Aspirations and hurdles

I’ve just had a fascinating  discussion with David Hemery, the former Olympic gold medallist hurdler, and founder of 21st Century Legacy, a charity devoted to raising children’s aspirations to greatness.


The meeting was set up to explore our apparently opposing views of aspiration.  David is absolutely committed to getting children to find their spark of greatness and to pursue it.  Too many people say how ‘passionate’ they are about something when they don’t really mean it;  David didn’t use the word, but he evidently is, in a very unassuming way, passionate about linking aspiration to social justice.  So he’s for onwards and upwards.

By contrast I’m  interested in people – women and men – who make a positive choice not to go further up the vertical career path .  Of course I support raising aspirations (and social justice)  But my argument is that more people will find fulfilment if we think of careers more broadly than as the ascent of a vertical ladder.   Staying at a particular job level doesn’t mean that you are not a committed person with professional ambition.

So shouldn’t we have been arguing against each other?  Well, I do believe that there may often be a tension between the kinds of single-minded concentration needed to realise greatness (at whatever level), and the need for balance in life.  We also want to avoid people rising to their level of incompetence.   But I thought it fairly unwise to go head to head with an Olympic winner who still has great energy to press his arguments.  Happily we found ourselves very much in tune with each other.

The key, I think, to reconciling our two perspectives is to have a lifecourse approach.  There may be periods, long or short, in our lives when a focus on a single goal is what is needed.  There will be other times when life is full of different activities, none of them with particular priority over the others.  A life characterised by a single goal, or type of goal, throughout its course is less likely to ‘succeed’, in the sense of true fulfilment.  But the trick is to achieve not just balance at any single moment, but over time.

Easy to say, much harder to do.  It’s especially hard to get a longer-term horizon into one’s life, and anyway  how many amongst us really want to try to map out our lives that far in advance.   David quoted John Harvey-Jones, usually known as a jovial business guru, who said that momentum is more important than direction, provided the momentum is forward.    Tacking may be the appropriate image.

David left me with two encouraging episodes, to share:

–       A deputy headteacher who had to act up as headteacher.  She was unhappy at leaving teaching altogether, but got her job description rewritten to allow her to remain an active member of the profession

–       The choice of Jessica Ennis as a sporting role model –  by a bunch of 13-year-old boys at Wallingford school.

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