You Are Awesome: Matthew Syed on the Secret to Success
Journalist, two-time Olympian and bestselling author of Bounce, Matthew Syed is back with his first book for children, You Are Awesome, a guide to help inspire and empower young readers to find the confidence to realise their potential.
As we approach a frenetic summer of performace-testing activities from the World Cup to exam season, Syed offers his advice on the real keys to success.
The football World Cup is about to kick off, Wimbledon is getting the strawberries ripe for Centre Court and the frenzy of school exams is upon us. So, as all of these ‘competitions’ get under way, one might start to wonder what it takes to excel, and what the secret to success really is.
In a world of glossy Instagram images, perfectly staged Facebook posts and a slew of reality TV shows offering instant fame and fortune, those can be difficult questions to unpick. But it transpires that our view on success, and how it happens, is crucial to whether we achieve it or not.
Many of us won’t remember the 1950s. A now unimaginable time with no Internet and no mobile phones. But it was a time when there was a definite and visible connection between hard work, determination and reward. People went out to work, many in to manual jobs, and at the end of the working week they were handed their hard-earned wages, in cash. For most, Friday evening presented a clear choice, how shall I choose to spend the results of my efforts this week.
But today, it seems that connection between effort and the resultant reward has been somewhat broken. You can order the latest trainers online, they can be delivered before you wake up and you can pay for them on your credit card. The selfie of you wearing them can be ‘liked’ by your friends before you’ve even earned the money to pay for them.
And this presents a problem, particularly for our young people. When reality TV shows imply that fame and fortune can happen overnight, and access to cheap credit provides instant retail gratification, it may seem like our dreams can be realised without requiring any effort. So how do we instil in our children the motivation for hard work, grit, determination and, crucially, the ability to fail without falling apart?
The answer lies in our ability to reframe the way we think about success, and embrace the reality that it almost never happens overnight. You only need to look at the narrative behind those who have achieved great things to realise that it is the product of thousands of hours of practice, the desire to push beyond their comfort zone and the ability to consider the inevitable mistakes along the way as opportunities to learn.
But when we are confronted with a world-class performance or a glamorous filtered photo, we only see the outcome. We do not see the years of effort involved in the lead-up to that moment, the failures, mistakes and the motivation to learn and improve every step of the way. So, it’s easy to make the mistake of believing that success is something that happens quickly, to others, who have talents that we simply do not possess.
None of this is to imply that luck or talent are irrelevant. But they are just one small part of what drives high performance. And the rest is largely within our control. We can decide to practice, we can push ourselves and stretch ourselves to be better. And once we choose to see success as a journey, one that takes time, it starts to make sense that we need to engage in hard work and be resilient to the mistakes that are certain to happen along the way.
So, let’s watch the World Cup, cheer Andy Murray on at Wimbledon and celebrate those A-grade exam results. But let’s do it through the right lens. With an admiration for the resilience and relentless determination which creates these performances. Let’s applaud the journey, appreciate the courage and then (and only then) delight in the result.