(image from www.target.com.au)
I never really gave it much thought as a child, in all the tv shows that I watched, the movies, the ads on tv and in magazines, that there were no disabled people included in the story, the message. Looking back as an adult though, through my childhood sketch books and written stories, I always drew figures with missing hands and feet, or wrote about people who were different in someway (usually with a magical element, cause I’m magical - right!!). I think, in a way, I was making my own representation of characters, people like me. And here we are in 2019 and there is still a lack of representation, though it is improving… slightly.
Why do we need diverse, authentic, disability representation in the media though? There is often a token disabled person in shows and movies, or the narrative is tied up in one of three disability tropes, the tragic disabled person, the evil disabled person, and the inspirational disabled person. All of this is hurtful and deceitful, and presents a feeling of either being brushed aside, or being shoved into an uncomfortable spotlight that is so far from the reality of disability. My story isn’t tragic, I am not evil, and I like to think I can inspire people with what I have achieved, separate from the "inspiration" of my disability. It is these tropes that still persist though that we need to question and change, especially in the media.
If we can manage to get inclusion and diversity right in the media I firmly believe we will start to get inclusion and diversity right in education, work, and community. It’s about creating the world that we want to see, that we want to be an active part of, and so demanding change in the media starts with you. I recently came across an article about how, in Australia, there is starting to be a real push to get children with disabilities in ads for big companies such as Kmart and Target. This push comes from a ripple effect, of seeing other companies and media agencies taking up the reigns of authentic representation. What inspired me in this article was how a mother, upon seeing Target in the US do a campaign that included children with disabilities, decided to appeal to Australian Target for more diverse representation in their catalogues. Well they agreed and her son ended up being featured, amongst others. And it isn’t even just the fact that they are pursuing greater disability representation, but that it is authentic. This particular image (above), from one of the Target Australia catalogues, shows Emily Prior, a nine year old with cerebral palsy, centre stage. What stands out to me isn’t her disability, it is there, but it is simply a part of the story being told. This image implies that Emily is just like every other kid out there, just as every disabled child should feel they are the same, included, and valued.
It isn’t only in ads that we are seeing an increase in representation. In the last few years there has been a steady stream of television shows, mainly comedies and sitcoms, that are showing disability life as it is. As I said above, disability is often represented by three tropes, tragedy, being evil, or inspirational, but shows such as Speechless and Switched at Birth. There are two brilliant aspects of these shows that has to be replicated to gain full authentic representation across the board - firstly, disabled actors are cast to play disabled characters, hence bringing their lived experience to the role that an able bodied actor could never understand, and secondly, the disability is not represented as the key factor in the disabled characters life, it is simply an aspect of them, one of many layers that makes up the the identity of that character.
I could’ve only dreamt about seeing this disability representation when I was a child. I grew up "able bodied", I went to a mainstream school, I was the only person in my family with a disability, and the media I consumed was able bodied driven. But I have a disability and I want to be proud of my disability now, and in seeing more authentic representation in the media there is the implication that the disabled lived experience is valid, validated, and valued, as it should be.
This morning I did what I do every Saturday morning, I opened my laptop, popped onto Youtube, and perused the latest videos from my subscriptions. This perusing will generally result in me watching a few interesting vlogs or short doco's that inspire something in me, sometimes this will be a personal response and other times I will feel compelled to speak up and put my spin on an idea or concept. Well, that happened today with Ingrid Nilsen's video on why she stopped shaving, I will let you have a watch before I continue with my thoughts….
Where to start with this discussion, I have so many starting points in my head... I will start from the beginning...
1st Time I Shaved My Legs:
I was 12 when I hopped in the shower one hot summers evening. I had just come back from a swimming lesson and needed to wash the chlorine off my skin (and yet that smell always seemed to linger, so matter how much soap I used). Having recently started High School I had quickly become aware that many of my friends at school had smooth legs and it had disturbed some self esteem cog in my brain. That cog had been getting looser and looser as the weeks went past, and this particular evening, as I showered the chlorine off my skin, I spied Mum's razor on the shower shelf. The steam from my shower made the bathroom foggy and I furtively glanced towards the bathroom door, as if I was expecting Mum to suddenly pop her head around the door; I grabbed the razor. Before I knew it I had shaved my left leg up to the knee and after that it felt silly to hold back - the rest of my leg hair disappeared. I carefully placed the razor back on the shelf, turned the water off, hopped out of the shower, dried off, and put my nightie on. I then promptly, and thoroughly out of guilt, found Mum in the kitchen and told her I had shaved my legs. I got the response I expected, a lot of shouting, disbelief, and I was told, in not so many words, “that’s it, you have to shave every few days now, you have done this to yourself, I’m going to have to get you a razor now….”.
Ever since I had been swimming training for the Paralympics I had been shaving my legs, and waxing my underarms and bikini line. All of the girls on the swim team did it… and even some of the boys. Another team hair removal trend was the waxing of arm hair, a trend I never took up, but the idea was that by removing as much body hair as possible you would swim through the water faster. I was entrenched in a culture of extreme body hair removal and I thought it was the absolute norm. So imagine my surprise when I attended my first ever competition in Europe and there were girls competing with hair on their arms… on their legs, their underarms, and even the odd one with a bit of bush peaking out from their cossies. I can’t even remember what country they came from, and not every one of their team members were embracing the body hair, but it went against everything that I had been subliminally told since I was a young girl. I was shocked, I remember standing at the end of the pool with one of my team mates giggling and pointing and generally being a bit rude about it all. I could never imagine letting my body hair grow. I was determined that I would never have underarm hair on show or bushy pubes, or hairy legs, never, never, never.
Awakening at Uni:
In my mid twenties I was attending my first ever uni degree - Fine Arts - I didn’t really have any idea of who I would be a fellow student with. It was a really mix, some youngsters straight out of school, a lot of middle aged women there to find themselves, neurotic A-types, like myself, who wanted to leave being the best conceptual artist ever, and various Hippy types, the ones that were vegan and spiritual and those that took drugs to seem spiritual. I got to know them all and became lifelong friends with a number of them, but there was one lady who left a particular mark on my hair removal journey, I can’t remember her name, but let’s call her Star. Star was in her thirties and was one of the vegan hippies. She had this gorgeous long blond hair that she let hang naturally down her back, her clothes were always a bright yellow, and from under her arms, like a tiny thatched cottage, stuck out tufts of dark blonde underarm hair. One day a number of us, including Star, started to discuss body hair and whether to shave or not to shave. Star made it clear, she didn’t want to shave and so she didn’t, her husband preferred her au naturel everywhere. She felt sexy and natural and having body hair didn’t impact on her relationships with the two most important people in her life, her husband and son, so why would she shave.
In Ingrid’s video she talks about the history of hair removal and that we women have been under the bodyhair/shaving “male gaze” thumb since Before Christ…. that is a scary thought. When I think back to the social pressure I have felt under to shave my body hair it actually makes me feel ill. The thing is I know that feeling of shame and guilt well. In my thirties I have found that come Autumn and Winter I tend to shave a lot less and let the underarm, leg, and pubic hair grow unashamedly, and there is something so liberating in that - for one, I spend a lot less time in the shower when I am not shaving. Yet, as soon as the weather heats up I grab the razor again, it is like a heat inducing tick. All I can think though is that I have better things to be doing with my time then spending time removing hair that will make other people more comfortable with a body that already makes them uncomfortable (disability: another blog post to come?). Whew, what a sentence. Dare I take up the challenge? Shall I learn to sit with that feeling of guilt and shame about something that is completely natural? Will I put down the razor once and for all?
I think I might give it a go, just to see what happens, how it feels, and to help me confront the social pressure that makes me feel that I have to shave if I am going to be of value to anyone.
As I sat here this morning, in the kitchen, a cup of tea in hand, contemplating the beauty of the frost laying out across the courtyard and bridlepath, I suddenly felt that lightness of being that results from living with and from your values. There is a simplicity to it, a recognition that when everything is aligned and "right" inside, that no matter what the outside throws at you you will have the resilience and inner power to get through.
It is hard to describe this lightness, but I will try - a white feather that floats like a whirling dervish across the blue sky, awe you feel when you gaze at mountains so high that they take your breath away and make you not just feel - but feeeeeeeeeeel your insignificance, the magic in the hot sun beating down on your skin and the sand beneath your feet - baking glass - as you run into the refreshing coolness of the ocean, a comforting hug of a loved one that helps you realise no matter what mistakes you make in life you will always have love in your life, the simple beauty of flowers in a tall cool vase sitting on the kitchen table.....
When you are sitting in this feeling you suddenly feel alive and that your life has, can and will make a difference in someone else’s; you suddenly and with great clarity recognise your worth. But what triggered this feeling in me today and can I sustain it? On the weekend I attended a workshop run by my friend Anj Handa, it wasn’t a workshop that focused specifically on values (it was about Ikagai - get yourself to one of these workshops if you can), but it definitely pulled into focus that perhaps, just perhaps, I hadn’t been fully living by my values for a very long time. This realisation and clarity helped me really step back and dig deep into my heart space.
I remembered my self.
And I remember my self this morning because the first thing I did upon waking was read (I used to be a bookworm and somehow lost that, I want it back), once I was up and getting breakfast I checked my emails and had a lovely email from a potential speaking client that reminded me of my ability to inspire others, I popped some music on - old school classics that make me feel ready for the world - and I gazed out into the beauty and creativity of nature. I felt complete.
My life has been happy, joyful, fun, but I have been missing simple fulfilment, you know, the fulfilment that comes from just being authentically truthful in every aspect of your life.
In the VIA Character Strengths survey my top 5 strengths are: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, Fairness, Love of Learning, Hope, and Curiosity. This morning I lived in all of these strengths and it lifted me to a place of intrinsic inspiration. It is through tapping into these truths of self that I can sustain this feeling. Values, character, virtues, identity, self, whatever you call these things that make us uniquely ourselves and give us the ability to contribute positively to our communities, live in them and by them, in simplicity and mindfulness, in our hearts, relationships, and experiences, and reside in the lightness of living your values.
*If you are interested in your Character development and flourishing in all areas of your life, and you like to chat about this stuff and more, check out Character Club on twitter and Patreon - would love your support; let's create together a flourishing global community.
My brother and I sat together, heads huddled over photographs of my mother’s life. Photos from when she was born, as a toddler (replete with the dead straight hair that used to drive her mother to distraction trying to curl it), through her primary school photos, her debutante, to her sitting daintily on the beach in her early twenties - no doubt watching dad surf his way to oblivion (she once got so pissed off with him staying out on the waves all day that she threatened to drive home without him). We laughed at mum’s recognisable face, you couldn’t mistake her eternal frown, brows dipped over dark eyes, a fearsome sight that spoke to her strength and resilience in life. Out of the blue my brother exclaimed “oh my God, that’s Mel!” (Mel being my sister). This pulled me up as quickly as screeching to a halt at a stop sign (with the accompanying whip lash). My whole life I had told myself, and others, the same narrative, that my brother and I had won the maternal lottery, taking after mum with our brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, whilst my sister had won the paternal lottery, taking more after my dad’s side of the family, with thick, black, curled hair, hazel eyes, and a naturally slim figure, petite, delicate; the epitome of the English rose. And yet, I could not deny that my brother was right, in that particular photo, there was my sister in my mum, the expression on her face, the tilt of the head, the jut of the hip.
I contrast this with a comment from a friend about 6 months ago. A group of us were sitting around the lounge room, I believe they all had a glass of wine each (me a beer sat snuggly next to my hip) and we were casually playing Cards Against Humanity, as you do, chatting about family. I decided to show them a picture of my Nan and Grandad Wright’s wedding. Nan and Grandad were standing in front of the church doors, Grandad resplendent in his Air Force uniform, and Nan, slim, slight, and elegant in her white gown, victory rolls in her hair, and the biggest bouquet of roses (I dread to think how they got this get up for Nan, it being during WWII with rations and all). I am dead proud of this photo and so I passed it around on my phone. One of my friends zoomed into the photo and did a double take - “Liz!! This is you! You look exactly like your Nan!” That stop sign approached again, with whip lash, and I sat there shocked as my life narrative took a nose dive. No no no, I didn’t look like my Nan on my dad’s side, I looked like my mum, I had the Cross (mum’s maiden name) nose and chin, the colouring of our convict ancestor who I had been named for, the curvier figure of the Elliott (Nan's maiden name) women, with boobs and hips - how could I possibly look like my Nan Wright!
Do you ever feel that we tell ourselves stories about who we are, develop narrative about who we are, that stick like superglue to the delicate structures of our sense of self? What these two events in the space of a year have told me is not to believe in our narratives quite so strictly, to not covet these narratives as though without them we would crumble and fall into an existential delirium. I have started to think bigger about who I am and where I come from, I have started to appreciate my Dad’s side of the family more, to see the resemblances between myself and my Dad. In terms of temperament I am perhaps more like my Dad than my Mum, and the amount of moles and freckles I have, dotted like constellations across my back and shoulders, down my arms and legs, and across my face are all Dad. Perhaps, just perhaps, I am the perfect mixture of both parents, just as my brother and sister are, and in that I can take comfort that I come from a rich history, from two strong families, and from a great love that’s source is as wide as the universe.
When I was 13 years old I set myself the biggest goal I honestly think I could've set for myself - to swim at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. It was a goal that seemed big to me, but possible, even with my parents saying "we believe you darling, but don't get your hopes up." What helped to keep me going in achieving this goal was the dreaming along the way, the dreaming actually contributed to the motivation to get out of bed at 4.30am every morning, and to push myself to overcome shyness to compete at national and international level. Dreaming was a crucial element of my goal journey, but I still get asked by parents and teachers, should we make dreamers out of our kids? Should we allow them to set goals and dream big? I always respond by saying Adele, Nicole Kidman, and Andy Murray had to start somewhere, and they started with a dream, so why not your kids? Also teaching children to dream can help them develop certain character strengths that will help them reach their potential in all areas of their lives.
There is now research that backs up the positives of allowing kids to dream. In researching the impact, activities were developed, and I share with you some activities you can do, in schools, and in homes, to encourage dreaming so that your children can get the positive benefits too. First, some background research…
Encouragement to have a dream goes back thousands of years, Lao Tzu said: “Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear, and you will produce weeds that choke the life of your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions, and you will cultivate success.” Dreaming is an important aspect of being human and developing our character traits, in fact some researchers argue that dreams are built from the dreamer, or their collection of character traits, i.e., someone who is creative will probably have dreams that are based on creative pursuits, someone who is caring and loving may have dreams based on service and care-based pursuits, someone who is zesty may be extremely sporty and aim for the Olympics. Having dreams means developing our character strengths, and research shows that developing and exploring new dreams and ideas increases optimism in pupils, teaches them how to judge a feasible goals, and keeps their goals consistently in their mind. Some pretty compelling reasons to make sure that dreaming is a part of your character education curriculum or family lifestyle. These activities are based on research done into using character strengths to create optimism and dreams in children and teens - though could be used by adults as well, cause you know, we all need to keep dreaming.
Activity 1 - Fill Your Dream Bucket.
(This may require an actual bucket, but I leave that up to you)
The bucket becomes a metaphor for our minds, think of all of the emotions, knowledge, memories, ideas, AND dreams that we have that inspire us, and their correlating character strengths. Encourage children to use creativity to fill their bucket with new dreams based on their emotions, knowledge, memories, ideas, and previous dreams. Perhaps you have a child who always wanted to be a ballerina, but their parents couldn’t afford ballet lessons, encourage them to brainstorm other ways that they can bring dance, like ballet, into their life - perhaps they can attend free community hip hop dance classes instead, or even gather a group of likeminded friends to practice ballet tutorials off youtube. Encourage their imaginations to go wild and to inspire new and unique dreams and ideas that are outside the box. Tell them nothing is off limits in their dreaming - even being the first person to step foot on Mars could be a valid dream! This is a solutions based focus.
Activity 2 - Find the Glitter in the Sand.
All of the ideas and dreams in the Dream Bucket are like a mix of sand and glitter. You are now going to ask your pupils to sort through their dream bucket to find the glitter amongst the sand. This may be difficult as you are asking them to place a value on their different dreams and to decide which ones to keep and which ones to let go of. Ask them to think about the kind of person they want to be and the kind of life they would like to live and have them consider how each dream will fit in with this. Ask them to put each dream into a pile - yes, no, maybe - make a game of it, asking the children to sort the piles as quickly as possible (perhaps make it a race or have a time limit) means they trust their instincts about whether a dream is possible or not, or ask them to consider each dreams pro’s and con’s, what good and/or bad would come from this dream, etc.
Activity 3 - A New Dreaming legend/story.
Now have the pupils pick up their yes pile and using these dreams create a new dreaming legend or story. If they could achieve all of these dreams what would it look like? How would it feel? How would it impact on their family and friends? Providing resources, ask them to tap into their creativity again and create either a dream legend/story poster or write a short story/novella/comic book that illustrates this new, awe-inspiring dream. They can then take these home or hang them in the classroom to remind themselves of their dream every day.
This week my business partner/close friend and I attended a very special awards evening. Challenger Multi-Academy Trust, based in Bedfordshire and Essex, are a unique Trust in that they have a very specific focus in building a culture of character across all of their schools. As part of building this culture they decided to have an annual awards evening where children are recognised for character strengths, relationship and life skills. So on Wednesday evening Fred and I arrived at the Grove Theatre in Dunstable for the Character Awards. We felt so honoured to be there and to also be keynote speakers; we announced our research partnership with the Trust.What stood out for me though was one of the “entertainment” segments of the evening, it was a segment that inspired, not just my own outlook at what children are capable of, but what we as human beings are capable of.
This segment involved two groups of young pupils (from Lancot Primary School) who came on stage to show us their “Dragon’s Den” style presentations on projects to change the world. The first group, the youngest group, gave us a presentation on poo. Yes, you read that correctly, poo. Why poo? Well they were raising money to enable people in third world countries to have access to toilets. The second group had focused their project on earthquake affected areas (and they respectfully mentioned the recent disaster in Indonesia), and they were raising money to invest in a “tent pack” (a pack that includes a tent, water, and solar powered flashlight). These children stood proud and worked together to present their ideas and motivations. They were buzzing, motivated, excited to be learning and growing and I firmly believe that this is the power of service.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues have done a significant amount of research into the impact of Service, particularly through the concept of character and youth social action. Some of their most recent research has shown the impact that being of service, from a young age, can have on young people, these benefits include: the development of a habit of service (if children have been involved in service since under the age of ten), more likely to frequently participate in a wider range of civic/service activities, and the ability to recognise themselves as being moral and civic exemplars (role models for people in their life). The recommendations that came out of this body of research was that schools and institutions should look at how they can support young people into a habit of service (just as Lancot Primary is supporting their young people), and that through encouraging young people into service we can also have an impact on adults stepping into service, thus creating a service culture.
What is the potential furthering impact of developing a habit of service in young people? Well, you develop grown ups who are dedicated to service to others and social action. I am lucky that I get to see service focused adults on a daily basis through my housemate, Anj Handa, and the incredible movement that she is creating based around service and social action. Inspiring Women Changemakers is a movement that inspires, encourages, and supports adults in achieving their service and social action goals. This is an important movement that recognises anyone of any age, race, religion, ability, etc can contribute positively to the community, and therefore illustrates that service and social action isn’t just for young people, but for anyone.
Research on the impact of undertaking service and social action for adults is a small but growing body. So what are some of the benefits of undertaking service and social action for adults? Benefits include: enhancement of social connections, more cohesive and stronger communities, increase in civic-minded behaviours, and multiple impacts on individuals such as, increased self esteem, enhancement of strengths/skills, doors opened to further career paths/opportunities, and a general increase in physical and mental health and wellbeing. These benefits should encourage anyone to undertake actions of service and social action, benefits that I see in many of my friends, including my housemate and other members of Inspiring Women Changemakers.
Do you want to benefit from developing a habit of service? Do you want your children to? Here are some examples of how - donate old clothes/books/toys to charity, volunteer at a homeless shelter, donate old eyeglasses to an organisation/charity that supports those in need, donate food to a food bank, organise a community blood drive, participate in a charity race, collect unused makeup and perfume to donate to centres for women who have been abused, deliver gifts to patients in hospital, collect used sports equipment for families and after-school programmes, organise a summer reading programme for kids, teach computer skills to the elderly, perform a concert or play at a nursing home, clear snow and ice covered paths for elderly (and/or disabled) neighbours, clean up a local park, train your pet to become a therapy animal for hospitals and nursing homes, organise a carpool to reduce car emissions and collectively save money, make care kits for homeless shelters, donate art supplies to homeless shelters/care homes/hospices, plant flowers in bare/ugly public places, produce a neighbourhood newsletter. Can you suggest any other ways to be of service? Can be big or small - comment below.
Also, Inspiring Women Changemakers has its annual awards evening coming up in November and they are looking for more nominees, particularly in the young change maker award section. So do you know a change maker that isn’t getting the recognition they deserve? You can nominate someone HERE (do keep in mind this is currently for people in the North of England).
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What makes you stop in your tracks, heart palpitate, goosebumps arise on your skin, your emotions to soar, and to feel like you are part of something bigger? Have you ever actually stopped to think about this and what this actual feeling is? And also think about what this feeling might inspire you to do?
For me there are three particular things that evoke a sense of awe and inspiration in my life: music, nature, and seeing miracles happen (what do I mean by miracles? keep on reading!)
Music - I know this won’t necessarily be a popular choice (though a number of you must like these two bands as they are two of the most popular bands in the world), but whenever I listen to or see in concert or watch their music videos, U2 and Coldplay (though think Coldplay Viva la Vida and before), I descend into a shivering mess of insignificance. Whatever it is in, not only their lyrics, but the actual music as well, touches my heart somehow and makes me believe that love is all there is and that together we can make the world a better place. Some of their songs I have times where I can’t even listen to as they are too painfully beautiful for me to deal with i.e., I cry, feel sad, and yet elated at the same time.
Nature - When I was looking into awe I came across this short video that uses nature and music to evoke a sense of awe in the viewer. Created by the Greater Good Centre it is a scientifically (and dare I say it beautifully artistic) interpretation of awe and for me it completely elicited a sense of timelessness, boundlessness, God-ness, Universe-ness, whatever you want to call it. I have felt this in nature as well, even without the accompanying music, especially when going into the Blue Mountains in NSW, Australia, and the Scottish Highlands. These places are so wild, sensually overwhelming, and in particular, the size of the mountains elicit a sense of insignificance and humbleness. What are we to the majesty of nature.
Miracles - When I speak of miracles I don’t mean the mystical kind, necessarily, I don’t want to discount mystical occurrences (if I claim to be an open-minded person than I have to be open-minded), but I mean the everyday miracles that we humans are capable of. When I see news stories of people being kind, loving, and/or giving it makes my heart burst and again, that feeling of insignificance and humility takes over. It reaffirms for me that most of the time we humans are capable of being compassionate, open, and accepting and it affirms my belief in others, in community, and in the bigger picture.
Studies have been done looking at what elicits awe in people, with nature being one of the most prominent; spiritual experiences also rate high, but it doesn’t always have to be big event or thing that creates awe, something small and personal could elicit that response. Comment below and let me know what elicits awe in you. But are you asking what exactly is awe?
According to Keltner and Haidt (2003) and other studies since, awe has been described as “feelings of self-diminishment and increased connectedness with other people. Experiencing awe often puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves and feel more like a part of a larger whole.” The researchers relate this to the concept of flow, that we become so lost in the action, the event, the focus, the feeling, that we cease to feel a sense of individualism and instead feel interconnected.
What are the benefits of experiencing awe and why should we bring it into our lives and the lives of the people around us (i.e., pupils, staff, family)? Studies show that experiencing awe can have some pretty amazing affects on our minds, bodies, and souls. Firstly, because of the physiological response that awe can have, including heart rate changes and ‘goosebumps’, feeling awe can actually lower inflammation in the body. Psychologically awe diminishes our sense of self, increases prosocial connectedness, increases our positive moods, and even can give us a sense of more time. Perhaps, most importantly for all of us, experiencing awe can make us kinder and more generous.
So what could you do today (or tonight) to bring a sense of awe into your life or into the lives of those around you? If you are at home, in the morning or evening, watch this video from Greater Good to lift your mood and get a positive boost for the day. If you work in a school choose to play a song in assembly or class to start the day that kids are loving at the moment, that is positive, and that helps them come together and connect on an emotional level. If you work in a business consider emailing everyone an inspiring TEDx talk, or even consider getting a speaker in who can uplift and inspire with a powerful story.
Let me know how you are bringing more awe into your life, catch me on twitter here - @esioul or on instagram here - Elizabeth Wright.
Ego can be a contentious topic - is my ego to big, or is my ego to small (am I too humble). I am sure that we have all asked ourselves this and waded through the murky world of achievement, jealousy, right and wrong…
Scott Barry Kaufman is one of my academic crushes - as in I find his ideas and the way he expresses them fascinating, intriguing, and informing my own ideas about self, wellbeing, psychology, and character. An article he wrote this year is all about the ego and why we have to quieten that pesky voice in our heads and feeling in our hearts that surge like a tidal wave when we feel threatened in any way. You know, that bristly feeling we get when we make a statement and someone responds with a “weeeeeellllllll….”, or when your friend gets a promotion before you, or when you make a very public mistake that feels like the end of the world, and… well, I could go on and on and on. What Kaufman has to say about the ego is fascinating. He defines ego as this - “that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light.” And we all want to see ourselves in a positive light right? We like to ignore our shadow selves and only focus on having the world see us as successful and…. right!
Kaufman talks about how we live in a world of tribalism, meaning a world where it seems you have to belong to a group with a strong opinion and you as a group are right and everyone else is wrong. Think of the rise of populist opinions, the different Brexit camps, the Trump supporters and anti-supporters, you are attacked, despised, threatened, and you’re damned if you do and damed if you don’t. This is called ego, and Kaufman says that our egos are just too damn big at the moment. There is this drive to win an argument at all costs, and it is this need to win, to always be right, that is causing so many fractured relationships and communities. Are we really willing to destroy what actually brings us happiness (and research has shown that positive relationships are one important element that makes us happy - check out Sue Roffey’s book Changing Behaviours in Schools) just for the sake of being right, under the pretence that being right at all costs places us in a positive light?
Heidi Wayment and her colleagues are doing some fascinating research into what they term the “quiet ego.” Inspired by Buddhist philosophy and positive psychology, this research programme shows that quietening our ego is actually a more powerful path to wellbeing, growth, and a healthy self-esteem than working hard at self development and improvement. But what is a quiet ego exactly? Is it possible to have a quiet ego?
Over the past few years my housemate and founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, Anj Handa, and I have had multiple conversations about egos, being humble, and achievements that we have both achieved. I remember a couple of years ago Anj was stumbling over whether she should speak about a particular achievement, I told her of course she should - if it is fact and appropriate to the situation it is not bragging, it is simply stating something wonderful you have done that fits the needs of the moment. I have had to take my own advice on this countless times as I have struggled with that twist of ego inside my chest, am I only telling someone about this achievement to show off or is it a justified moment to state a fact that I am proud of?
Wayment’s “quiet ego” isn’t about squashing the ego out of existence all together but about lowering the tone of it so that become less defensive and more open to others. For Wayment and her colleagues there are four connected aspects to cultivate a “quiet ego”:
Kaufman notes that when you look at these four aspects they should be taken as a “whole system of ego functioning.” To measure whether you have a “quiet ego” cast your eye over the Quiet Ego Scale:
If you agree with a lot of these you would likely score high for a “quiet ego”. Developing a quiet ego, according to Wayment and colleagues research, shows an increase in wellbeing, resilience and coping efficacy. Kaufman also states that people who have or develop a “quiet ego” seek growth through authentic living and positive relationships, develop a healthy self esteem, are humble, spiritual, open-minded, grateful for experiences, take appropriate risk-taking, and recognise meaning in their life. It appears that developing a “quiet ego” is a key part of flourishing in life, no matter your age, place, or demographic.
This blog is a bit of a follow on from the previous blog and is a bold statement that - yes - schools are like a Paralympic Team. Perhaps you are giving a blank look at the screen right now, but that’s okay - “Dream, struggle, create, prevail. Be Daring. Be brave.” so says Caterina Fake - and so I am going to be brave in putting forward an idea that may be understood and embraced, or may fall flat on its face. But you know, I have to try.
See that diagram above? Well I am going to explain it for you… in the context of the Paralympics.
YOU (the athlete) - you the individual, the role model, the role model emulator, the hurdler, the thrower, the cyclist, and swimmer. You who is the teacher, the pupil…. or the athlete, striving constantly to bring out the best in yourself and others.
CLASS (the relay team) - your first (or second, or third) team. Small and close, you bond, build close friendships, learn how you compromise, learn conflict resolution on an intimate level. You learn how to trust and grow within a “family” full of siblings and potential role models. You might only be a team for a short time, a year in a school, a race in the Paralympics, but you have a bond that will last unconsciously for a lifetime. This is your core group each year.
YEAR (Paralympic swim team) - This is the bigger, intermediate team, that you also see every day, and gives you a sense of wider identity and support. This team is like the cousins coming together to have fun and learn with the siblings. It is an opportunity to make friendships outside of your core group and to grow and develop because of the opportunity to be social outside of your brothers and sisters. It is your introduction to citizenship and community. This is the group that may change as each year passes in subtle and not so subtle way, but ultimately it is who you feel defined by - I was the graduating year of 1997 in school AND I was part of the 1996 and 2000 Paralympic Swim team.
SCHOOL (Paralympic team) - This bigger team provides you with a variety of role models and supportive figures that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The school is like the Paralympic team (the whole team, inclusive of all sports and athletes involved), you are an integral part of the bigger picture, but you don’t necessarily develop deep, lasting relationships with all of these people. It comes down to identity again though, for a number of years you are part of a community that will define your present and define your future. This bigger community provides a deeper scope for support and inspiration… and again, widens your potential for finding that role model that you might be the one that understands you the most and provides you with the best opportunity to emulate strengths that person has.
... and finally, COMMUNITY (Paralympic movement) - This is the broader community that exists as part of the school, but extends outside of the schools walls. Parents, Governors, community leaders and exemplars are this wider community and they can have a positive impact on the class, year, and school. The community for the Paralympics is that global community of Paralympian’s that inspire me, inspire upcoming Paralympians, and that keep the Paralympic movement alive and growing. This community, that encompasses all the other circles, is the ultimate opportunity for individuals to show citizenship and character growth, it widens horizons, and can help model the best intrinsic culture for the school.
These ripples, these waves of community, role modelling, and emulation, are what create a culture of character. All of these ripples are what support the development of character and good wellbeing, and cross the ripple barriers it is not only the pupils that benefit from this idea of team, but also the teachers, staff, parents, governors, and wider community. So what impact can development of team, relationship building, and making of a community have on the school (and what impact did it have on me as a Paralympic team member)?
The VIA Institute on Character has teamwork as one of their 24 character strengths. As a character strength the key concepts are: Citizenship, Loyalty, and Patriotism. Three key elements that were developed as a team in the Paralympics, and three key elements that can be developed in schools (perhaps patriotism from the sense of being proud of being connected to the school and local community and being able to talk joyfully about its culture). And what happens when you increase the values of teamwork (and by extension responsibility)? Research shows that self esteem can increase, as well as self-respect and group cohesiveness, when you bring development of teamwork into a school. This is because we humans are inherently social creatures, and thus purposeful teamwork will enhance prosocial behaviours and cooperation. On the Paralympic team developing these prosocial skills under the guise of teamwork meant that we had group cohesiveness and support - perhaps shown most aptly through the empathy and compassion shared between athletes when we had losses as well as the cheering and celebration when we had wins. Support became a natural behaviour.
How can you develop more teamwork in your school? Develop a class battlecry, class colours, whole class group activities that encourage the pupils to help each other out to achieve a challenge. Develop a competition between classes in year groups, cross classes when it comes to some activities and assignments so that relationships can develop between “competing” classes. As a school choose a charity or community group that the school will spend the year raising money for, have a fundraising amount aim and encourage the pupils to support each other to raise money - perhaps have older pupils help younger pupils raise money, etc. As a wider community have parent/caregiver/family challenge evenings, where pupils and parents/caregivers have to work together to achieve different challenges in the hall or playground.
You can get more ideas by checking out my book, co-authored with Frederika Roberts, Character Toolkit for Teachers.
As a sports person (and Western citizen born and bred) I have noticed something about our cultures, from Australia to the UK, to the US, and many European countries, we are extremely focused on performance and outcomes. What do I mean by this? Let us look at two examples that I am familiar with - the Olympics/Paralympics and Education.
In the Olympics (AND more recently the Paralympics) there has developed a cult of hero adulation, much to the detriment of the true meaning of sport, that has impacted the wider community, and how we view and articulate success. Athletes are awarded with monetary support from governments, but only if they achieve top results (i.e., being in the top 8 in the world, and/or if you win a medal at the games). This extreme pressure to perform has now been noted to have a detrimental effect on sports peoples mental health and wellbeing.
The wider impact of hero adulation on the community can be mostly seen in two arenas - education and business. In education the epitome of success comes from the multitude of unnecessary tests that students take, tests that are there to bolster the school’s position on league tables, and build their reputation as a school that gets results. But what results? And to the detriment of what? A child’s mental health and wellbeing?
Performance and outcomes; data in, data expressed, and data out. By performance I am meaning specifically the performance traits that we as a Western society purport to be the most important character traits we should develop in ourselves and the coming generations below us. Duckworth, Seligman, Lickona, and Davidson, describe performance character traits as qualities that help individuals self regulate their thoughts and behaviours that support achievement of goals. Traits such as grit, resilience, hard worker, perseverance, diligence, self control, self regulation…. They’re not bad traits at all, but taken out of the bigger picture of character and character education, they can start to be problematic.
What research has shown is the benefits that developing performance traits; a school that focused on performance traits showed students to have higher levels of perseverance and community connectedness over an academic year. The problem with performance traits, however, is that they cannot be claimed to be either good or bad. Intrinsically they are neutral, a blank trait that can be applied in a good or bad situation. The best example I can give is when one of my lecturer’s stated “even a criminal has to be gritty and resilient if they want to break into a car or house.” Traits such as perseverance, self regulation, diligence, and grit can be applied as much to cheating in an exam as well as doing your homework so you can pass an exam honestly.
So should we stop developing performance character traits in our young people?
Of course not! We should still develop these traits in young people but alongside a moral imperative.
What are moral character traits? Noddings, Walker, and Pitts state that moral character is the traits that help individuals strive for ethical behaviours and values that have an impact on their relationships with others and communities. Examples of moral traits include, kindness, compassions, empathy, integrity, and social responsibility. As part of the research mentioned above (about performance traits), a school that focused on the development of moral traits showed students to show a high increase in integrity and social responsibility that are intrinsically good regardless of context.
To develop a well-rounded, community minded, flourishing individual it becomes apparent that we have to focus on a mix of character traits that complement and support each other. But how can we effectively do this? The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues character "building blocks" shows an elegant and simple way to express this mix, they divide traits into four categories: moral, civic, intellectual, and performance. The Jubilee Centre stresses the importance of the moral traits being the overarching traits that guide the other categories. The VIA Institute on Character classifies their 24 character strengths into 6 categories: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The VIA Institute on Character emphasises the importance of all classifications in the development of character in individuals.
What becomes self evident is that we human beings are complex creatures, but given the right support and encouragement, the right guidance and role models to emulate, we can develop a well-rounded sense of character within ourselves, a well-rounded sense that will see us thrive and flourish in all areas of our lives.
Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting aca- demic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.
Lickona, T., & Davidson, M. (2005). Smart and good high schools. Washington, DC:
Character Education Partnership.
Noddings, N. (1988). An ethics of caring and its implications for instructional arrange- ments. American Journal of Education, 96, 215-230.
Walker, L., & Pitts, R. (1998). Naturalistic conceptions of moral maturity. Developmental Psychology, 34, 403-419.