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Simon Kelner: Quest for self-improvement has a lot to do with school

In one newspaper, Paul McKenna offers to turn you into a genius. In another, a personal trainer encourages you to go running. Everywhere, there are diets to make you thin, to help you conquer stress and to make you a better person.

Then there's the Mayor of London offering his own tips on how to shed pounds. (You must be thinking what I did when I saw it. He's not exactly the perfect role model. It's like Charlie Sheen offering anger management courses.) I'm not sure there's a book in the Bojo Plan Diet, sensible and foolproof though it is – no booze, potatoes, pasta or "stuff like that", and plenty of kale and apples – but Boris has, not for the first time, captured the prevailing mood. The new year means self-improvement, and that encompasses everything from losing weight to learning a foreign language.

A few Januarys ago, The Independent ran a promotion that invited readers to learn French. It was an astounding success – it could not have had more impact if a £10 note had been stapled to the front page – and was quickly followed by similar promotions for Spanish, Italian and German. Each achieved the same impressive results, cementing the idea that, as adults, we are inculcated with the desire to be better – to know more, to learn more, to develop a new skill – and this feeling is never stronger than at the turn of the year. My personal road towards betterment in 2012 involves nothing more elevating than eating less meat – doing my bit for the environment, not to mention my own health – getting better at table tennis, and reducing my golf handicap, although that's down to the tutelage of Steve Gould, the master of swing.

I have resolved to leave learning a musical instrument until later in life. Last year, I did a course of ukulele lessons, which I found companionable, engrossing and rewarding, but ultimately unsuccessful. Not only did I find it difficult to make the time to practise, I also discovered that I have very little (ie no) musical talent. While others in my group were strumming and picking like George Formby, I was barely able to keep up with the first few chords of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow".

In the end, I found it rather frustrating, but I should have known. I was looking at some of my old school reports recently and there, under musical appreciation, was the following comment: "His contributions have been spirited, but largely insubstantial." Well, thanks a bunch, Mr Edwards. It made me determined to prove him wrong: one day, I'll be playing my cello to concert standard and thinking of him. And it also made me wonder whether this modern-day adult quest for self-improvement has its roots in what happened in our school days. Teachers were much more frank in their assessments back then: "He has no aptitude for French" or "She can't get out of her own way on the hockey field". These harsh comments have rankled all these years, and, come January, we resolve to show how wrong they are. This year, we're really, really going to do it.

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