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I think that one of these days you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you’ve got to start going there – JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

In typical school fashion, the Easter holiday ended and school began just as the wettest holiday came to a close and the sun came out, only to arrive at the hottest day since 1949 according to the BBC. Undaunted, I set out on Tuesday morning to share some thoughts at our first Assembly, picking up on Salinger’s observation. One of these days you’re going to have to find out where you want to go, but how do we get there? Let’s press on….

The first step is usually to set out a plan, having a plan and giving some thought to what you want and how you get there is important. But when you are mapping a plan, you begin a speculative exercise which, at the point of execution, moves from a theoretical to a practical one. Mike Tyson is often quoted assaying that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. While Mr Tyson is not necessarily a positive role model, there is great value in considering his proposition.

What happens when the plan goes wrong, when the unexpected happens? Having a plan is good but it is not the only good. There must be the capacity to adapt, to take the punch and roll. I encouraged our students to consider how they respond when the plan hits difficulty, give up? Or flex, adapt and regroup to go again.

In working out this journey into the future, there must be some sense of passion. I have always made a point of encouraging students to find their passion. This has led to interesting conversations with parents about career choices, but it must be so. Children have to live their own lives, we school them and prepare them, guide them and endow them with principles for living, but it is their life.

Some of the saddest moments and deepest regrets come where 20 years down the line, people admit they are or were living their parents’ dream for them and not their own. Thoreau once wrote that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”. I am not sure this is entirely true, but it is at least partially so. Finding you own passion and embracing it makes for a happy and successful life. In offering and expecting participation in our vast co-curricular programme, our students have an opportunity to find their passion, but also to find what they really don’t like – and this is intrinsic to and instrumental in their journey.

An adaptive plan and having a passion can be stymied by a worry about getting it wrong, fear of failure and anxiety about taking a risk. In so many students the desire to get answers right, to avoid looking foolish by making a mistake stifles creativity and the risk taking that makes for effective learning and consequently personal growth. I echo this with staff as with the children: there is no development without setback.

The reluctance to take the first step, the timidity that leads to inaction, is much more concerning than embracing innovation and daring to be bold. If you always do what you always did, you get what you got with diminishing return. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts,” Churchill’s comment is as true today as when he said it – and he should know.

In embracing the courage to continue, there should be an expectation of results. I am not accepting mistakes or failure as ends, but as moments to recalibrate how we deliver on the very highest expectations. We have high expectations of the children and of ourselves. Having high expectations are the navigation tools that allow us to chart our course, they are a set of standards within our control and in a world of shifting values, they are a constant because we set them for ourselves. When we loosen ourselves from their mooring, we are adrift on a sea of mediocrity where good enough is good enough. There is, for me, no moment where this is true. Good enough is a self-convincing argument for not trying harder or for admitting defeat, there is always more we can do and good enough is never good enough.

Don’t complain if you won’t act. If you are not lighting candles, don’t complain of being in the dark. This is a really simple and practical truth. The retelling of something that has gone wrong or with which one is unhappy is not a complaint, it is a moan. When two or three gather to listen and indulge this, the moaning takes on a new life: self-vindication. It’s easy to lose oneself in the inveterate spiral of decline and self-deception that goes with moaning. One might convince oneself of the rightness of one’s position and begin to feel a moral indignation. The self-congratulatory myopia of the moaner insulates them from reality and isolates them from the solution which might mean they have to do something. Barack Obama put it beautifully: “the future rewards those who press on. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on…”

Mr Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley

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