Thomas Curran: How Can We Teach Kids To Accept Imperfection?

Sep 20, 2019

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Teaching For Better Humans.

About Thomas Curran's TED Talk

Many students feel unrelenting pressure to be ... perfect. Social psychologist Thomas Curran warns that striving for perfectionism isn't just impossible — it's also dangerous to children's health.

About Thomas Curran

Social psychologist Thomas Curran currently teaches and conducts research at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He is a member of the Centre for Motivation and Health Behavior Change, as well as the Motivation, Personality, and Well-being Research Group.

He has written and spoken extensively on how we have created societies calibrated to promote perfectionism, which is contributing to almost epidemic levels of mental illness among young people.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

So as we heard earlier from Olympia and Liz, sometimes a teacher's ability to create a customized approach is the best way to help a child thrive at school. But ultimately, that teacher will need to prove to their school district, their state and the whole country, that they're actually getting results.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tis the season for standardized testing.

ZOMORODI: And how do we measure those results?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Standardized tests.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Standardized tests.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Standardized exams.

ZOMORODI: Testing, of course.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Pass, and you move on to the next grade. Fail, and you still have some work to do.

ZOMORODI: In 2015, by the time the typical high school senior graduated, they would have taken 112 standardized tests.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The SE ready test.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The Delaware comprehensive assessment.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The FSA language arts test.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: The Louisiana education...

THOMAS CURRAN: And, of course, you know, testing - getting a score, getting a metric, getting a grade is a very useful way to organize - right? - to set students from the best to the worst and everywhere in between.

ZOMORODI: That's Thomas Curran. He's a social psychologist who researches young people and perfectionism in the U.K., U.S. and Canada.

CURRAN: And you begin - you can begin to see how that creates a reliance, therefore, on objective outcomes, on outcomes in tests and scores. And you can extend that to sport and other areas of young people's lives where ranking and categorization are now rife.

ZOMORODI: Thomas says tests, sports, social media and a winner takes all culture puts a lot of pressure on kids to constantly compare themselves to others.

CURRAN: And so once people start to define themselves in those terms and we're only really interested in how we do relative to others, then we're going to set high standards for ourselves because the only way in which we're able to succeed in this society is to achieve high scores, high grades, high performances. The consequences of not doing that is not only do we fall back in school, but that has implications for our college, which has implications for our future market price in the job market. So you can begin to see how we're teaching kids at almost every level that they need to succeed, that they need to do well. And that's one of the reasons why we think young people are beginning to internalize perfectionistic tendencies.

ZOMORODI: Perfectionistic tendencies. Thomas says all of this has made young people more and more anxious. They want to be perfect and wanting to be perfect is not only impossible, it can be dangerous. Thomas Curran continues this idea on the TED stage.

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CURRAN: It's quite remarkable how many of us are quite happy to hold our hands up and say we're perfectionists. But there's an interesting and serious point because our begrudging admiration for perfection is so pervasive that we never really stop to question that concept in its own terms. We know from clinician case reports that perfectionism conceals a host of psychological difficulties including things like depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and even suicide ideation. And what's more worrying is that over the last 25 years we have seen perfectionism rise at an alarming rate. Suicide in the U.S. alone increased by 25% across the last two decades. And we're beginning to see similar trends emerge across Canada and in my home country, the United Kingdom.

In my role as mentor to many young people, I see these lived effects of perfectionism firsthand. And one student sticks out in my mind very vividly. John - not his real name - was ambitious, hardworking and diligent, and on the surface he was exceptionally high achieving, often gaining first class grades for his work. Yet no matter how well John achieved, he always seemed to recast his successes as abject failures. And in meetings with me, he would talk openly about how he'd let himself and others down. John's justification was quite simple, how could he be a success when he was trying so much harder than other people just to attain the same outcomes? See John's perfectionism, his unrelenting work ethic, was only serving to expose what he saw as his inner weakness to himself and to others.

ZOMORODI: You know it's interesting, when I was growing up, it was cool to be a slacker. But now, I meet college students, people in their 20s all the time who are even starting their second or third business. I kind of think of it as the Mark Zuckerberg effect, this idea that inside of you is an entrepreneur who can just kill it. Zuckerberg and Musk, I mean, they seem like perfectionists, and that seems to be something really worth pursuing.

CURRAN: That's a really good analysis. I mean, it's because we live in quite an individualistic culture and world where essentially, we're the masters of our own destiny, OK. It used to be the case that, particularly in the UK, but also in the US just after the war where there was a kind of collective sense that, you know, together we can prosper, right? That's very different today. Where the successes and failures are owned by ourselves and how wealthy we are, or how much material advantage we have is down to ourselves.

And that's why you start to see a lot of the young people engage in more entrepreneurial tendencies because, frankly, they have to. If they don't, there is no job with prospects or a future that they can just walk into from college. It's a postgraduate degree and then it's internships and then it's extra little bits and pieces in a CV that we can pick up. And this is what I mean about pressures and expectations on young people have risen so much that it's understandable that they begin to engage in these behaviors and worry about the consequences, because whereas before there was a safety net, now there isn't. And so there's a hell of a lot of pressure to succeed and that fear of failure, we think is something that is going on underneath this rising perfectionism.

ZOMORODI: Coming up, we hear more from Thomas Curran on perfectionism and embracing our imperfect selves. On the show today, teaching for better humans. I'm Manoush Zomorodi in for Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi in for Guy Raz. On today's show, how we can teach for better humans. And we were just hearing from social psychologist Thomas Curran about perfectionism, how young people are taught, pressured and influenced to try and be perfect.

And I'm just going to say what everyone is thinking right now, I mean, social media, right? That must be playing a huge role here.

CURRAN: I mean, social media is pervasive, particularly visual media forms of social media. Things like Instagram and Snapchat for instance are very, very laden with images of the perfect life, images of the perfect lifestyle. Of course, young people internalize, try to recreate, try to live up to social perfectionism - socially prescribed perfectionism, which is a sense that the external environment or others in the external environment expect us to be perfect.

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CURRAN: In 1989, just 9% of young people report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. By 2017, that figure had doubled to 18% and by 2050, projections based on the models that we tested indicate that almost one in three young people will report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. This is the element of perfectionism that has the largest correlation with serious mental illness and that's for good reason. Socially prescribed perfectionists feel a unrelenting need to meet the expectations of other people. And even if they do meet yesterday's expectation of perfection, they then raise the bar on themselves to an even higher degree because these folks believe that the better they do, the better that they're expected to do. This breeds a profound sense of helplessness and worse, hopelessness.

ZOMORODI: You know, listening to you makes me feel, as a parent, kind of hopeless. It's really hard to know how to help your child.

CURRAN: I have to have a lot of sympathy with parents because it's so tough. Like, it's so, so tough to not engage in over monitoring, over surveillance because essentially, you know, in this culture, if our kids fail, it's not just their failure - it's our failure, too.

ZOMORODI: Right.

CURRAN: And so parents do take on their kids successes or failures, and that naturally leads to more controlling forms of parenting. And there's a lot of data to support that that is on the rise. That said, there are ways in which you can do that that don't necessarily emphasize perfectionistic tendencies.

ZOMORODI: OK, so I want to hear them. What do you think parents should do?

CURRAN: Try not to focus on the outcome. So when kids have done a test, they've got a metric or a score, it's important really to, as much as you can, downplay that score, particularly where in terms of where it sits relative to others. And ask your kids more about, well, what did you learn?

ZOMORODI: Right.

CURRAN: And then the second one, just quickly, I think is how we deal with failure. Not being afraid to fail is really, really important. And in particular, making sure that when we do encounter setbacks that with compassion on ourselves, how would you talk to a friend, for instance, who came with the same issues? You'd rationalize with them, you'd empathize with them. You'd essentially try to show them that, you know, it's not the end of the world.

But we don't apply the same rules to ourselves and so talking to kids in those terms, you know, how would you treat other people if they came in home with that grade? Would you - you know, you'd be very different to your friends as you would be to yourself. So is it - it's really self-compassion that I think, is really, really important and teaching them that there is so much joy in failure and there's so much joy in imperfection. You know, we're not built to be perfect, if we were we'd all be robots.

ZOMORODI: I wonder how much you think vulnerability and being able to laugh at ourselves matters in this conversation too.

CURRAN: Oh, it's - they're huge, huge. Everybody, every one of us has some areas in our lives that we feel we're not quite as good at, or we might - there might be specific triggers for us in some way, shape, or form. And actually, almost celebrating imperfection and celebrating mistakes and setbacks because they're opportunities to learn and develop etc., etc., is a really, really important lesson.

ZOMORODI: Thomas Curran teaches at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Watch his full talk and check out his research on perfectionism at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.