Inspiration from the top

The Winter Olympics are now in full swing, and they bring an abundance of inspiring stories in the same way as the Summer Olympics of London 2012 did.

Much will be written about new Olympic champion Lizzy Yarnold over the coming months, and UK Sport will rightly see her as further evidence that their Talent ID programmes such as Girls4Gold deliver tangible results. Such was her dominance of the women’s skeleton event ahead of Sochi 2014 that many (unreasonably) suggested that the result was never in doubt. Given the scarcity of Winter Olympic gold medals in the history of the GB team, it is surely only a matter of time before the tabloids dub her Lizzy Yarngold.


[Photo credit]

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Following the sad news of the death of Neil Armstrong, we have been reminded about the courage of those astronauts who were part of the lunar programme in the sixties and seventies. We’ve re-lived the moments of the first landing, and heard of the tremendous effects on the personal lives of many of the astronauts.

One story which seems to me particularly relevant is the Commencement Address in 2005 which Armstrong gave to the University of Southern California. The full transcript is here:

It is a brilliant address, full of inspiration for those lucky graduates of USC who will have been far too young to witness the events which brought fame to Armstrong, but who will nevertheless recognise instantly his name and accomplishments. The address contained the following paragraph:

What an important message: Graduation marks the start of continuous change and opportunity which will arise. I started to think about opportunity and graduates, and the following themes emerged:

1. Take it!
You will never know the outcome unless you take the opportunity. It might bring a positive change – great news! If the immediate outcome is negative, then at least you know and can close-off that particular avenue in the future. You never know when (if) it will ever present itself again, so take it when you can.

2. Confidence
When we try something new, take an opportunity, we learn something about ourselves. We learn that we’re actually much more resilient than we’d previously imagined. Trying something new – whether it results in success or failure – teaches us that we’re capable of surviving both. It gives us the confidence to take further opportunities in the future as our personal comfort zones expand.

3. Personal growth
Whether we succeed or fail, we grow from our endeavours. We usually learn more from our failures than our successes. Either way, opportunities deliver personal growth.

4. The effect on others
When those around us see us taking opportunities, growing in confidence, learning and becoming bigger people, we affect those around us. They see the change in us and feel encouraged to do the same themselves. It also becomes an invitation to give us more opportunity, to further stretch us.

5. It differentiates us
There are always people who will pass up every opportunity, and by taking it ourselves we differentiate ourselves from them. It sets us apart, and gives us an advantage.

6. It’s not just about being in the right place at the right time
Right place, right time can be hugely advantageous. But unless we do the right thing at that time, we’re passing up an opportunity. Entrepreneurs are the very embodiment of this – they actually do something with the opportunity when it arises.

7. Give others an opportunity
We owe it to others to provide opportunities wherever possible. It is important to create opportunities for others to learn, grow, stand out. Whether that is through work experience, a try-out of a sport or hobby, a job rotation or even a potential promotion, give others an opportunity – you never know what will result.

Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered for being the first man to set foot on the moon. Today he reminded me of the importance of opportunity.

Another use for the spirit of volunteering

The vast number of volunteers at London 2012 were widely praised for their contribution to the Games, and there are hopes that the volunteering spirit will continue long after the end of the Olympics and Paralympics. There seems to be a general recognition that many of the sports clubs which trained our Olympians relied on volunteers, and if we are to see more children grow and thrive in sport, then we owe it to them to volunteer our services.

I wonder whether the volunteering spirit could be extended beyond sport? The Scouts Association, for example, is always looking for volunteers and indeed the difficulty in finding them is a key reason for the huge waiting lists. It is said that many parents don’t want to volunteer their time to help with Scouts, Beavers etc because they value their time without their children. They look at it as a sort of low-cost childcare, where the children are well looked after, whilst the parents can have a peaceful time. Those parents leave it to others to entertain, engage and excite their children. I can imagine that the Scouts are likely to have an even bigger problem recruiting volunteers as people turn their attention to sports.

How about the post-Olympic volunteering spirit extending even further? Could we all share a little of our professional know-how with children? After-school talks; company open-days; bring-your-child-to-school days?

We don’t seem to have a problem with time. I wonder how many man-hours are spent at car-boot sales around the country every week, transferring old and unwanted “stuff” from one house to another – people traipsing from car to car in muddy fields, buying and selling semi-meaningless junk. I fully understand the value of re-cycling, up-cycling and even free-cycling, but it seems to me that it’s all about people doing (virtuous) things for personal gain, rather than doing something for others.

Many big corporations already have such activities as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. Small companies usually don’t have a CSR budget. But they would probably understand it better if it were re-labelled as “volunteering”.

Early influences start (really) early

It is staggering to think how many of the decisions we take are influenced by events early in our lives. I’m not thinking of those biological, pre-birth influences such as diet, activity levels and audio-stimulus. I’m rather thinking of the post-toddler childhood and early school years – a phase rich in external influences and events which captivate, excite, motivate, engage, enthuse – or the reverse.

It’s not difficult to see where those influences come from. We tend to engage more readily with other people who are having fun and enjoying life, so we subconsciously respond to their cues on what is fun and enjoyable, further reinforcing and perpetuating the messages. Young children are surrounded by others of a similar age, and it doesn’t take long for a new playground “craze”, for example, to sweep through schools as children convince each other how fun and exciting it is. The young influencers spread the word quickly as friends redefine what is fun or “cool” to do in the playground – until it is replaced by a new definition from a different source. And there are plenty of potential sources, from role-model super-heroes (real or imaginary) to cleverly-marketed ideas from the professionals.

It is noticeable how narrow the range of role-models is for these young children. The “real” variety tend to be high-profile celebrities (always in the news, and frequently a topic of conversation for parents); sportsmen (footballers are a common favourite); popstars or dancers; or sometimes children’s television presenters.

An obvious attraction of these role-models for young people is that it’s easy to see what they actually “do” – they appear on the television or in shiny magazines; they play football; they sing or dance; they present funny or interesting things on the television. Most of these things are easily identifiable to even young children. Money is unlikely to be a motivator at this early age; the ease with which they can be identified, and the sense of fun is more likely to be the motivator.

There are pockets of special cases – the vet who cures a sick family pet; the kind baker who always pulls a coin from inside a child’s ear; the hairdresser who always gives a lolly after a haircut – people who somehow make a mark on a child for some reason, and for a while they unwittingly guide a child in the direction of that particular profession. These special cases are generally fewer and further apart than the earlier high-profile examples, and they don’t create as lasting an effect.

How many parents talk to their young children about their own profession; about what they do at work every day? Is it any wonder that children grow up wanting to be footballers, pop-stars or celebrities rather than accountants, solicitors, scientists or consultants? Isn’t it time we started to excite our own children about what we do? Not as encouragement to do the same, but just so that they understand the range of choices open to them. London 2012 has created a new group of Olympians who will undoubtedly inspire and encourage many to start a new sport. There are occasionally huge news stories which create an interest in a new field and inspire a generation – Man landing on the Moon; Curiosity landing on Mars; the development of Concorde; invention of wireless telegraphy. But we could do so much more to inspire the youth of today by looking around us now and engaging with them, rather than waiting for world events to do it for us.

The examples I used above were natural for me to choose – based on science and technology, they were early influences in my life. The Vietnam War; The Arab-Israeli Conflict; The Suez Crisis could just as easily have inspired me but I had already made subconscious decisions earlier in my life, and those major world events didn’t interest me.

For me, it could have all been so different (not necessarily better or worse, but different) had I been exposed to different influences. I might still have made the same life choices in the end, but I might have done that whilst being better informed. And being better informed is probably a good thing.


Inspiration from London 2012

In an earlier post, I wondered what London 2012 would provide in terms of memorable moments – broken records, outstanding achievements, personal stories and inspiration to us all.  At that time, I anticipated that there would be some surprises but I completely underestimated the scale of what it would bring.

On two separate occasions GB medal-winners encouraged others to “go for it” and live the dream, along the lines of “I’m just an ordinary girl; if I can do it, anyone can“.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won gold medal in the women’s pair
Great Britain has an excellent record in rowing, so it was quite likely that some medals would come from the rowing events.  But the remarkable thing is that Helen only started rowing in 2008 and was motivated by watching the GB team winning in Beijing. She was selected to take part in the Sporting Giants scheme, an initiative from Sir Steve Redgrave.
“I remember sitting in a room in Bisham Abbey [the National Sports Centre] and someone saying: ‘A gold medallist in 2012 could be sat in this room. Look around you’. I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to make that me.’ It was quite surreal.”
Immediately after winning the gold, exhausted and breathing heavily she said “I hope my story can be an inspiration for kids in PE or at home thinking about taking up a new sport. Just go on, go for it – you don’t know what’s going to happen”.

She was originally motivated enough to think “I can do that” in response to watching others win gold, and spent the next four years proving that she could. And then she encouraged others to follow her. Totally inspiring.

Samantha Murray won silver in the modern pentathlon
Asked immediately after her final race what she was doing four years ago, she said she was doing her A-levels, having started pentathlon, but she wasn’t competing at a senior level.  As a child she had wanted to be an Olympian, and at the age of 12 had put a poster on her bedroom wall of pentathlon gold-medallist Steph Cook at the Sydney Olympics.
“Honestly, if you have a goal – if there’s anything you want to achieve in life – don’t let anybody get in your way. You can do it. If I can do it, and I’m a normal girl, anyone can do what they want to do”. Again, totally inspiring. I wonder how many posters of Sam will adorn bedroom walls of future Olympians.

I suspect that many of us will immediately think to ourselves “but you’re absolutely not an ‘ordinary girl’, you’re exceptional”, and we’d be right – they are exceptional. In one important respect, they are more exceptional than the rest of us… they believe in themselves.

As these ‘ordinary girls’ showed, achieving great things always involves getting over the first hurdle – believing in ourselves. It might not be the hardest part, but it is surely the most important.

A reminder that there is hope

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of making generalisations – we’ve all done that at some point.   But it’s sloppy thinking; often the result of seeing repeated evidence which reinforces a particular view.

Students are lazy, lucky, selfish, broke, wasters, inexperienced and insular.  Those are some of the characteristics of today’s typical students if we believe what we read repeatedly in the press.  Only rarely are we reminded that students don’t always conform to this stereotype.  I recently had the privilege of attending a presentation given by six students from the University of Southampton who gave me a collective poke in the eye when they delivered an inspiring presentation on their SIFE work.  Actually it was more of a punch in the face… a real hard-hitting reminder of what students are like, and what they can do.  Everyone in the audience was already 100% behind students, and none believed the stereotype to be representative.  But everyone in the room was affected in the same way by this inspiring group of young people.

Undergraduates these days face the double challenge of not only completing their studies, but often also earning a part-time wage to offset their living costs, so to see students taking on additional commitments voluntarily is particularly encouraging.
  The group from SIFE Southampton won the UK National Championships and the presentation they delivered so professionally was what they will take to the SIFE World Cup in Washington DC in September.  Even at their young age, they are making a positive difference to the lives of others around the world – voluntarily. They are absolutely not showing any evidence of being lazy, selfish or any of the other characteristics listed in the second paragraph above.  Each of them has massively increased their employability, and prospective employers will be lucky to have them on board.

Some of the Wisemind members

In a brief chat with Jim Ineson (Exceutive Director of SIFE UK) after the event, I suggested to him that he’s got the best job in the world, and he gladly confirmed that to be the case. These students demonstrated what can be done with enthusiasm, motivation, drive and commitment.  They are a credit to the entire student community and a reminder to the rest of us that there is hope.

Inspiring teachers…

Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans

Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

… worth their weight in moon dust.

For me as a child, learning history was dull.  It wasn’t just me – I don’t remember any of us actually “enjoying” it.  It certainly wasn’t as exciting as science, or as interesting as French.  It was just dates and facts which had to be learned. Dull dull dull.  Looking back at that time as a pupil, I can reliably say that the only thing I learned about history was that it was boring.

But my interest in history has taken a turn for the better in recent months, with the discovery of Horrible Histories.  It hasn’t transformed me into a history-fanatic, but it has generated a degree of enthusiasm and interest which had previously eluded me.

Very heavy coverage by the BBC, with regular repeats at child-friendly times have helped create a buzz which has alerted my children to a subject which was so uninteresting for me, that I would have struggled to rouse even the slightest interest in them.  And it is quite obvious how this has happened… the history is presented in a way which is exciting, accessible and really interesting to children.  It’s not all about dates – it’s mostly about gory detail.  The books are written by Terry Deary, Peter Hepplewhite and Neil Tonge and cover every period in history in an appealing, easily digestible way.

There’s a lovely quote from Terry Deary: “If I had it my way, I wouldn’t have schools at all. They don’t educate, they just keep kids off the streets.  But my books educate, because they prepare kids for life.”  The combination of great source material (the books), the dramatisation, and the scheduling create a fabulously inspiring learning experience for children.  And the result is that there cannot be a child anywhere in the UK who doesn’t know the fate of each of Henry VIII’s six wives, something which could not have been said 40 years ago.

Anyone who has ever experienced the power of an inspiring teacher will recognise how potentially life-changing it can be.  Sadly not all teachers are so endowed.  I wonder how dramatically the lives of our children could be changed if only we could harness the skills of inspiring people, and channel them towards receptive ears.  What a difference that could make.

What will be the stories from London 2012?

With London 2012 looming large on the horizon, I start to wonder who will emerge with a personal story which hits us all; circumstances, sacrifices and determination of breathtaking scale; tragedy, victory and joy.  The sort of thing which has a personal impact.

Thinking back to previous games, there are some moments and some people which are indelibly etched into my mind.  I’m absolutely not a sports fanatic, but I do enjoy the spectacle of the Olympics, and these moments somehow had an impact, not necessarily related to the sporting achievement.

The only research I did in preparing this post was to check names were correct and to confirm which Olympics the events related to – in other respects I relied on my memory. So these are not a generic set of “Olympic moments” – they are personal to me.  In no particular order:

Greg Louganis (Seoul, 1988).  In an early round of diving from the high board, he smacked his head onto the board and hit the water badly concussed.  In an astonishing display of courage he had the highest score for his next dive and went on to win gold in the finals.  Having watched replays of his accident many time since (and heck, that must have hurt), it is remarkable that he didn’t just walk away and withdraw from the competition.  That is not what true champions do.

Nadia Comaneci (Montreal, 1976).  This young Romanian gymnast created such a dazzling display of perfection that the scoreboard was unable to correctly display her score of 10.00 – the first time it had happened.  She became the star of the games, winning a perfect 10.00 six times during the games.  Such youth, such perfection, such dedication – it made an impact which is hard to recreate.

Steve Redgrave (Sydney, 2000).  Steve had already demonstrated what it takes to become an Olympian, by winning a gold medal in each of the preceding 4 Olympic Games (starting with Los Angeles in 1984).  After winning gold in Atlanta, he had famously said “Anybody who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me” but had gone on to compete for a place in Sydney nevertheless.  Having struggled with illness throughout the latter stages of his career, he showed what can be achieved with grit and determination, winning by the slimmest of margins and repeating the much-used quote “pain is temporary; glory is forever”.  I can recall exactly where I was, and how I felt throughout that race.  A remarkable achievement.

Muhammad Ali (Atlanta, 1996).  The boxing legend returned to the Olympics in 1996, not to compete this time, but to light the flame.  By this time he was living with Parkinson’s Syndrome.  The global television audience must have been huge, and nobody watching could possibly fail to be moved by the sight of this great man opening the games with such dignity and humility.  A champion; a true legend.  Unforgettable.

Looking back on these moments in time, I’m struck by the fact that it wasn’t so much the sporting endeavour which stays in the mind – it is the personal element.  It is being able to recreate the feeling of that moment, rather than being able to recall details of the events themselves.  London 2012 will surely create new records which will become statistics of the future, but the real stories will be those which we remember years later because of their personal nature.  It is sobering to note that those stories are now almost complete – writing of them probably started more than four years ago and they have been evolving gradually as the rest of us have been going about our day-to-day activities, oblivious of the sacrifices these athletes have been making.  It is only when the events of London 2012 unfold, when the full stories will be told.

And let’s make sure that those events are witnessed by young eyes, because by inspiring the next generation we give them a head start.  Ten or twenty years from now, Olympians all over the world will look back at their childhoods, and recall how it all started for them and how they felt inspired by the athletes of today.  What better gift can we give to our children today, than inspiration?