October 16, 2010 12:20 am

The rules of achievement

Success is a good thing, but its pursuit can also do you in

Notes home from the school can so easily provoke an existential crisis. I remember my mother flinching at their frequent arrival when I was a child. In those days they were in lurid purple for some reason, and often required elaborate costumes with panniers and leg-of-mutton sleeves to be constructed over the weekend.

“Lucky I did dressmaking as a subsidiary at art school,” my mother would murmur, working into the small hours on some tremendous creation, the whirr of the sewing machine lulling me to sleep. I was very grateful. With a good memory for lines and an immaculate costume you can go quite far in showbiz ’til you’re eight.

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Susie Boyt

But the letter I received recently had nothing to do with sequins or stagelights. “When choosing a secondary school for your child,” it said, “think about what your family’s attitude towards achievement is.” What is our family’s attitude towards achievement, I wondered. As questions go, it sure was personal. Not knowing struck me as a form of failure in itself. I telephoned my husband. “What is this family’s attitude towards achievement?” I asked. There was a pause.

“What do you think?” I pressed.

“No, you first.”

“Well,” I faltered, “I did love it that time I asked the greengrocer for four courgettes, and he said, ‘Hooray, a TS Eliot fan.’”

“How is that relevant?”

“True.” I tried again. “I think I would like the children to believe that anything’s possible, unless that felt like a strain,” I began. It was a start, of sorts.

The fact is, my attitude towards achievement is mighty complicated. In some regards, I think achievement is A Good Thing, a necessity even. I don’t call a day a day in which myriad achievements have not been notched up: I like the feeling of difficulties overcome, the scent and the sensation of mild heroism. But I am quite modest with my definitions. My To Do list might begin: “Get up, have a slice of toast, take a deep breath, whistle a merry tune,” so before I know it there are four big ticks, and I’m feeling chipper enough to face the grander tasks.

And then, not achieving things makes me feel downcast. In the absence of work and its bedfellow, praise, I feel without value, lacklustre, flabby and wasteful. When I do my daughter’s homework and she gets anything less than Mazel tov Superstar Genius – or at least an iridescent sticker – I feel mightily cut up and let down. That’s why holidays are torture for me. I’d go in for competitive tanning but I have the kind of skin that goes from pale and interesting to blisters with nothing in between. Achieving things on holiday marks you out as a failure as a human being. On holiday you just cannot win.

. . .

Yet my other side feels the pursuit of achievement can easily do you in. High achievement is another name for mental illness. A school that goes on about people excelling all over the place makes me panic and cower: smell the anorexia, wince at the self-harm.

Besides, achievement is a canny fellow. It doesn’t like to feel pursued. It is subtler than that, it plays hard to get. Flair is required, and that doesn’t come merely from solid graft, it comes from strong natural resources, confidence, curiosity, risk-taking, inspired teaching and good examples. I always have my best ideas at the oddest moments; just as a lorry sends a grimy arc of puddle down my dress, or when the bus breaks down or the bride pauses and blows her nose. I do not have them when I am standing over myself with a stick and a threat or a bribe.

I ask friends for their thoughts on this matter. “Do we push them now and ruin their childhoods, or decide not to push them and ruin their lives?” one anxious mother asks me, grinding an innocent paper napkin into a thousand pieces. “Those are the only choices.”

“Everyone says they want their children to be happy,” another friend argues, “but this is disingenuous, because we all want them to lead interesting and useful lives, which isn’t the same.”

“I don’t know how the Victorians ever managed to get their children up the chimneys when you think how hard it is to get them to do their homework,” another offers, ruefully.

“At school,” a colleague tells me, “I always wished that I’d be forced to deny something I believed in deeply – I don’t know, perhaps Jesus or Shakespeare – and I’d refuse to deny it, and then I’d be torn apart by lions.” Her face lights and glows. “I thought that would really be something.”

I am impressed, but finally confess it isn’t quite the outcome I am seeking for my girls.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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