We’re looking around for a secondary school for our daughter and it’s very stressful. There are so many admissions requirements to meet, exams to prepare for, tutors to hire and finally, applications to submit. But you do it all because you’re terrified of what might happen otherwise. If you miss one little deadline or make one little mistake it could mean disaster.
As a parent, you worry that if you don’t get your child into the best school possible, you’re permanently damaging her future prospects in life. A mediocre secondary school leads to a sub-par 6th form college, a so-so university and then a career digging ditches or that caps out at middle management – at best.
Reflexively, every inch of your being yearns for your child to have the best chances at success – to do well in exams, to get into the best schools, to go to the best university she can possibly get into, to pursue the most successful career she can attain. Doctor. Engineer. Lawyer. Nobel prize winner.
But what if that instinct is all wrong?
What if it’s not really such a great thing to be successful?
Take Donald Trump for example.
He’s successful. Very successful. He’s a millionaire, he’s got his name slapped on buildings all over the world and of course, he’s President of the United States of America. But he’s also an enormous asshole. He’s vulgar, racist, ignorant and incredibly mean-spirited. When you look beyond the trappings of success, and they are big trappings, but underneath you can clearly see someone who is actually kind of a giant loser. He’s insecure, constantly angry and all of his relationships in life seem to be transactional. His life actually seems to be kind of miserable. I feel sorry for him.
Did Donald Trump’s parents really do right by him – sending him to the best high schools, the best college, giving him an enormously generous financial stake to build up a successful business? Or did handing him everything in life just set him up to be an entitled asshole? Outwardly he’s bigly successful, but deep down a miserable human being.
Of course, I understand that the reverse isn’t always going to be true either. There’s no guarantee that having to make your way in life is going to build up your character and ensure you don’t grow up to be an asshole.
Look at Idi Amin.
Mr Amin was a self-made man who dropped out of school around the fourth grade. He worked hard in life – as a cook, a soldier and as even as a smuggler before being appointed commander of Uganda’s armies and then dictator for life. And he was an even bigger asshole than Donald Trump – killing hundreds of thousands of people and antagonising, teasing and torturing everyone who he encountered.
But surely there must be a sweet spot somewhere between Donald Trump and Idi Amin?
There must be a middle path – a way to uncouple success from assholeness.
I think this mostly has to do with expectations. If as a parent, I push my daughter towards an external notion of success – great school, great grades, great university, great career – then all of those expectations and the pressure that I’m placing on her probably increase the chances of her becoming anasshole. This is the Donald Trump formula.
On the other hand, neglecting her prospects and leaving her to toughen herself up on her own doesn’t seem like a very good idea either. She might wind up growing up to be resilient and determined, but she could also become resentful and unempathetic, with no perspective on what is really important in life. Idi Amin all over again.
So I’m not sure I want her to be successful.
Or at least not very successful. Mildly successful seems about right, with a helpful nudge or two from us as her parents towards a quite good school, with reasonably sufficient grades, heading for a decently respectable university that may or may not be the best, but one that encourages her to find out what she’s good at and passionate about. These seem to be about the right steps to take to ensure she has a modestly successful career and doesn’t become an unhappy asshole.
That’s more or less the path I took and I turned out okay, right? Okay, maybe you don’t know me – but if you’re reading this blog then you can probably decide for yourself whether or not I’m an asshole. I don’t think I am. Okay, maybe I am inordinately obsessed with the film Conan the Barbarian and with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And I did just compare my 10-year-old daughter to Donald Trump and Idi Amin. But those things just make me eccentric and definitely not an asshole, right? I mean I don’t have enough money or fame or power to be one of those successful assholes that I’m worried about. I don’t run a big company where I yell at my employees all day, or own a big house with servants who I underpay. My name isn’t on any buildings and I’m definitely not in charge of any political parties or countries. I kind of have nothing going on to brag about like some big asshole. But I’m doing okay. I’ve got some things. I do have this blog, for example. I’ve got that going for me…
Maybe I should take another look at those school applications and deadlines.