I apologise for my use of the C word, but Christmas is coming and it’s time to think about presents! And, because there’s a section of my brain that will be forever eight years old, it’s time to think about thank-you letters. If you ever received a thank-you letter composed by me, when I was a child, I’m sorry, and I’m as surprised as you that I grew up to become a writer. I did want to say thank you for my gifts, but I associated the letters with a period of back-to-school dread, when all the good Quality Streets had been eaten.
I might have been a bit more enthusiastic about the task if I’d had some help from Terry, the Great British Bake Off contestant. He left the show over a month ago, but sent his support to the finalists, fans and programme-makers, with a handwritten, heartfelt letter, ending, “I am very excited for the future and again would like to say a huge thank you to everyone for their love and encouragement.” The letter was handwritten, but shared widely on social media. Terry’s wife Joanna died last year, and Terry explained that the support and encouragement he had received from Bake Off viewers has been especially meaningful as he works through his grief. For him, it was never about the competition – but having the chance to take part provided a moment of light and distraction during a dark and difficult time.
It struck me that Terry’s form of expression was very traditional, but the sentiment was a modern one. His words suggest that winning wouldn’t have meant as much to him as simply taking part. There was no embarrassment, shame or bitterness about the fact that he had not been chosen to take part in the final stage of the competition. He was acknowledging how good it felt to be seen, supported and included. He had found connection and, even though he didn’t win, his experience felt like a big success to him.
People of my generation are often accused of needing “participation medals” – and the internet is filled with think pieces advising businesses to think hard before they hire millennials, otherwise they’ll be forced to organise an award ceremony after every tea round. I think that there’s a grain of truth in this. All of us, regardless of age, are under more pressure than ever before to be successful and exceptional.
How many of us would love to try to play an instrument, learn a language or take on a creative project outside our skill set, but don’t dare because we know we have convinced ourselves that we won’t meet a narrow definition of success?
I grew up hearing that I could do everything and be the best. While I acknowledge that it was a great privilege to be raised by parents and teachers who encouraged me to fulfil my potential, their words made me and my contemporaries feel as though we were under an enormous amount of pressure. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have never really believed or understood the idea that taking part could be more important than winning. I don’t think I have ever knowingly put myself forward for any kind of competition without believing that I had a chance of coming first. This doesn’t just hold me back in my professional life – it also means that I rarely experience the pleasure of a really good game of Scrabble.
We know that we have a growing mental-health crisis, and diagnoses of anxiety and depression seem to be rising – and I wonder if there’s a connection to our self-esteem and the pressure to be “special” and succeed? I know secondary-school teachers and parents of teenagers who tell me the same, terrifying thing: the young people in their lives are reluctant to try anything, unless they think they will be good at it. They’re not apathetic – they’re scared. How many of us would love to try to play an instrument, learn a language or take on a creative project outside our skill set, but don’t dare, because we know we have convinced ourselves that we won’t meet a narrow definition of success? How many of us love the idea of being on Bake Off, but wouldn’t even consider applying because we can’t imagine anything more humiliating than being judged and found wanting by Paul Hollywood?
If we take Terry’s words to heart, we can start to redefine success. We need to approach every experience with hope and enthusiasm. Instead of pushing for one specific, narrow result, we need to be open to the unknown. Life sometimes feels like an unwinnable competition, until you consider the thrilling, fulfilling bonuses that can’t be measured on paper. According to his letter, Terry’s biggest successes are the things that were totally outside his control once he was in the tent.
To put it simply, Terry’s words have reminded me of the link between success and gratitude. We think that successful, ambitious people are the ones who are always pushing themselves further, and wanting more. But, as Terry showed us, to be a real winner, you need to be a have-a-go hero and just see what happens when you take part. Life is difficult and depressing when we believe there can only ever be one winner. When we all find ways to win, we can lift each other up. We don’t have to produce showstoppers every week. We can start to celebrate success that comes from unexpected places.