Pressure to succeed
Children and teens growing up today feel an immense pressure to be successful. I recently read that high schoolers in the Netherlands named “money” as one of their main concerns. They see people live extravagant lives on Instagram and think that if they don’t achieve that, they have basically failed in life. This is a recipe for anxiety and other mental health problems. In this article, I like to address my concerns and share 13 ideas on what I believe we can do about it.
Children see people live extravagant lives on Instagram and think that if they don’t achieve that, they have basically failed in life.
We live in a meritocracy. Meritocracy is the idea that there is a ruling or influential class of educated or able people. Where being part of the ruling class used to be something you were born into, in a meritocracy, this has become a position that is achievable by anyone. That sounds positive, right? Well, there are downsides to it.
The principle of meritocracy implies a few things. For one, it implies we are all responsible for the level of success we achieve in society. Secondly, it implies that those who end up “on top” with the biggest salaries and the most visibility are there because they deserve to be. Thirdly, it has a very clear definition of what success is. It is not the carpenter, not the plumber or the baker, not even the teacher or the administrative personnel of a hospital, but the doctor, the famous actor, the lawyer, the architect, the CEO and the politician. And fourthly, it equates this very narrow definition of success with power.
Let’s break down why that is problematic.
Problem 1: We are all responsible for the level of success we achieve
In an ideal world, were there is no discrimination of any kind, no classism, racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, this could in theory be considered fair. I don’t think I need to explain very much that there is no society in the world in which there is no discrimination of any kind. Therefor, we start off this meritocracy at the wrong foot, essentially blaming those who are discriminated against for their societal disadvantage, saying: “You didn’t achieve success even though institutes are skewed against you? That’s your fault.” Positive discrimination could be a temporary solution, in that it momentarily suspends the disadvantage of discrimination and helps get more minorities in positions of power, which is an essential step to change discrimination in society. However, it is good to remember that our society is in no way even close to the ideal in which every person has the same access to every institution in society and can become whatever they want to become without coming across any systemic hurdles that have nothing to do with their capacity. For as long as the playing field is not evened out, we can’t say we are all responsible for the level of success we achieve.
Telling ethnic minorities to meditate to deal with the stress that comes from the discrimination they face is putting the responsibility of an unfair system on the shoulders of the individual that suffers from it.
There is an entire industry that tells us that if we have the right morning routine, if we challenge our limiting beliefs, if we meditate every day, if we manage our time perfectly, if we teach ourselves to read faster, to eat healthy, to work out daily, success will come to us. As someone who loves yoga and teaches it to children, who eats healthily and works out regularly, I want to make sure you don’t get me wrong: I believe these things can help us live happy healthy lives and manage our stress levels. It is easy to see however how some people use these tools to further propagate the responsibility of the individual in achieving success. Yes, we can learn to manage our stress with yoga. But some people experience more stress than others, due to the unfair make up of our society. Telling ethnic minorities to meditate to deal with the discrimination they face or an overweight person to lose weight so they will get the job they want, is putting the responsibility of an unfair system on the shoulders of the individual that suffers from it. We need to pay close attention to continue to work towards the goal of changing the unfairness in society, not the people that are hurt by it.
Problem 2: Those who end up on top, are there because they deserve to be
The other side of the coin is that if the playing field is not level, not only can we not blame people for their lack of success, we can also not fully attribute the success of those in positions of wealth and power to their individual merit. If a lack of full-time work experience in recent graduates in women is framed as ‘inexperienced’ and in men as ‘promising talent’, we already know who will get the job, even if their CV’s may be exactly the same. Not to mention CV’s with a foreign-sounding name on it. They often don’t even get the chance to come in to have the job interview. People tend to (unconsciously or not) hire people who are similar to them, which automatically creates fewer work opportunities for ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, or anyone who openly identifies as LGTBQA+.
People tend to hire people who are similar to them, which automatically creates fewer work opportunities for ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, or anyone who openly identifies as LGTBQA+.
It is therefore important to reject the notion that money and fame come to those who deserve it and that every word that comes from their mouths is worth hearing. We need to understand that our idealization of the elite, which materializes in clicking on that clickbate, buying the gossip magazines, following the rich and famous on Instagram etc., leads to more of the same. The opposite of idealizing the elite is celebrating efforts of ordinary people who try to change the status quo.
Problem 3: The equation of success and status with money
What does it mean to be successful? Like I mentioned before, the ideology of the meritocracy worships the millionaires, the social media influencers, those whose every opinion is printed in bold headlines across the media. This is the level of the meritocratic ideal that is deeply felt by middle and high school students. For children over 12 years old, nothing is more important than to be highly regarded by their peers. Children who fake sponsorship deals on Instagram to seem cool among their friends are so frequent, it is becoming a problem for some brands who don’t necessarily want to be associated with that age group.
In a society where you need to excel to be considered worthy of any regard, some children feverishly try to study. And some of them actually manage to achieve these high grades. It seems they are flourishing but they are highly unstable, as their entire self-worth depends on the height of their grades. Some students try their best but fail because of a fear of failure. Another group doesn’t even attempt to study and prefer to reject the ideal altogether, again out of a fear of failure. Perhaps they look for other role models, who haven’t gone to school and achieved fame and fortune some other way. The glorified Rockstar is an example of this kind. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll can be considered a more achievable ideal, with an equally high status amongst their young peers.
That the working class has been robbed of all its pride is highly problematic. Being able to make things, fix things, organize things, grow things are honorable skills and jobs. If we only emphasize the merit of academic skills and for most of us unachievable goals of becoming famous millionaires, we simultaneously degrade these important skills and crafts and the people that have worked hard to master them.
Problem 4: The equation of status and money with power
If being a nobody isn’t bad enough, the media landscape of today gives the impression that only those with money can influence the world around them. This is a harmful and false image that breeds frustration. Grassroots organizations have always existed and if you look for evidence, you will see that they managed to bring about great change. Labor unions, NGO’s, small entrepreneurs; do’ers that work even when nobody is watching, because they believe change is necessary and can be achieved one step at a time. It is like Patti Smith sang years ago: “The People Have The Power.”
Not believing you have power can create apathy and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Not believing you have power can create apathy. This is very harmful and can create mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. I am also worried it brings about a new generation that believes that without a million-euro investment, nothing can be done to change the status quo, so they won’t even try. The truth is every one of us has power. We have power as consumers, by making conscious decisions on how to spend our money. We have the political power to vote for representatives when we are over 18. And most importantly, we have the power to start small passion projects that change the way we live, one step, one child, one reader at a time. It is why I started this blog. Anyone of us can do something like that. We all have power. It doesn’t depend on status or money.
How we can help children navigate around the pressure to succeed
Below I share some ideas of what can be done to counter these harmful meritocratic ideas, but this list is by no means exhaustive. I hope it inspires you to think of others. Do let me know when you think of them and try them out!
- We can help the children in our lives by not praising the results of their efforts, but the efforts in itself.
- We can teach them that failing forward is the best way to learn and become wiser: That if we allow ourselves to make mistakes and reflect on them, we learn faster than we ever would if we were trying to avoid making mistakes.
- We can celebrate all kinds of skills, also – perhaps especially those – who won’t be rewarded by society with a high status and a big salary.
- We can praise children for being kind, which is achievable regardless of skill and level of intelligence.
- We can help children develop a healthy self-esteem by spending time with them without any pressure to perform, giving them attention without expecting anything in return. The implicit message of this moment is that they are worth your time and attention, even if they are not doing anything special. This can already be applied to babies, but it is even still valid for adults. In RIE it is called ‘wants nothing time’: Time that you spend with a child, without wanting anything from the child.
- We can help children figure out what their talents are, so that they know how they can positively contribute to society.
- We can help children increase their self-reliance. A child who can independantly cope with unfamiliar situations feels confident.
- We can say “thank you” to the baker and the bus driver, showing the children among us the importance of their work and the positive contribution they make to society.
- We can show children how difficult it is to grow vegetables organically, how much blood sweat and tears goes into a kilo of potatoes.
- We can try to build something with them, a table, or a chair, just to understand what skill goes into making one.
- We can try to fix the toaster when it is broken, to understand the clever engineering behind it.
- We can take children into nature, to show them that in nature beauty comes effortlessly when each element, the flora and the fauna, contribute to the ecosystem in their own natural way.
- Show children how ordinary people use their power to positively influence society from within: Celebrate the initiatives of grassroots movements, take children to demonstrations, involve them in the collection of signatures, organizing fundraisers, doing volunteer work, take them with you when you vote, tell them why you don’t buy some things and why you do buy others. This helps children to see that they too can do things to make a positive contribution to society.
Let us redefine success so that the children in our lives can experience it.
I hope this article left you with some understanding of the perspective of the student of today. They grow up in a vastly different environment than we did. The difference between the have’s and the have not’s in the world has – thanks to the internet – never been more visible. This can cause anxiety in children. Let us help them balance this image by providing them with real-life experiences, that help them discover their talents and grow their sense of self-worth based on their efforts and their unique capacities, not the material results of their work. Let us redefine success so that the children in our lives can experience it.
How about you?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts and ideas for solutions to this problem. To share them, you can react below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you! And if you’ve found it interesting, please share this blog with your friends.