Why The Achievement Mindset You Learned In School is Toxic

Why The Achievement Mindset You Learned In School is Toxic

If your school was anything like mine, you sat through countless lectures on the importance of achievement. I heard the same speeches again and again from parents, teachers, chaplains and headteachers.

Whether it’s grades, playing a musical instrument, or competing on the sports field, young people are told over and over that they must focus on goals and success for the sake of their future careers. After all, what could be more important than achievement?

Would it surprise you to learn that I think this obsession with achievement is a toxic attitude that does more harm than good?

What’s Wrong with the Achievement Mindset?

I was raised by two teachers in a goal-oriented family in which academic achievement was everything. My parents stressed not only that I had to do well at school, but I had to do better than other people as well. 

When I studied something, it wasn’t because I was curious about the world. If I’m really honest with myself, I studied hard because I wanted to shore up my ego. To put it another way, I just wanted to feel worthy. I remember being ashamed around age 12 when I got 90% on a Geography exam. I felt I should be doing better than that. My peers noticed that I took failure personally and, in the way only children can, bullied me mercilessly as a result.

It wasn’t only me who felt this way. In fact, the school system encourages us to equate our worth as people with our academic results

Think about it for a moment. Someone who gets good grades is called a “good student,” implying that they are hardworking, morally upright, and a good person. Someone who struggles or does poorly in any subject is called a “bad student,” implying that they are lazy or stupid, and even that they are a bad person.

Even for us “good students,” equating self-worth with achievement is a terribly dysfunctional way of thinking. I actually know a number of people from my time at Cambridge University who are still traumatised by their school experience years later. For me, it took a lot of self-reflection and a memorable talk with an ex-girlfriend to learn that I am more than just my work.

The Achievement Mindset Infects Everything

It’s bad enough that this mindset sucks the joy out of learning and puts pressure on students academically. But that wasn’t enough masochism for me! I also applied the same toxic mindset to my hobbies.

People who know me know that I played the French horn for years, most recently as principal horn in my local orchestra in Berlin. It might surprise you to learn that I have always hated practising my instrument. I only wanted to get the notes right so as to feel like I had played well after a concert, not struggle and fail as I worked out how to play.

If my aim had been to achieve proficiency at the French horn, then practising wouldn’t have been an issue. I would probably have enjoyed it. Instead, I was focused on the results of playing well rather than the process of getting to that point. It wasn’t about getting good at the instrument; it was about executing a perfect performance and earning praise from others. As my horn teacher put it:

“You’re only as good as your last concert.”

I am sad to say that this attitude led me to miss out on much of the joy of practising my craft for its own sake. Even today, I am so easily sucked into the achievement mindset that I no longer wish to play my horn in orchestras.

Real Motivation Comes from Within

Having shared my struggles with the achievement mindset leads to the following question: why do so many people think that focusing on achievement is a good thing?

One reason is that getting good results is motivating. If you want to get good grades, you’ll push yourself to work harder, right? That’s somewhat true, but it’s only half the story.

Psychologists distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The achievement mindset is an example of extrinsic motivation. You want to do well so that you can get validation from outside of yourself, such as winning a prize, getting a good grade, or receiving praise from other people.

Extrinsic motivation isn’t good for you in the long term. It leaves you dependent on others to shore up your ego. If you ever stop getting this validation from others, your motivation crumbles.

If you want to be happy, cultivate intrinsic motivation. Here, your motivation comes from within your own life, not from someone else. You work at something because it interests you and you want to learn more. You want to master a new skill and are eager to pursue it no matter how much work you have to put into learning it. 

Intrinsic motivation is motivation no-one can take away from you. And it’s the complete opposite of the achievement mindset.

How I Broke Free

So we’ve learned that an achievement mindset pushes you to seek your reward from the end goal, not the process itself. It also sets that reward outside of yourself, making you dependent on external sources to feel good about the things you have done.

How can you break the pattern and focus on utilising intrinsic motivation instead?

There’s no perfect answer to this question, but I can speak to my own experience. The key for me has been to focus on systems and habits instead of results. Let me explain.

Through life experience, I’ve learned what I value. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list:

  • Eating healthily
  • Sleeping deeply
  • Having time at the end of the day to rest
  • Avoiding toxic relationships
  • Being my own boss

Let’s take the first item on that list: eating healthily. Ok, so I’ve identified that this is a value of mine, and that it’s important to me. The next step is to create a series of habits and systems that makes eating well easy and predictable. 

Note: my attention is not on eating perfectly every day (= achievement mindset), but rather on creating the dietary habits that align with my values (= intrinsic motivation).

Stage 1 of this journey for me was to cut out processed foods as far as possible. I started reading labels and taking pride in avoiding buying foods with added sugar. I learned that if I don’t buy them, I don’t eat them. This was easy to do and felt good. But I still missed meals some of the time and even still ate junk food occasionally.

Stage 2 was copying a system I learned from an ex-girlfriend. She had a habit of cooking food the night before and taking leftovers to school or work the next day. I noticed that I lacked the willpower to cook every day, and started copying her system. It was easier to take those leftovers and eat them instead of junk or snacks. But I was still sometimes too tired after work to cook every day.

Stage 3 was to learn about meal prep. These days, I go shopping on Saturday mornings and prepare a huge batch of food on Sunday evenings. I then eat this food over the next 7 days. I find that I save time, money and energy this way — all while eating better more of the time. 

I am sure that I will continue to refine my dietary system over time. But if I were to try to abstract some general principles of breaking free from achievement mindset out of my personal experience, they would look something like this:

  1. Know yourself well enough to know what you value.
  2. Establish a regular system or habit that helps you get what you value. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just start somewhere.
  3. Test your system against reality. Inevitably, you’ll fail a few times and learn from those experiences.
  4. Make a better system on the basis of your learning. Take pride in making your habits as functional and aligned with the real world as possible.
  5. Repeat and improve your system over time. This will help you acquire a feeling of competence, or self-efficacy as psychologists would say.

Rid Yourself of the Achievement Mindset

It is my contention that everybody learns the achievement mindset in school, and those who deny this are probably the ones who suffer from it the most. The achievement mindset is so ingrained into our culture that it’s hard to even become aware of it, let alone rid yourself of it.

Learning to motivate yourself with systems which reflect your values will help you infinitely more than trying to impress other people with your performance. But before you establish habits or systems, the key to starting this journey is to become aware of how the achievement mindset manifests itself in your life:

  • Are there areas in your life where you focus too much on the goal, ignoring the steps you’ll take to get there? 
  • Do you beat yourself up for being a “bad student” in any area of your life?
  • Are you addicted to the high of “achievement” in any area of your life?

Consider if there are areas in which your focus on achievement is holding you back. If you do that, you’ll be one step closer to ridding yourself of this toxic mindset.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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How Universities Infantilize Teens, and How Parents Can Fight Back

How Universities Infantilize Teens, and How Parents Can Fight Back

The time between the ages of 16 and 25 can be a period of fast-tracked emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth for many young people. They may look like fully capable adults, but their cognitive reasoning skills are still very much tied to the outside world, especially to parents and educational environments. 

Just like anyone, young people in this age group can make mistakes and they can get hurt. As parents, it’s hard for us to sit back and let that happen, no matter how big or small those mistakes might be.

A university shouldn’t have that problem, though. These institutions are supposedly preparing our teens to lead successful adult lives. Instead, they infantilize students more than most parents, encouraging an attitude of helplessness and fear instead of strength and independence.

It’s Easy for Parents to Infantilize Their Kids

Parents often infantilize their children by telling them they have choices, then subverting those choices when children try to exercise them. “You can choose any toy you want at the store. Oh, except the one you just pointed at, that one’s too noisy.”

There are right times and wrong times in a child’s development to be a watchful and cautious parent. It’s during the teen years that these efforts often come across as infantilizing, leading to terms like helicopter dad, tiger mom, and snowplow parents.

For me, as a single parent of three, it was critical to our survival as a family that I provided guidance and safe spaces for my kids to become as self-aware and self-reliant as possible. I quickly learned there was no one-size-fits-all method for doing this. 

Every person has a unique learning language, including our own kids. I had to tailor my approach to each child in order to provide instruction without needlessly infantilizing them.

How Universities Promote Infantilization

Children receive instruction from outside the family, too. The most common sources are daycares and schools. We expect a certain amount of this external instruction when our kids are younger, but by the time they’re old enough to go to university, parents know we have to start cutting the cord.

Unfortunately, it seems universities haven’t gotten this message. They continue to teach obedience and avoidance of adversity instead of promoting strength and autonomy. Not only is that counter to what parents try to do with their children, it’s also harmful to students themselves.

Schools systematically infantilize students by monitoring and controlling their every waking moment. Denying them the ability to set their own schedules or form their own study plans is only the beginning.

Many schools force students to surrender their cell phones at the start of class, yet teachers are free to use their devices all day. Some even require students to ask permission to use the restroom, denying them control over their own bodily functions.

One of my children struggled with not being allowed to leave her desk without permission from the teacher. A simple request to get her jacket felt like a ridiculous restriction to her, especially since she was raised at home to be more autonomous in accomplishing simple tasks.

It’s through situations like these that universities preach empowerment and human rights while simultaneously denying the same to their students. This is perhaps the result of overcrowded schools or overworked teachers, but the damage is still being done to our young people’s sense of independence.

Kids and Teens Can Be Capable, If We Let Them

As a single parent of three children, I had to prepare myself early on for the arrival of teenage rebellion. This was going to be different from the terrible twos rebellion. I would be dealing with complex young adults, each with different styles for receiving, processing, and delivering information.

I found success using the most direct method I could think of: actions create consequences. By working with my teens and showing them the ins and outs of cause and effect in the real world, I realized I could curb a fair amount of rebellion before it started.

I encouraged my kids early on to be self-aware and self-sufficient in as many ways as possible. This presented problems when they went through the public school system. The environment there promotes a herd mentality, which was precisely the opposite of what I was teaching.

To offset this, I encouraged my kids to be accountable at home and let them know that this attitude should continue everywhere in the world, including at school. It’s this sapling level of self-sufficiency that I think had the most impact on my kids, both when they were young and as they grew up.

Thoughtfulness, autonomy, and a good understanding of how the world works, it all adds up to a stronger young adult, even when they’re faced with the infantilizing environment of universities.

Encouraging Individuation

Our job as parents seems pretty clear: support our kids, give them the tools they need to be self-sufficient, and be mindful of infantilizing them as they grow older. Our job isn’t to protect them from adversity, it’s to give them the tools they need to face it and grow from it.

Universities should also encourage this attitude. After all, that’s what we want from adults, right? Strong and thoughtful and autonomous. Heroic, even. Teens can handle this if we give them the chance, but right now, the second most abundant influence in a young adult’s life — their time spent at school — actively tries to destroy individuation.

We need to start lessons in autonomy young, long before our kids consider going to university. It’s only natural that teens and young adults will often lack impulse control. They may say or do things and don’t grasp the ramifications immediately. They may lack the ability to see the end game in their words or actions. But that’s ok. It’s part of the learning process.

As a parent or educator, it’s important to remember not to swoop in and rescue, deflect, or deny this behavior, but to model appropriate behavior and guide young adults with respect. Eventually, they’ll be flying on their own. 

If we teach our children how to behave, then let them practice, eventually they will manage life’s ups and downs. Create controlled environments at home where kids can voice their opinions and engage in responsible behaviors. Once these habits are in place, encourage them to practice their independence outside of the home, with friends, and at school. More importantly, provide open channels for communication and offer feedback as necessary.

Ultimately, it’s far more advantageous to find that balance between treating kids like adults and helping them reach that level of maturity than it is to keep them oppressed.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.

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Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

You’ve no doubt heard teachers, parents, or coaches talking about the importance of self-esteem. Maybe you’ve even had a professor tell your class that you are all special.

This kind of thinking comes from a good place — wanting to ensure that young people have high self-esteem and feel good about themselves.

But self-esteem is an unhelpful concept with no practical value. Accepting empty platitudes does nothing and leads nowhere. You’re far better off putting in the effort to learn real skills to build self-esteem from the inside out.

Let me explain.

Why We Talk About Self-Esteem Today

In the 1980s, researchers in education noticed that children who were more successful also had higher self-esteem, meaning they agreed with statements like “I am special” and “I can do anything I put my mind to.” So, the researchers thought, if we could only boost the self-esteem of all children, then they’d be more successful.

The idea became popular in schools, self help books, and parenting guides, and it’s still common today. It became so prevalent that people think they’re entitled to that empty praise, no matter what they do.

Here’s the problem: the fact that children had high self-esteem was the result of their success, not the cause of it. Trying to boost self-esteem doesn’t necessarily result in people being more successful. It might make them puff up and feel good, but that sensation is fleeting.

What is Self-Esteem, Anyway?

One problem with projects that try to boost self-esteem is they fail to adequately define what the concept is in the first place. Self-esteem is vague and covers a whole range of different ideas, including:

  • Self-confidence: the feeling that you are capable of taking on new things and doing well at them.
  • Self-worth: the idea that all humans have inherent value which should be respected and appreciated.
  • Ego boosting:  bigging yourself up to make yourself feel better.

These concepts have their place in our lives, but mixing them up only serves to confuse people. If you want to feel self-confident, for example, pursuing bravado or boosting your ego will not help you.

Self-Efficacy is More Important

If self-esteem isn’t helpful, then what is? In both my personal experience and based on the evidence from psychology research, what really makes a difference to people’s state of mind and the way they approach life is confidence.

When I say confidence, I don’t mean bragging or hollow swagger. I don’t mean faking or pretending that you have abilities that you don’t. And I don’t mean putting other people down in order to make yourself feel better.

Real confidence is the result of competence. It comes from having faced challenges in the past which you have overcome, and from feeling that you are capable of facing new challenges in the future.

Do you remember learning how to ride a bike? Figuring out how to swim? How to do long division for the first time? Before you learned these skills they seemed scary, like something you’d never be able to do. But with practice you were able to manage them.

Once you mastered those skills, they seemed easy. You felt confident doing them. You increased your level of self-efficacy in these areas and earned self-esteem as a result.

How to Build Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem isn’t something to strive towards or look for in life, it’s the result of building self-efficacy. So, what do you do to become a more capable, more confident person? There are a few key ways to build yourself up, and they have nothing to do with empty platitudes or flat praise from teachers.

Commit to a Long-Term Process

One of the reasons that building self-esteem became so popular in schools is that it’s seemingly a quick fix that can be applied to groups of people. If you build self-esteem, there’s no need to change teaching methods or purchase expensive new equipment, no need to look at how confidence develops over years. Teachers only need to say complimentary things to their students, then they’ll do better.

The truth is that building self-efficacy takes a long time, especially if you don’t feel sure of your abilities. Building confidence is a process that takes years and requires a lot of commitment.

Learn New Skills

There’s no better way to improve your confidence than to try out a new skill. Whether it’s learning a language, trying your hand at a craft, or taking up a creative hobby, there’s immense psychological value in acquiring a new skill. When there is something you start off not knowing how to do, then practise and overcome that challenge, you feel more capable of doing new things in the future.

I have always thought of myself as someone who was good at academic tasks, but bad at physical ones. I was always terrible at sports and hated being forced to exercise as a kid. When I was an adult, though, I found myself enjoying cycling, running, and lifting weights. These skills weren’t beyond me — they were just things I hadn’t learned before. Learning them and growing my skills made me feel not only physically better, but also like a more capable person.

Learning a new skill also requires that you accept your failures. You aren’t going to be good at everything straight away. You’ll learn to see that something you’re doing isn’t working, then change your approach to something different. When you are able to accept this try-fail-retry cycle, you’ll be less intimidated by new challenges and more satisfied by your successes.

Acknowledge Weaknesses

Finally, there’s one aspect of confidence which is highly underrated, and that is acknowledging your weaknesses. This might sound counter-intuitive, as most people think those who are confident only talk about what they’re good at and don’t have any areas of weakness. In reality, that simply isn’t the case.

No one is skilled at everything. Pretending that you have strengths or skills you don’t possess won’t benefit you in the long run. If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you can’t learn to overcome them to become more competent.

True confidence includes honest acknowledgement of both your abilities and your limitations. It involves knowing that just because you’re not good at everything doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It also doesn’t mean you have nothing useful to offer the world.

You Don’t Need Ego, You Need Competence

Building self-esteem has to be done from within. Bathing in the empty praise of others does nothing to improve you as a person, nor does it build self-confidence or self-efficacy. Feeling like you’re entitled to self-esteem is essentially saying you want people to tell you you’re great without earning those compliments.

Do you really want that? Do you really want to be told you’re talented, intelligent, and successful, or do you want to be those things through and through?

To be more successful in life, being told that you’re great won’t cut it. You need to go out in the world and learn skills, whether it’s food preparation or effective communication. That’s how you gain self-efficacy, that’s how you build self-esteem, and that’s how you improve your life in the long run.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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How To Use Nonviolent Communication To Solve Conflict With Your Parents

How To Use Nonviolent Communication To Solve Conflict With Your Parents

 It’s normal for your relationship with your parents or guardians to change over time, especially once you become a young adult and start to stake out your own individual preferences. But this process of asserting yourself often leads to conflict. It can be hard for parental figures to accept that your wishes and desires are different from theirs.

If you’re struggling to assert boundaries, express your needs (including dissatisfaction with school), or start difficult conversations with your parents, the principles of Nonviolent Communication can be really helpful.

What is Nonviolent Communication?

The concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. It’s based on the idea that human behaviour is rooted in attempts to meet our most fundamental needs. When this fails, we often resort to violent or harmful actions out of sheer frustration.

This frustration can be seen in many types of communication, but it’s especially noticeable between young people and their parents. How many times have you felt like your father or mother just didn’t understand you? The thing is, they often feel the same way: that you don’t “get” where they’re coming from.

Bridging this gap is what Nonviolent Communication is all about.

The 4 Stages of Effective Communication

Nonviolent Communication aims to help people identify their own needs, the needs of the other party, and needs shared by both. You and your parents want what’s best for you; it’s just that you’re approaching the problem from different angles. NVC can help you work together.

Nonviolent communication consists of four basic steps:

  1. Observe facts about the world. Start by talking to the other person about clearly defined facts that you can both agree on.
  2. Describe your emotions. To communicate effectively, you need to understand how you feel about the facts you’ve agreed on. You aren’t trying to argue, you’re trying to convey your emotional state.
  3. Identify the needs and desires of the other person. Use empathy to understand the underlying reasons for the other person’s perspective and behaviours. Try to be aware of your own needs and desires as well.
  4. Propose a course of action. In this step, you suggest a way forward or some kind of compromise so both you and the person you’re talking to get what they want.

This system is extremely useful because it gives you a structure to work through when you are feeling upset, angry, or frustrated. As someone who used to have a short temper when I was younger, I found that I would often yell or argue because I wasn’t feeling heard. When I tried to communicate how I felt, I didn’t have the right words or structure to express myself, which resulted in a lot of slammed doors. Over time, though, I learned that if I could communicate more effectively, I didn’t feel as angry or frustrated. When you’re able to lay out what you feel and why, it’s much easier to stay calm and reasonable.

A key principle of this approach is that you’re not trying to “win” an argument. Instead, you’re trying to understand the other person’s perspective so you can come to a solution which works for both of you.

Assert your needs to your parents using nonviolent communication

Using NVC in practice

Let’s look at three examples of how young people could use this method to communicate with their parents over typical disagreements.

Example 1: Disagreements over education and future prospects

Emma is seventeen and preparing to apply for universities. She has always loved reading, and she wants to study English literature. But her parents think that’s impractical. They want her to study something more concrete, like business or economics. How can she address this with them?

This situation is difficult because Emma knows she will have to spend the next three years studying whatever subject she chooses. And she knows she’s most interested in English and would love to study that. But her parents are concerned about her job prospects, and whether her degree will set her up well for her future.

A bad way to communicate about this would be for Emma to get angry and tell her parents she doesn’t care what they think. Phrases like “You don’t understand me” or “You want to control everything I do,” even if they are true, are not an effective way for Emma to get what she wants.

Instead, Emma can use the framework we described:

  1. Observe facts: “You know that I’ve always loved to read. Books have been a big part of my life for a long time.”
  2. Describe emotions: “When I think about studying English, I feel excited and hopeful for the future. When I think about studying something else, I feel restless and uninspired.”
  3. Acknowledge her parents’ feelings: “I understand that you’re worried about my future and you want me to be able to get a good job at the end of my studies.”
  4. Propose a compromise: “What if I studied English as my major, but took some classes in business as well? That way, I could feel inspired by my studies but also build up skills for future jobs.”

Example 2: Poor boundaries around personal relationships

Jennifer is eighteen and has been dating her boyfriend for several months. Her father keeps asking her intrusive and inappropriate questions about her love life and the physical status of her relationship. She finds this overbearing and shaming.

Parents are not always comfortable when their children begin to date or look for romantic relationships. Jennifer’s father may think she is too young to be pursuing relationships, or that her partner is a poor choice. This is upsetting for Jennifer, who considers herself an adult and capable of making her own decisions about her partners.

A bad way to communicate about this would be for Jennifer to lay down an ultimatum, like “If you don’t stop interfering in my love life, I’ll move out of your house and go and live with my boyfriend.” There may indeed come a time when she needs to move out in order to have her freedom. But before taking that drastic step, she can try to communicate with her father:

  1. Observe facts: “You’ve been asking a lot of questions about my boyfriend recently.”
  2. Describe emotions: “When you ask probing questions, I feel uncomfortable, like I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions.”
  3. Identify needs: “I understand that you have a need to keep me safe. My need here is to learn for myself what I want in a relationship.”
  4. Propose action: “I would like you to stop asking me so many questions about him, and in return I promise I will let you know if I need help or advice about him.”
Assert your needs to your parents using nonviolent communication

Example 3: Differing values about technology

Sam is sixteen and he uses his phone all the time to stay in touch with friends. His mother thinks he spends too much time on his phone and he should be going outside instead. Whenever she gets upset with him, she takes away his phone. Then he’s left with no way to communicate with the important people in his life.

Technology is one of those subjects that causes issues because different generations see it so differently. For Sam, his phone is a basic essential for texting with his friends, looking up important information, and managing his life. For his mother, his phone is a shallow distraction which prevents him from focusing on what is really important.

A bad way for Sam to communicate his frustrations would be to invoke the past, like “You always do this” or to invoke other people, like “None of my friends’ parents do this to them.” Both of these will only make his mother defensive, and therefore less likely to compromise with him.

For the best chance of finding a compromise, Sam can try this:

  1. Observe facts: “I know I use my phone a lot. And I know you don’t like how much time I spend on it, and you think taking it away will make me more receptive.”
  2. Describe emotions: “But I use my phone to talk to my friends. When I can’t contact them, I feel isolated and alone. I feel like I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
  3. Identify needs: “I see you want me to be more present during family time, and not to be distracted by my phone.”
  4. Propose action: “If you let me keep my phone, I’ll agree to not use it during dinner. Dinner time can be our time to talk as a family. And then after dinner, I can contact my friends.”

Communication takes practice

Communication between teenagers and parents can be particularly difficult because of power imbalances. If you are under eighteen, or if you are financially dependent on your parents, or if you live in their house, then they have a lot more power to compel you to act in certain ways.

If you struggle to communicate and to make your parents see your point of view, don’t beat yourself up emotionally. It is objectively hard to make yourself heard, and it takes practice to stay calm and stand your ground in a disagreement. Growing pains like this are natural and inevitable as you assert your independence and become an adult.

As you finish reading this article, take a moment to reflect on a frequent disagreement with your parents that would allow you to practise NVC.  With this method, you might be able to reach a compromise that meets everyone’s needs.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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The Subconscious Lessons School Actually Teaches You

The Subconscious Lessons School Actually Teaches You

How often do people actually use what they learn from school out in the real world?

If you feel like memorising dates of the French Revolution or the atomic number for argon is never going to be of any practical use, trust your intuition. You’re not wrong, and you’re not alone. In one survey only 48% of secondary students believed what they learned in class would help them outside of school. In an age when you can look up any fact on the internet within seconds, memorising textbooks is essentially pointless.

So, what do you really learn in school? Most students’ biggest takeaways are subconscious lessons like obedience, an achievement-oriented mindset, and a fear of failure. As you might have guessed, these translate to real life just as poorly as memorising useless facts.

Environmental cues

Environmental cues subconsciously shape how we behave. If someone is part of a supportive and positive community and has the freedom to act as they want, they tend to behave in a more sociable, helpful way. Conversely, if someone is kept in a restrictive environment where they feel distrust toward the people around them, they’ll behave in a more selfish and destructive way.

You would think that schools would be designed around principles that promote a positive and helpful learning atmosphere. Instead, schools have more in common with army barracks and prisons. Students are told where to go, when they may speak, how they must spend their time, and sometimes what to wear or how to present themselves. They should sit quietly and do as they are told and only question authority in certain situations.

These lessons are rarely spoken out loud, but students learn them all the same. If they speak out too much or if they don’t do as they’re told, they get in trouble. If they follow the rules, though, they get good grades and good reports. Those lessons stick even after their school career is over — which makes them all the more important to talk about.

Subconscious lessons school actually teaches you

The real lessons taught in schools

With all these subconscious environmental cues in the classroom, what are students actually learning while in school?


Students are obliged to follow the instructions of teachers in terms of what they study, how they learn, and most importantly, how they behave. Prefer to study a practical subject like car mechanics instead of an academic subject like geography? Too bad. The school sets the rules and the students must follow them.

In recent years, education researchers have started to understand that people learn in different ways. Some students learn best from discussing concepts in a group, while others prefer visual information or a hands-on approach. It isn’t clear to what extent favouring or avoiding these styles has on a student’s ability to learn in the classroom. We do know that ignoring them creates long-lasting problems. Two thirds of post-education adults echoed this sentiment in a survey, stating that a focus on practical knowledge and improving individual skills is more valuable than standardised curriculums and teaching methods.

People are frustrated that school isn’t teaching them what they need. Instead, they walk away carrying damaging subconscious lessons like obedience. One thing is abundantly clear: sitting passively in a chair and copying information a teacher writes on the board is not the best way to teach everyone. It’s good for instilling obedience, but not necessarily for morale or passing along knowledge

Following someone else’s schedule

Students are told when and where their lessons are and must attend them on time. They have practically no opportunity to design their own schedule.

Following someone else’s arbitrary schedule causes a variety of problems. One of the most prevalent is chronic sleep deprivation. Studies show that teenagers need more sleep than adults — around 9 to 9.5 hours compared to 8 hours for adults. Schools with early start times make getting enough sleep almost impossible. When students are tired it’s harder for them to concentrate, harder to retain information, and their overall mood is worse.

Thinking longer-term, it’s troubling that students never learn the skill of setting their own schedule. When students go to university or enter the working world, they’ll often have to decide for themselves how best to use their time. Juggling commitments like work, maintaining a home, family, friends, and hobbies is one of the biggest challenges adults face. With the existing school system students never have an opportunity to practice this skill.

Before a young person learns to balance competing demands on their time, it’s common to fail to achieve this balance several times. By prescribing how students should spend every minute of their time, we are robbing them of the satisfaction of forming good scheduling habits — to say nothing of the learning that comes from bad habits.

Subconscious lessons school actually teaches you

Achievement mindset and fear of failure

Students today face a never-ending stream of tests, assessments, and exams. Many are scared of failure and feel shame if they do not do well academically. This stems from what is called an achievement mindset — the idea that your worth is based on ticking off a series of achievements, like getting good grades, winning prizes, and getting into a good university. If you don’t accomplish these things, the achievement mindset says you are a failure.

Regardless of what your teachers and professors say, that’s an extremely unhealthy way to see life. Failure is not only inevitable — there is literally no one alive who hasn’t failed at something — it’s also an important learning tool, perhaps the most valuable one there is. Whether it’s in business, family life, or picking up a new hobby, trying and failing is how you gain experience and grow as a person.

Failure is a key part of a life well-led. If students are afraid to fail, they won’t push themselves to try new things. They’ll only stick with the familiar things they know they can do well. This achievement mindset is a recipe for an unhappy, unfulfilled life.

Lack of agency

All of the above issues have a similar root: students lack agency over their learning. They aren’t allowed to decide what they want to study, how to arrange their time, or which learning styles suit them best. They are taught to follow orders and not to question what they are told.

As a society, we generally agree that people shouldn’t be forced into situations against their will. In many schools, however, if a student wants to do something as simple as use the bathroom they have to ask permission. This is highly infantilising and disrespectful of students’ needs as individuals. Adults report restrictions on autonomy are one of their greatest sources of dissatisfaction. Why would that be any different for young adults or teenagers?

An essential skill for adult life is learning to create and negotiate boundaries. What kinds of treatment are acceptable to you? How can you assert your needs politely but firmly? How do you balance your needs with the needs of others if they are in conflict? There is arguably no more important skill to develop for a satisfying, compassionate life. And yet, as schools currently exist, they undermine these very principles to force students into a one-size-fits-all model.

 The next time you find yourself wondering what the point of school is — whether you’ll ever need the information you’re being taught in class — know that you’re right to be sceptical. The lessons school is teaching you just might be the opposite of the lessons you need to live a fulfilled life.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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