On occasion, I feel there’s value in pausing on the path we’re taking through life, turning around and taking a good look at how far we’ve come. It can be quite surprising.

Over the last few days a number of events and conversations have triggered off the realisation in me that I’m further along in my own development than I thought – in terms of my abilities, skills, assuredness –  and in my crazy mission to make the world we live in better.

When I turn around on that path and look at where I was going through school, it’s a very different person I see. I was shy, unconfident and didn’t like groups of people. My self-worth wasn’t great. This is probably true for many teenagers, but there was little evidence of how much that would all change.

During the end of school, through college and early university this changed a little and my fear of judgement receded a little, but I was still terrified of criticism or of appearing foolish. I grew more comfortable in groups, and valued myself more, but remained very cautious. This impacted upon my view of the future. I didn’t see a great deal of adventure or excitement, and didn’t trust in my own ability to engineer these as core components of my life. I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I was sure that the ones I could see – working for the sake of earning money in an office somewhere, living for the weekends, being stuck in a lab doing science – were not ones that appealed to me. In fact, I found them quite depressing.

Oddly though, I appeared to be less worried about my future than many of my classmates. Despite what I’ve written above, my glass was always half-full and I the hope that something extraordinary would emerge remained ever-present. That attitude helped me a lot in getting through depression. And though I wasn’t sure how I wanted Nathaniel’s future to look, I did have some idea of how I wanted future Nathaniel to look. I could see traits in other people that I admired, and could see the amazing things that those traits enabled them to do. Writing, public speaking, enterprise….I wanted to be good at these things.

I was aware that to develop these areas, I needed to just throw myself in with the knowledge that I would be no where near as good as other people or as I wanted to be – and other people would judge me for it. For a long time, that fear of what others might think of me held me back though. Instead of just jumping straight in, it was easier to bask in the envy and make excuses why I was actually better than them or why some other circumstance outside of my control meant that I couldn’t do these things. That it was down to talent perhaps.

And then something happened one Christmas. My sister and her husband bought me a book by Alastair Humphreys. I was hooked not so much by the astonishing fact that he CYCLED AROUND THE ENTIRE WORLD, but more by the huge personal doubt he overcame to do so. That he was just an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary dream. What set him apart was not physical excellence or unshakeable self-belief, but attitude. He dared do something extraordinary, and that made him extraordinary.

And with it my attitude changed. I was inspired beyond belief and decided I would dare do what terrified me. Those areas that I wanted to get better at – that scared me – I started doing them and giving them a go. Put simply, it came down to this: my fear of being judged by others was outweighed by my fear of leaving an ordinary life – of judgement by myself. Living with the knowledge that I didn’t take risks and hadn’t been bold terrified me more than anything else – than getting up in front of 50 people and talking, of jumping out of a crane, of starting something original and letting others judge it.

So I did things like run student groups, start new ones, go bungee jumping, write for the uni paper, take every opportunity to speak in front of people that I could. Risk being wrong. Risk making a mistake. Risk being judged. I recall how I would feel speaking in front of a group, or when I was writing for the paper – I would try to overcome my fear of what others would think of me. All that attention, all those opinions at one time. It wasn’t natural to me.

But those things have turned out pretty well. It’s hard to explain how rewarding it is to see my improvement in those areas; I enjoy talking in front of people and now even have people coming up to me telling me how good I am at it! I write very transparently in my blog and elsewhere. I’ve started up a number of community organisations. And I don’t worry about what people think of me, in fact I tend to belief they will think well of me. And I’m always open to constructive criticism and areas of improvement. The emotion of envy pops along infrequently , and when it does, I pay close attention to its lesson. It means that somebody is able to do something that I can’t and would like to. So I listen, and then get on with changing that. The envy very quickly disappears.

And now I reflect that this turning point in terms of my attitude to self-improvement, is one of the biggest of my life. Because now I’m on this bike, I can’t get off it. Whenever I see something I want to get better at – no matter how ambitious it seems or how far off I am – I immediately work out how to improve and get straight on it. I think this will serve me well for the rest of my life.

The sad thing is, I see is this same fear in many others – held back by a fear of what others may think of them. And yet, if we had that fear when we were toddlers, we would never learn to walk. We look pretty stupid falling over all the time before we finally succeed. I believe that to some extent it is natural that as we become self-conscious, we do develop some fear of judgement.

However, I am firmly of the view that this fear of judgement – of being wrong – is more often than not facilitated by current public education. It’s an education system based on right and wrong, of assessment, of being compared to others. We’re given little numbers that tell us – and everyone else – how good we are and we’re judged on them. We’re pushed to fit in to a system. And yet, there is an opportunity, through education, to encourage people to flourish, to build their self-belief and self-worth. To help young people realise their strengths and improve their weekends. Except in some unconventional schools, this is an opportunity that is wasted.

And here’s a question I won’t waste much time trying to answer, but that is thought-provoking. If I had learned this attitude to self-improvement earlier, and this self-worth at 5 years old, instead of 20 years old, where would I be now?

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