drive, quick to manoeuvre and reasonably well armed. In the face of such opposition, the German army reacted by producing tanks that were far superior and massively over-engineered. As a result they could not produce enough of these gold-plated versions to outgun the Soviet tanks. In this instance, it was the number of tanks that counted, not the quality. As General Zhukov said, ‘The enemy of the best is good enough.’
Hearing this, the young person thought about it for a while and then, looking up, said, “I have spent my life thinking that in order to be accepted at school and to be of value to society, I had to be the best, but no matter how hard I tried I could never be perfect.”
To this young person, the phrase meant the opposite of its intended meaning.
Throughout childhood and into adolescence, young people are exhorted to try harder, do better, never accept ‘good enough’. A quick search online of the word ‘encouragement’ came up with dozens of images of high-achieving children and advice on how to improve their educational outcomes. Few showed alternative concepts of success. Even where parents are given tips on how to raise a child to be kind, helpful, and resilient, the values placed on these virtues rarely filter into systems used to gauge results. Effective parenting – and by default, the competence of the parent – is itself judged by the success of the child. Attainment is measured in scores and grades, goals set and targets met. By the time they reach adulthood, many people are wired and primed to respond to similar phases in the way the young person did – not in terms of being encouraged, but with raised levels of anxiety at the implied criticism. How many of us recognise the anxious child within ourselves, the one who feels they don’t deserve praise, who ‘must do better’?
As a society, we want our children to strive and to make the best of the opportunities offered to them. Empty praise is just that and does nothing to encourage individual expectations. But there is also an undercurrent of cultural unease in the way children are raised that speaks of a fear of featherbedding young people and which says that praise will undermine effort and therefore performance. Raise the bar, make them work for it. But the bar is also a rod used to beat under-achievers.
Attainment is a matter of societal and individual viewpoint driven by a history of ambition and fear. We are all the victims of these pernicious attitudes and the perpetrators. Only by recognising the effect of our inherited perspective towards success and the language that surrounds it, can we modify and change the way we approach our children’s future. Our best is good enough.