I remember getting my A-level results as if it was yesterday. I had been an overachiever throughout school, pushing myself harder and harder to do well. It earned me the label, ‘geek’ and ‘swot’ but I consoled myself with straight As at GCSE and a coveted place at Oxford University to read Modern Languages. The final cherry on the cake would be 3 As at A-Level and job done!
A-Level results day dawned, but when I opened the envelope and saw the C, for Latin, I was crushed. I had always defined myself by my academic achievement. In my mind, I wasn't pretty or sporty or popular or rich or funny, but I could rely on being clever at least. My parents could see my obvious distress and arranged to have my Latin paper remarked, but to no avail – the C was there to stay.
Despite my other two A Grades, all I could focus on was that unexpected C. In my mind, that mark showed I was not as clever as I or my teachers had predicted. I lacked perspective. At the time I couldn’t see that exam success is not all defining. Resilience and how you handle life’s knockbacks is, of course, far more important. That C was a warning sign that I never listened to, because if C stood confidence, that was a subject that I definitely had not mastered.
When I was at school, self-esteem was a concept espoused in self-help books for new age parents. If you were bullied, you just got on with it. If you felt low, a game of hockey or a slice of toast and jam would sort you out. Thankfully, today there is more awareness. I found reports in recent weeks of a girl’s school having launched a ‘Death of Little Miss Perfect’ initiative to combat unrealistic perfectionism in their pupils, which is very encouraging.
The scheme encourages pupils to celebrate achievements outside as well as within the academic realm. The school hosts guest lectures on the perils of perfectionism and encourages pupils to be kind to themselves and have a realistic approach to dealing with life’s challenges. Today, there are also pilot schemes in schools that deal with body image and confidence, equipping young girls in particular to deal with some of the unique challenges posed by our connected, digital world. Other programmes go some way to address the issues that often emerge in the pressurised teen years, like eating disorders and self-harm. All these initiatives are encouraging steps in the right direction, but I believe a more consistent, coherent approach is needed to make school a more positive experience for all.
I may have been a brilliant student, but I didn't believe in myself. After I left education, I went on to make life choices that reinforced the need to be smart - a power job in advertising, a power marriage with my business associate. I became the archetypal workaholic, who slept with my blackberry under my pillow. I put myself under intense pressure and derived little pleasure from my day-to-day life. But five years ago, that life imploded. My innermost desires weren't aligned with my lifestyle. I was always a creative and imaginative soul and, as a little girl, always expressed myself through writing and stories but a lack of self-belief led me down the rational, pragmatic route. It was only when I got divorced, fired and my world fell apart that the need to create erupted and I began writing for the first time in years. I conquered my fear, but only because the worst had already happened.
They say if you don't follow the right path in life, the universe will force you to change route. And finally, I have found a vocation where I feel truly fulfilled. In fact, my first novels are all about low self-esteem. The Ugly Little Girl is about a girl who is her own worst critic, she is picked on at school and only at night does she begin a journey of self-discovery at a magical night school called Oddbods – a school for self-esteem.
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In the fictional world, I felt the need to create the perfect school - one that nurtures true talents and fosters personal happiness. This is clearly an idealised, fictional school. But when exam time rolls around, I start to feel that our schools do need to look at broadening the scope of the curriculum to encompass more than just the traditional academic agenda. Acquiring knowledge is a vital part of schooling, but the world today needs more creators, carers and change agents and the curriculum needs to evolve to reflect that, and to the varying needs of students.
And of course, the elephant in the room when we talk about another stellar year for girls outperforming boys in A-Levels and GCSEs, is that all that female potential is not translated to the workplace. Latest ONS figures (June 2014) show full-time female workers earn 15.7 per cent less than men overall, and that gap is actually growing - from 14.8 per cent in 2013 to 15.7 per cent now. And we all know how under-represented women are on FTSE 100 Boards and in senior roles in Government.
Greater focus on building confidence and resilience as part of everyone’s core education is key to improving the prospects of the next generation of women and men. Whether your ambition is to be a dancer, writer, teacher, freedom-fighter, lawyer, life coach or entrepreneur, healthy self-esteem is a massive enabler. I spent 15 years of my life in the wrong job, and it was a revelation to discover a career path that made me happy and invigorated. Today, I have the confidence to follow my calling, not to be defined by other people's perceptions of power and wealth. And I have learnt not to be defined by the grade on a piece of paper.
Elizabeth Kesses is the author of The Ugly Little Girl