Principal's assembly 21 January 2020

Our whole-school assembly allows us to celebrate individual and team successes, and there has been plenty to celebrate of late. Excellent news has come in from national championships in swimming, national recognition in cricket and from regional competitions in dance and cross-country running, from hard-working displays from our netballers at the weekend to the magnificent performance of our U15 boys in the national football cup. It has been rounded off with the award of the Royal Astronomical Society’s outstanding teacher of the year to one of our own.

It would be very easy, but actually lazy and fundamentally wrong, to think that the individuals mentioned earlier have simply been blessed with more talent and that their achievements have come easily.

I’m certainly not suggesting that they are not very talented people now nor that they didn’t possess some natural ability in their areas of expertise.

I’m sure that talent is important. Genetics must influence futures. As I’ve said to you before, I was never likely to be a basketball player, heavyweight boxer or an opera singer. Perhaps if I’d tried harder, I might have made a middle distance runner – or perhaps a jockey.

When you admire people who are truly great in their field – your best teacher, a specialist surgeon or Mo Salah – their work appears to be almost effortless. Don’t be deceived, for it is an illusion of effortlessness.

What you haven’t seen is their tireless dedication to improving their performance. Although there may be some anomalies, what sets them apart – and this is also the case for those you admire for doing well in exams – is their ability to work hard for months and years ahead of a particular situation.

At this stage, I want to bring in some experts to talk about the brain. Whilst there is a lot that remains a mystery about how the brain works, we do know that it is divided into three distinct regions – apologies to the Biology and Psychology students here for the over-simplification!

The instinctual region explains how we’ve survived as a species. In a crisis, it gives us our best option – fight, flight or freeze. Right now, it is regulating your breathing, heart-rate and temperature.

You find this brain stem in the lower regions, towards the rear of the brain.

The emotional brain is at the top of the brain stem and below the top layer. Parts of this section light up on scans when we’re angry or anxious or happy. Other parts of this section hold our memories and provide our motivations. When the instinctual and emotional brains work together and tell us an environment is safe, then we are in a position to learn. If, however, they are allowed to dominate, your ability to learn is at risk.

Finally, the thinking brain (or the cortex) forms the outer layer of the brain. This is responsible for our speech, reasoning and decision-making. It’s what sets us apart from other animals. Because you are in a safe environment, the thinking brain can dominate the other two.

A really important part of the thinking brain is the pre-frontal cortex (or PFC). Without it, you’d be just like my daft dog – driven by food, warmth and exercise. With it, you can make rational judgements.

There is a battle going on in your brain! And your thinking brain might not be winning. The other regions like instant gratification – and the modern world provides it. Can’t remember a fact? No worries, just Google it. Want to complain about service in a restaurant? No problem, just tweet the Chief Exec. Want that new book now? Download it straight onto your Kindle. Struggling with a homework question? Easy, find the mark scheme on-line and plagiarise!

Instant gratification is just so tempting, it’s so difficult to resist. And it does our actual development no good at all. It’s just not how people become successful. JK Rowling was 32 when Harry Potter was published and she had the idea rejected by other publishers. It took Dr Neuberg three and a half years to earn her doctorate. Jamie Vardy didn’t play in the Premier League until he was 27. Churchill became Prime Minister at 65.

Success doesn’t come quickly and you need to train your brain to delay gratification. For information and skills to become hard-wired in your brains, for you to achieve long-term rewards at whatever you do, it is going to take three things: repetition, repetition, repetition.

And that means your thinking brain wrestling control. Eat well, sleep well, put distractions away and crack on!

Thought for the day:
SAS hero, Ant Middleton: “It comes down to one simple thing: how badly do you want it?”

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