The curse of conscientiousness

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A while ago, I read a book that suggested one of the most important things children can develop at school is conscientiousness. My school reports invariably described me as conscientious. I was determined to do well, even at things I wasn’t interested in and didn’t enjoy.

Last week, I saw this on Humans of New York:

“I was always made to feel like I’d be successful because I always did my homework. I wish I’d spent more time putting energy into things that came from myself.”

I remember at school being told I couldn’t do certain subjects that I wanted to do because I was too clever and should do something more academic. A while ago, a friend told me his daughter’s school wouldn’t let her take a subject she loved because she wasn’t good enough at it to get the marks they wanted from her.

Recently, I read a this quote by Danielle LaPorte: “Competency is for suckers. Be careful what you’re good at – you could end up doing it for years.”

Fifteen years for me. Fifteen years doing work I was very good at, but didn’t enjoy. And then I gave it all up. I gave it up because I had a baby and read a book that featured an allegory that began ‘Imagine you woke up one day in a land populated almost entirely by giants…’ and went on: ‘Do as you are told. It’s easier to get along if you go along. Don’t cry. Don’t fight. Study hard. Get a job. Do as you are told. Get married. Have children to support you in your old age. Do as you are told.’

Which is exactly what I’d always done. I’d been the good girl. I’d been conscientious. I’d studied and worked hard thinking that eventually I would be rewarded, but instead I’d just been taken for granted. And I was miserable. (And not even well-paid!) I got to the end of the story: ‘And then one day you wake up, and there is a tiny little creature staring up at you. She has awakened in a land of giants. And because you love her, you begin to teach her everything you’ve learned about how to survive in this land of giants. And so, the cycle continues …’

I cried when I read that. I had my own tiny little creature and I didn’t want him to grow up with a mother who was disappointed in her life and too afraid to follow her dreams. And so I started taking my writing more seriously and within a few months I quit my job. And now I absolutely do spend my time on things I enjoy and that come from me.

It’s not about competency. It’s not about conscientiousness. It’s about creativity. I don’t want my boys to have to spend years unlearning conscientiousness and learning how to trust themselves. This is why I home ed.

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12 responses to “The curse of conscientiousness

  1. Wow. So true. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone had this revelation – if everyone did what they loved. We would still have people in all of the jobs that we have now, but they would be people who want to do those jobs, rather than people who so often have been led to them by society.

    • Thanks for your comment, David. Obviously, I don’t think everyone would be able to do what they love, but it would be nice if that was the focus, which it really isn’t at the moment.

  2. Wholeheartedly agree. Our society seems to award status to the most knackered/unappreciated/underpaid/overworked. I’ve heard people competing on these grounds and reacting to me like I’m a bad person/alien when I say I love my life, it’s relaxed and enjoyable. Like it’s shameful and self-indulgent to choose to do the things you enjoy. (Especially if you’re ‘clever’ and ‘wasting your intellect’ 😉 )

    • Oh yes, I got a lot of that when I started working for myself. Some people seem threatened if you’re happy in your work/life!

  3. Wow! Yes, this really resonates with me, too. I was that conscientious girl at school, and it led me down a path of misery!! Now I do what I enjoy (but am not necessarily any good at) and I encourage my boys to do the same. What a great reason for home educating.

  4. So, so true. I am trying to teach my children that they should find a path in life that they love, and not to worry about what society says they “should” do. Fabulous post.

  5. v interesting post, Keris. I always said ‘Alison was conscientious’ will be inscribed on my gravestone because it featured so much on school reports. I think actually the main influence on this was from my parents. I was the oldest, the good girl, the responsible one. There are lots of upsides to this but I am also still trying to undo the demons it created, like the chronic illness that conscientious behavious contributed to. So in my case home schooling could have made things even worse.

    It is interesting that when I did my GCSEs I decided if i didn’t do well enough to go on to A levels, which was unlikely given I was good academically, I’d be a florist or a hairdresser. There’s a sadness that I didn’t follow what was clearly a subconscious need to do something physically creative. Unfortunately back then, and still now, we live in a time when academic achievement is considered the most prized, and if you’re a good girl, you don’t question it.

    • Thanks, Alison. I’m the oldest and the responsible one too. I failed my A levels (because by then I hated school and just didn’t go very much). In Lower Sixth I did work experience at a theatre and loved it. They said they’d give me a job and I considered it, but my parents (and the careers officer said no way). I often wonder how different my life would have been if I’d done it.

  6. I read your post whilst on my lunch break at work and had to hold back my tears. I want to be a good role model for my girls and staying in a job I hate is not good for any of us. This has inspired me to make changes.

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