The other week I had a meltdown cooking carrots. I had failed to cook them properly, stupidly misreading the recipe, which meant it was 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night after a long, hard week at work and dinner still wasn’t ready. I was getting more wound up by the minute as I stared at my flaccid, undercooked carrots through the oven door, while my partner laughed, both amused and bewildered by my reaction to an inadequate side dish. He could not understand. They were just carrots. But in my head, I had planned a lovely home-cooked dinner for the two of us, and I had failed. It wasn’t good enough.
I’ve never been good at not being good enough. Failure doesn’t sit well with me. When I was 11, I got into the top girls’ school in our area. It was known for academic excellence and I remember being baffled by friends from other schools asking if the teachers were really tough and if we got long detentions. There were no detentions at our school. Apart from being reprimanded for being too sassy on occasion, we all took school far too seriously to mess around. The pressure came from ourselves more than the teachers. We were highly competitive, ambitious girls from the outset, and constantly comparing ourselves against each other.
My schooling was the best thing that happened to me. It helped me become the independent woman I am today. I attribute my great job in journalism to it as well as my vibrant social life – my school stressed the importance of social skills, too. But in a way it also cursed me. It conditioned me to become someone who always expects the best of themselves, and finds it difficult to handle failures of any kind. It encouraged me to believe that my self-worth was based strictly on my achievements. (Hence the carrot tantrum.)
The ingrained anxiety from constant pressure to perform likely stems from my school days of multiple examinations, which teachers in the UK are now concerned about. Earlier this year, research commissioned by the National Union of Teachers highlighted the mental strain this kind of system places on students . 94% of secondary school teachers said they’d seen youngsters develop stress-related illnesses around the time of exams. Now it feels like the constant drive for perfection in such an over-tested environment is also being addressed, particularly in top schools like the one I attended, with one headmistress, Heather Hanbury, making headlines in 2012 when she introduced ‘failure week’ to Wimbledon High School. “The girls need to learn how to fail well – and how to get over it and cope with it,” Hanbury said. “The pupils are hugely successful but can sometimes overreact to failure even though it can sometimes be enormously beneficial to them.” This is a concern shared by similar schools across the UK. Last year King’s College School, also in Wimbledon, held a conference where delegates from over 200 schools and mental health experts gathered to discuss ways in which ‘emotional resilience’ could be better taught in schools. Delightfully, they called it ‘True Grit.’
I’ve been trying my hardest to conquer these feelings of what is essentially a disproportionate sense of failure, this ‘school girls curse,’ learning to identify for them what they really are. Even though I’ve been out of academia for nearly a decade, I still miss the validation that comes with a good grade. I work hard but results are not as easy to assess in the real world. People don’t always have time to tell you you’re doing a good job and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just don’t go your way. You fail and there is nothing you can do about it. That’s when a sense of inadequacy creeps into my consciousness and, if I am not careful, overwhelms me. A strict regime of pressure and praise might help you get results as a child, but searching for the same thing in adult life leads to frustration and disappointment. And maybe self-esteem that relies so heavily on external factors will always be vulnerable. I sometimes wish that my education had put a little less emphasis on preparing me for Latin exams, and a little more on resilience in the face of limp carrots.