A recent initiative at Wimbledon High School for Girls in London has received quite a bit of coverage in the UK – the school encouraged the girls over a number of months to scribble down their thoughts whenever they realised that they were proud of something that they had done and then the school spent a week “trumpeting” these achievements in assembly and drama classes. The purpose, as the Head herself said, was “about the girls recognising their own self-worth and being honest about what they are good at. We want to build their confidence so that they’ll try new things even when they know it might go wrong.”
Inevitably there were mixed responses from commentators in the press and correspondents who felt moved to write in to express their views, many of whom mistook positive affirmation of achievement for boastfulness and arrogance. Quite rightly, we value neither of these latter qualities in our society; equally, it can be difficult to reconcile the messages we give young people constantly in school about the importance of service to others, and of valuing others ahead of themselves, with a focus on the self and on their own personal achievements.
If our young people are to achieve a happy and wise balance in their lives, however, they have to learn to acknowledge and embrace who they are in their entirety. This means accepting the positive and praiseworthy as well as those areas that would benefit from greater attention and improvement. We all have many of these weaknesses hidden within us – we are all imperfect beings – but we all too have many strengths, and we have to learn to live with, and be comfortable with, both. Our strengths are not something that we should hide under a bushel; to do so risks underutilising them and existing merely as a half a person. Finding a way to acknowledge our strengths and our weaknesses is part of our life’s journey towards self-acceptance.
Moreover, learning to recognise and acknowledge strength is arguably a prerequisite for contentment in life and work. The central premise of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, ‘Lean In’, is that girls and women – who have in general been encouraged not to emphasise their strengths to the same extent as boys and men – must learn to accept what they are good at, and say so, “coming to the table” rather than hiding in the corner.
We are all – every single one of us – distinctive and individual human beings. Our uniqueness and specialness depend on the unique combination of attributes that we possess in varying degrees, and once we recognise this and can feel comfortable with this, we will have a platform on which to build further.
Our children learn from the role models around them. Maybe we should all take time this week to blow our own trumpets.