Matthew Syed: Things I Wish  I’d Known at School

Matthew Syed: Things I Wish I’d Known at School

By Matthew Syed, author of Dare To Be You: Defy self-doubt, follow your own path and be confidently you!

I grew up in a pretty ordinary house, in a pretty ordinary street, in a pretty ordinary town. My father was from Pakistan and my mother was from Wales. Money was tight, but my father, an immigrant to the UK, had an optimism that anything was possible for his children.

But at times I wasn’t sure I believed him. There was a voice inside my head (I call it my Kid Doubt) who would hold me back. It would make me feel like I was different, like I looked different, like I didn’t quite fit in.

Kid Doubt’s voice was often loud. Louder than my own. And at times, at school, I would find myself listening to his voice and then acting in a way that I wasn’t proud of. Avoiding doing the things that I loved in case I was teased, and doing things that I didn’t enjoy just to make the other kids like me.

But after one (almost) disastrous incident involving the local bakery and some matches, and another involving my Dad’s car and Kevin Keegan (read Dare to Be You for the details!) I realised that something had to change. This is when I made a plan to silence that voice in my head – the voice of Kid Doubt – who was, frankly, holding me back. I decided there and then that I needed to make the choices that were right for me, to follow my own path and have the confidence not to worry about what anyone else thought.

This plan that I devised as a boy is one I still refer to to this day (because Kid Doubt has a habit of creeping up on me when I’m not looking sometimes …) But these are the things that I wish I had known back then:

There is no such thing as normal Honestly, I spent so much wasted time trying to fit in with everyone else. But then I realised that I am totally different to everyone else in (literally) a million different ways. Right now, the world is embracing individualism and difference like never before, with medical treatments, diets and technology all being specifically personalised and tailored to individual needs.

Change is inevitable, things won’t always go to plan If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it has demonstrated our need to be flexible. We have adapted to the situation, changing our ways of working and interacting with each other in different ways to cope with the unexpected crisis we’ve faced. And the reality is that, in life, things often don’t go quite as we hope they will. So if we do hit bumps in the road (and these are inevitable), if we fail at something we hoped to achieve, we need to reframe them as a change that we need to adapt to. And that is achieved by being resilient and flexible.

Our differences are our strength If everyone thinks in exactly the same way, then coming up with new ideas will be seriously difficult. Whereas, for example, the fact that I have had different experiences in my life, parents with different backgrounds and mindsets, or that I may look or think differently, means that I can contribute something to the conversation that no one else can. And this is a strength. Recent studies have shown that more than half of the top companies in the US were founded by immigrants and that people with dyslexia are more likely to be entrepreneurs. And when you think about that it makes sense, because when you experience things differently, you build different skills and ways of working with others.

Never be afraid to question things Unless you ask whether something can be done differently, you will never find out if you could improve a situation to make it suit you better. For example, not everyone learns in exactly the same way, so children in school having the courage to ask the teacher to slow down or explain something again but in a different way has a huge impact on their ability to learn. When I retired from table tennis, I took a job in the City that just wasn’t right for me. But I questioned whether there was something better out there, and I made a change that was right for me.

Kindness is essential This might sound obvious, but kindness really does have a cascade effect. Small acts of kindness build trust and ultimately solidify the network of people around us. The net result of this is that in times of change or difficulty, we have a support crew of people to talk to and to help us out.

As children return to school in September, anxiety levels are likely to be higher than usual for those who have been away from school for almost 6 months. Silencing their Kid Doubt (and absolutely everyone has one!) to overcome these worries is a vital part of this picture, so that children will not just meet the challenges that a new school year will bring, but will thrive, too. This has never been more important.