I Failed at School, School Failed me

I Failed at School, School Failed me

Over the weekend I watched a video from Gary Vaynerchuk speak about his experience in school and how, as an entrepreneur, it failed him. It struck a deep chord with me. Here’s the video (1 min 26 long):

My Story

I grew up as a teenager in the countryside Ireland. Summertime was my favourite time of year. My memories consist of constant sunny summer days playing on our family farm (even though I’m sure it was really raining…it was Ireland after all).

However, there was a sound that would turn that feeling of excitement and joy into fear and dread. It was the sound of the postman around the time when my end of year school report was due.

My school experience was one was largely one of disappointment, not living up to expectations and the feelings of shame that brought with it.

I grew up in a family of academic excellence, my brothers and sisters excelled in school, all receiving scholarships to a top school in Ireland.

I always like to be different, and this was no exception. I didn’t receive the scholarship. I didn’t excel at school.

 I Failed.

No time was this more apparent than when the postman delivered the school report. It contained line after line of statements from teachers saying:

‘ Howard has potential but won’t apply himself’

‘ Howard doesn’t try hard enough in class’

‘ Howard makes no effort in class’

And on the scoring system, my grades were always below average.

The day my grade reports arrived home, my parents would give me a talking to. It included topics such as ‘we work so hard to put you in school, and this is how you repay us?’

I don’t blame my parents for saying this; they did work hard to put me through a good school.

The report card came back saying that I didn’t give a shit.

And so every year of school this continued. I failed at school. I can’t fully explain the reasons why I didn’t apply myself. I wanted to make my parents proud of me, I just was not interested in the subjects the taught, or the way they were taught.

(With the one exception of one English teacher who saw something special in me, put his arm around me, and I excelled at…for the one year he taught me).

This left me with the feeling I was a failure as a teenager.

Why could I not apply myself like others did? Was I broken in some way?

My end of school exams came, I didn’t live up to expectations.

More disappointment. Shame.

I went to university where I tried to fill the empty hole of feeling broken with external stuff. Parties, friends, eventually drugs….all seeking the approval I never received. It never filled the hole.

I was kicked out of university after 3 months. The hole grew deeper. I made selfish decisions. I refer to this time in my life as ‘the darkness’. It was a time I was confused. I had no self-worth.

The very things I did to try and fill the void just led me deeper into ‘the darkness.’

So after being kicked out of university I got a job. I started my first business on the side. I started reading and wanting to learn about business & marketing to help me make it a success. Four years later I decided I wanted to go back to university to learn more.

This time, my university experience was different. I had a purpose. I studied hard, I loved it. I got a 1st class degree, then scholarships to do an MBA. Then a scholarship to study a Ph.D. (which I dropped out of).

So when I had no purpose I sucked at school.

But when I had a purpose (which I’m grateful I stumbled upon myself) I excelled.

So the question is: Did I fail at school, or did school fail me?

I don’t feel any anger or resentment towards school. I’m grateful that….

…I started my first business that gave me purpose, which in turn allowed me to claw my way out of the darkness.

…the feeling of being a failure left me with a drive to prove myself, a drive that others perhaps do not possess.

… I experienced the impact of finding a purpose, and it has left me with a passion for helping others find theirs.

How many people go through school, are left feeling broken, and do not discover their purpose?

Many successful people did not fit into school and are quite vocal about it: Richard Branson & Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin has written about it in an article that has been shared over 4 million times.

Does that include you?

So what’s going wrong?

I believe there are a few things wrong with education:

  • It puts most importance on teaching the same core subjects as 100+ years ago. The world is very different now. Are these still the subjects people need to best arm them for the world when they graduate in 2020?
  • If people do not perform well at these few core, I argue out-dated, subjects, they can be left with a feeling that they are a failure
  • Some of these people who left feeling like a failure, probably have talents highly impactful to the modern world (entrepreneurship, creativity etc) but these are not highly valued in the educational system
  • Most people do not like feeling like a failure, so they learn to stop trying things and stop taking risks. They start to play it safe
  • In the current one size fits all approach, if you don’t fit between the lines, you are left feeling like something is wrong with you. Children & young adults being made feel a failure because they do not fit in with an educational system can’t be right

Some of the most important things I’ve learned in life such as:

  • How to deal with other people effectively
  • How to find a purpose in life
  • Goal setting

Were never taught in the 14 years I spent in the education system. Why not?

This runs deep

This is clearly a big and complex area, but one I believe runs deep with most of us. It’s either affected you, or someone close to you.

I don’t have the answer, but I’m passionate about helping school misfits because I was one. I do this through my teaching at General Assembly, where I’ve taught over 1,000 purposeful students over the past 4 years, & elsewhere. These students come either with a purpose, or in search of one, and I feel honoured if I can help stoke their fire.

Are schools killing creativity?

Ken Robinson in one of the most popular ever Ted Talks puts forward that schools are killing creativity and need to change. I agree. (note: if you don’t have time to watch the entire video below, I highly recommend you skip straight to the story of Gillian Lynne, who created the musical ‘Cats’ at 15m 19 seconds…it’s powerful)

Gary Vaynerchuk says school failed him. School also failed me.

I believe everyone has natural talents, the current educational system pushes many down routes in life that at best leave them unfulfilled, and at worst, deeply unhappy and feeling broken.

It’s time for a change…both at school and university level. This is as important as sending men to mars to creating renewable energy,

Because education shapes who we are and it creates our future.

Your Turn:

How was your school / university experience? Please share in the comments below.