How fortunate we have been the last two weeks, living in the glowing Olympic zeitgeist that has bathed our city of London. It made me smile today as I observed my children doing pretend play in the garden – all their teddies competing and being awarded medals!
The strap line for London 2012 was ‘Inspire a Generation’. I am assuming that by this, the organizers were referring to small(er) people but as I muse on the impact of the games on my children (it worked, they were inspired) I realise that there are important life lessons, for us as parents to pass onto them but also to revisit ourselves as adults.
With many questioning how long the Olympic glow will last here in the UK, as already that familiar cynicism is seeping in, like cold air under the door, I am determined to suck the goodness out of the spirit of the London Olympics, so that the nuggets of eternity that we have touched can live with us long after the athletes have returned home. Here’s what I am learning as I reflect…
1. The Olympics opens us to inclusivity. To me, it demonstrated like no other that our identities are separate and connected What do I mean? During the Olympics we were the global village and we were our separate nations. We were acting deeply out of the sense of our nationhood but we were also relishing our connectedness to others – for without the presence of the family of nations, there would have been no party. One of the things that London 2012 has been praised for was how the crowds showed support for ALL athletes. Sure, we cheered the roof off when Team GB took their turn, but we cheered and encouraged all the athletes. It was beautiful. And for my country, where the debate about multi-culturalism is often hijacked by far-right interest groups, I relished the fact that one of our our most celebrated double gold-medallists, Mo Farah, was a black Muslim, Somali refugee, immigrant. I kid you not, when he won, it felt like a giant two fingers to the nasty brigade who promote a fortress mentality in our social policy (did they cheer?). Yes, lets celebrate our national identities -with pride – but lets do it in an inclusive way, never forgetting that national (and other) identities are ultimately social constructs and the most solid and real thing we know is that we all live on the same revolving rock.
And of course, I cannot mention inclusivity without cheering the increased involvement of women, particularly from the Middle East, and giving huge kudos to Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner who ran with two prosthetic lower limbs. Yup, London 2012 was a window into the way humans CAN be inclusive and that is a lesson that we must inspire our children, our public discourse and our social policy with.
2. The Olympics shows the power of encouragement. OK, I know that there is a correlation between population size, funding and medal tallies. But, it is no surprise to me that Team GB did the best EVER when the British athletes were on their home ground, being uplifted by the cheers of the host nation. We all know that encouragement propels excellence. We feel our own hearts expand and our being grow when someone notices our efforts and praises them, tells us to keep going when its tough and says “you can do it” when we we are on that knife edge of courage / fear. Encouragement is not a formula, but it is a real dynamic. Encouragement urges us to move forward, to achieve, to get through the mental blocks and the failures, to be the best we can be.
Bosses, parents, teachers – take note. Unleash some magic – cheer on your teams, your staff, your children, not just when they achieve but when they are breaking through to a new level with all the frustration and ‘failures’ that entails. Believe in them, believe in their ability to walk their own unique path. Make a flag and wave it if you need to.
3. The Olympics demonstrates the power of aspiration and vision. We are bundles of energy – look at children and you will see that such a statement is not just a fluffy notion! As we grow we make choices about what to do with that energy. We can let it drip and dissipate through our lives like water into cracked, dry soil (lack of power, opportunity and inspiration? Fear of failure or of not being the best?). If we are unfortunate enough to be overshadowed by life’s darker side, there is always the risk that those experiences will taint our energy and we end up using it in a way that causes pain to ourselves or others. Or, we can become aware of what a precious gift our time and energy are and use them to live our lives fully, “leaving the world less grey than when we arrived” to quote Billy Connolly. The power of aspiration and dreaming is huge. I can give no better example of this than the British diver, Tom Daley, who won his first medal last week, aged 18. When he was a young boy, inspired by other diving athletes, he dreamed that one day that would be him. And from then on, he put his energy into training and becoming the best he could be. A few days ago, he released a picture of this page from his diary as a 9 year old:
Does this mean that we all need to dream to be gold medalists, world famous artists, musicians or scientists? Not a bit. But what I believe, and what I want to pass onto my children, is the power of of having dreams, aspirations and of living intentionally. Have one big dream, have many smaller ones (even ones that to others seem mundane), but please please don’t waste the precious energy that is this unrepeatable event of YOU. Harness your energy – gather it up and send it rushing like a stream or river in the direction of something good. Listen to those nagging whispers that come to you again and again. Use vision boards, pictures, writing, music or a mantra if that’s what helps. But don’t get to the end of your life and regret that it slipped through your fingers or that you used your energy in the wrong places. This is one of the messages I take from London 2012 – it is not just for the young, it is for us all.
4. The Olympics demonstrates the necessity of hard work. “It was hard, so hard” cried one athlete last week. I think we have a strange concept of ‘work’ in our modern world. Its a bit of a dirty word (and often this is most justifiably so). But I want to redeem it and I want to pass onto my kids an understanding that work is not the opposite of ‘relaxing’ or ‘playing’ but it is part of the journey to get to where you want to go and become who you want to be. Anything that is worth it takes effort, sustained effort. Try making a mosaic and you will soon discover that once the glow of the idea has dissolved, the hard work sets in! You experience excitement, elation, exhaustion, tedium and frustration all intertwined in the same piece. It is the same with being an athlete, a musician, a writer, a chef, a teacher, a student, a lawyer, a dancer, a parent – yes, especially a parent. It is the hardest and most wonderful thing. Bitter sweet and oh so worth it. Precious things are hard work. Why should they not be? Lets get over it and get on with it. Let us teach our children to expect to work for what they want, for their goals and dreams and achievements. To show up, put in the time to practice their music, their sport, their writing. Let us teach our children the importance of working hard by modelling it to them through our own lives – show them what it looks like to put sustained effort into a goal or venture. And let us all recover some joy in good hard work. Sing, whistle or turn the music up when it gets tough or boring or frustrating! Ask someone to cheer you on through the hard bits – because if you are following your heart, it is worth it. Just remember the look of pain and joy on the faces of those athletes and let it spur you on…
5. The Olympics is a challenge to our ideas of human worth. Watching people lose during London 2012 (or come second and third) was an interesting business. Some cried, some expressed their disappointment and sadness. But some went on to apologise to their country (one athlete, for getting ‘only silver’ and one for getting gold but not scoring 1oo%) as if not coming first is a matter of shame. “No, no, NO” I yelled at the TV. “You gave it your all. You have nothing to apologise for“. Do we really want to encourage our children to be Olympians if they risk ‘not winning’ and crashing in their concept of self worth?
The Olympics underlined the pernicious nature of bundling up our sense of worth (whether I am loved, loveable, worthy of love) with achievement. Am I loved and worthy only if I achieve highly? Or only if I am the best…and keep on being the best? What happens to those who reach these heights, but base their sense of worth on it, when the inevitable happens and they have to bow out to someone younger, stronger, faster? Or if you are beset by accident or illness and can no longer compete?
This is such a challenge to me as I parent my children. How do I convey a deep sense of love and acceptance that is unconditional, whilst encouraging my children to achieve as best they can? The wisdom of educationalist, Carol Dweck, has been a real help to us. The nub of it (as I understand) is that you praise your children’s effort above their achievement. You have to really watch your language so as not to confuse worth and attainment when children think of themselves. In our house, we have tried to ban phrases like “Aren’t you clever?” as it conveys that talent is something fixed that you either have or have not (rather than something that you develop by doing). This has been linked with low motivation and ‘bumming out’, especially in high achieving kids, when for reason or other, they are suddenly not the best. Instead we say “Well done for how hard your worked on that, for how well you moved your fingers on the piano, kicked your legs in the swimming, for sticking with that problem until you worked it out“… We also emphasise that its not how well you have done but its how much you tried that counts. After all, you can get straight A’s but not be using half of your ability. It is about modelling and teaching our children “wholehearted living“, that beautiful way of being that author and researcher Brene’ Brown describes. Or as it says in the Good Book, “Whatever you do, do it with all of your heart“. If we focus our praise on the amount of heart and effort our children put into their endeavours, it puts them in a position of power, since they are in control how much heart and energy they put into a goal (whereas they will never be able to control the ability, life chances and rankings of ‘competitors’). And we must remember that children’s abilities differ greatly. If we praise only greatness, what on earth are we saying to people whose abilities are limited for one reason or other? For every Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, there will be hundreds who work hard and wholeheartedly but will not reach the spotlight. Yes, we need to encourage our children to dream, to achieve, to achieve greatly if that is in their ability, but most importantly, to be the best they can be. As we say in our house “The person you must compete with is yourself – to be better than you were yesterday”.
Yes, the 2012 Olympics has certainly started a magical reaction that has the potential to inspire a generation of children like my own. But how we harness that really matters.
Let us teach our children how to win (with grace)
Lets teach our children how to lose (with their sense of worthiness intact)
Above all, let us convey to them, again and again, that they are beloved, no matter what. Let us separate worth and achievement so that there is no shame in losing or not being ‘the best’.
Let us fill a generation with a deep sense of knowing that they are worthy of love before any great things they may or may not achieve. And to do this, we need to work on our own selves – to believe that we too are truly beloved, unconditionally.
That’s where some real hard work begins.