Looking back at my school career, I have to regard myself as very fortunate. Although from a social point-of-view I am sure other people had a more successful time (I once had to change school due to bullying, before making new friends and becoming more popular), from an educational point-of-view, I hit the jackpot.

I was one of the lucky children that, from a young age, was considered to be ‘bright’ and was therefore given extra-curricular activities to help me develop further and promoted to the ‘top group’ for all classes; where I would be given work that was more challenging and told about how brilliant and gifted we all were. While the rest of the school called us ‘boffins’!

The Pygmalion in the Classroom

Many of us are now aware of the ‘Pygmalion Effect’ and how this translates to the classroom; as researched and documented in the widely acclaimed book Pygmalion in the Classroom by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.

In brief, the research shows that expectations of performance can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, when a teacher shows that they expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do so. On the other hand, when the teacher does not have the expectations of high performance, the student does not perform. The actual study on this and the resulting changes in IQ are fascinating, so I would highly recommend reading the book if you have not already.

I am, therefore, very grateful that I was put into the category of being a ‘high-performer’ as I am certain this contributed to me obtaining good GCSEs, A-levels and ultimately my degree. However, it wasn’t until I left university that I realised there was an issue that had built up throughout childhood and had never been fully addressed. In fact, I didn’t observe this issue in myself, I actually noticed it in other people. It took me a number of years of pondering this and various conversations, before I started to make sense of the problem.

Identity crisis?

The ‘self-improvement’ industry, in the US alone, is worth a staggering $10 billion per year. The biggest names in the industry such as Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and Paul McKenna are worshipped by millions of people around the world and held in almost messiah-like esteem. There is an abundance of good information and great value being provided by the industry, despite some people thinking it’s just full of wishy-washy charlatans. But throughout this enormous industry, there is one underlying theme that gets addressed by everyone and covered to death, but unfortunately still never fixed: self-belief.

To me, this begs the question: are we all suffering from an identity crisis? Let me explain.

We all have an understanding of what makes up our identity, it’s the strongest of all beliefs that we hold: “I’m confident”, “I’m intelligent”, “I’m beautiful”, “I’m athletic”, “I’m shy”, “I’m artistic” and so on (note: that wasn’t me describing myself, otherwise I would need to add “I’m arrogant”). When the children experiencing the Pygmalion Effect understood that they were a high-performer, they adopted it as part of their identity and made it happen. So, why do we require a multi-billion dollar industry to understand that we can achieve anything we set our mind to?

You can achieve anything you set your mind to

I chose that expression for a particular reason: it’s the one most people commonly remember their teacher saying. The problem is, when someone makes a statement but doesn’t back it up, give evidence or explain how it’s the case, then it falls on deaf ears and just becomes noise. Instead of believing we can be anything we want to be, we tend to follow the curriculum throughout our school life, while keeping our dream as a statement rather than a goal we’re working towards (“when I grow up, I want to be a…”)

So let me now take you back to when I graduated from university - it was time to find a career. Of course, the intention of getting a degree is to lead towards a career that you have already decided you want to do. However, as I graduated with a business degree, most people I knew were studying in that area for the exact opposite reason: they had no idea what career they wanted to do. This therefore posed the obvious conundrum after graduation: what shall I do?

For me it was easy. I knew I wanted to work in banking and I was lucky enough to already have a role lined up before I graduated. But other people I know struggled. They applied for everything; anything that would pay well. They applied for crazy jobs they had never even heard of. They applied to work in different countries they didn’t even know they wanted to live in. They tried everything. Where was the ambition?

So what’s the problem?

Although we’re told we can be anything we want to be, we’re never really told. In other words, we aren’t taught how to make that a reality. At school we don’t get enough time to build our own ambitions and develop our own goals; of course, we do have some goals, but they aren’t as helpful for us. The goals we set are related to the curriculum, which means they are prescribed goals rather than our own. We have ambitions to succeed in something that other people have told us to succeed in; what everyone must succeed in, in the same way. This is great for some children but terrible for others; as Einstein said “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

If you are always working towards prescribed goals, what happens when they are gone? What happens when school ends, the curriculum is finished and you have to face the real world - making your own plan and your own ambitions? A lot of people fall short and end up doing careers they are not happy with. They develop ideas of what life could be like and then deem them as unrealistic, because they never truly had the self-belief that they could achieve anything they wanted to: where would I start? How would I do it? It’s unreasonable; it’s unrealistic; it will never work; it’s a waste of time; that kind of thing never works out for people like me.

My own ambitiousness didn’t come from school; neither did my ability to work towards a plan. When I started my investment management company at the age of 23, I didn’t look back and thing “thank God, studying photosynthesis paid off”. It was actually from the hours I spent outside of school that gave me that drive and necessary skills: attempting to start a web design company at the age of 13; selling things to my friends at 14 and 15; attempting (badly) to promote bands at age 19. These schemes during my developmental years provided me the understanding and belief that if I worked towards something enough, I could achieve anything – it shaped my identity, and it should be the same for everyone else.

How can we make this happen?

I’m certainly not naïve and I do appreciate that if we leave it up to children to decide what their goals are and to start working towards their dreams, whatever it may be, then we will end up with legions of kids working towards being footballers, actresses and Kim Kardashians. However, I do think we need to take a similar, although more realistic approach.

Children need to be taught more often, not just the occasional remark but really taught, that they can achieve great things if they work towards it. Rather than setting targets for school work, why don’t we teach children to set their own goals for what they will do outside of school? We can show them how they can create a plan and really work towards it; tracking their progress and making improvements.

Rather than leaving career guidance for 14-16 year olds, why don’t we start younger? Make it a regular part of the curriculum at all ages, so that children can keep in mind what their efforts are going to lead to. This will shape the way the child learns and influence their subject choices when it comes time for choosing what path they will go down. If they only think about careers when they are about to make their choices, it is already too late as they will choose something they deem ‘realistic’ and miss out on reaching their full potential.

If as adults we are paying thousands to have our minds ‘reprogrammed’ to start believing in ourselves and working towards our ultimate ambitions, why don’t we just take that extra step to programme the minds of our children to believe the same? Keep in mind the Pygmalion Effect and let’s encourage our children to dream.

"Anything the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can be achieved” – Napoleon Hill

Author's Bio: 

Nicholas Puri is a director at The Duomo Initiative (www.duomoinitiative.com)

The Duomo Initiative is a self-development company focused on helping people achieve financial stability through personal finance coaching; financial freedom through learning to trade and invest; and life transformation through guidance on success mindset and achieving ambitions.