Reviewed by Clare Brook
Since the early twentieth century self-help books for adults have been busy steering millions of people to the path of success, helping them overcome damaging experiences, to understand negative patterns of thought and behaviour. So, at last, it is wonderful that Matthew Syed has written a book that will help children to have a positive mind set, to understand the plasticity and potential of their wonderful brain and how to fulfill their dreams.
Matthew Syed, educated at Balliol College Oxford, is a British journalist, author and leader in the science of high performance. His previous books for adults, Bounce and Black Box Thinking, had a big impact on innovative business, challenging the prevailing wisdom of the importance of talent, rather than hard work, practice and a positive mindset.
In his latest book, You Are Awesome, Syed delivers a profoundly life-changing message for young readers – and makes it funny! It is written in a light, amusing and accessible style that will appeal to children. The layout is semi-comic book style, using different styles of bold, crazy typeface, in black, grey and bright yellow. There is not one dull page in these eight chapters.
Syed starts by explaining to his readers what he means by ‘Awesomeness’ and how everyone can be awesome in their chosen field should they go about it the right way. Syed ends this section:
“Oh, and by the way, … that great maths result, or the amazing piano performance … They were lying if they said they didn’t practise …”
Chapter 1, ‘From kid average to kid awesome’ here Syed gives an amusing account from his own life and what it took for him to become an ace table tennis champion. It was all grit not glamour, persistent practice not talent! He ends the chapter by challenging his readers to choose how they want to be awesome – he gives examples from becoming Prime Minister to skateboarding and much in-between.
Chapter 2, ‘What’s holding me back?’ Syed explains how worry and anxiety can be overcome and everyone can be ‘Ready. Prepped. Confident. On Fire!’’ He quotes Michael Jordan, who he describes as ‘Uber-successful former basketball player who is never put off by failure’. He lists common hurdles in the mind: fear of looking foolish, thinking everyone is better, hard work is for other people, crisis of confidence, and, not knowing who you are. These are ‘fixed mindsets’ and Syed asks his readers to ‘Say hello to the GROWTH MINDSET’. Developing a growth mindset is the theme of the book, a message that benefits adult and child alike. He quotes Edison ‘I haven’t failed I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’ and Steve Jobs naming perseverance as most important quality in successful entrepreneurs. This is a long but illuminating chapter and leads naturally to another equally enlightening subject, Chapter 3,’Your fantastic elastic (& plastic) brain’. Here Syed gives his readers some interesting facts about the brain and the relatively new research of neuro plasticity. This cutting edge research has discovered that the brain, like a muscle, can be strengthened, improving its capacity with continuous effort, despite a deficit of talent. This is a heartening message.
Chapter 4, ‘Practice makes awesome’, but not all practice is equal; tackling the hard stuff really generates improvement. Syed suggests how to challenge yourself in various areas: sport, presentations to the class, maths, learning a language and revising for exams. He quotes people whose determination and continual practice made them successful:
‘All highly competent people, continually search for ways to keep learning, growing, and improving.’ (Benjamin Franklin).
In Chapter 5, ‘Genius or what?’ and Chapter 6 ‘Small steps and giant leaps’ Syed tells his readers that to build a Growth Mindset it is important to embrace opportunity, try out new skills and find out exactly how different leaders became awesome. It is essential to resist the fixed mindset, believing that successful people are just born accomplished, rather than having the faith that if hard work is embraced success will eventually follow. Syed encourages readers to have a plan, keep a good attitude, be patient understand that many marginal gains add up to a massive gain.
‘I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.’ (Serena Williams)
Chapter 7 and 8, Syed refers back to his own history and how he became a star table tennis champion – handling the pressure and how to avoid choking when success or defeat is close. He leaves his readers with the message:
‘Take a risk dare to fail and give it your ALL.
Just aim to be the very best that you can be at all times.
And I know you’ll get there, because … YOU ARE AWESOME.’
Adults reading this book will wish that they had read it as a child.
You Are Awesome is a book that parents need to buy, that schools need to teach, and that all children need to read.
By Matthew Syed
RRP: $19.99; 155pp