Generation hope

A neon Instagram heart with zero next to it on a black background

Journalist, author and London member Matthew Syed on his new book aimed at empowering youths, and why the next generation really could change everything if we give them the tools to do so

By Amelia Abraham    Tuesday 15 September, 2020    Short read

The world hasn’t been kind to most of us lately, but younger people have been hit by COVID-19 in specific ways: unable to see their school friends, missing out on chunks of learning and even losing university places. UK children have now gone back to schools that are both different and distanced. 

Matthew Syed – the Sunday Times journalist behind bestselling books Black Box Thinking and Rebel Ideas – believes that kids can be better at dealing with change than adults – if we teach them. Syed wrote his new children’s book, Dare To Be You, before the pandemic hit, but recent events have only emphasised why it’s needed. Aimed at eight to 14-year-olds, it’s about ‘equipping young people with the sort of “can do” attitude that I think is going to be very important in the future – having the initiative and entrepreneurship to face uncertainty with confidence and deal with the difficulties that are part of the modern world,’ he says.

Hence the book’s subhead: ‘Defy Self-Doubt, Fearlessly Follow Your Own Path And Be Confidently You!’

A mixture of written storytelling and illustrations, Dare To Be You is partly autobiographical, recounting Syed’s various scrapes as a child growing up in Berkshire in the UK, and his detour as a number-one table tennis champion, before becoming a writer and professional guru. 

It is also both informed by how his parents – a Welsh mother and Pakistani immigrant father – raised him, as well as his experience parenting his children, Teddy and Evie, who are six and seven. The key to both was no mollycoddling, he says. ‘That helped me a lot and it’s something I try not to do. I think we can sometimes be too protective of our kids, and when we do that it just means it’s tougher for them to be independent and make their own decisions.’ 

Crucially, he believes children need to be given space to fail, to see that as a positive thing. In the book, there’s a character called Kid Doubt, who is kind of a personification of self-criticism – the voice in your head that is ‘very pessimistic, very conformist, saying you’ve got to fit in’. Syed explains that Kid Doubt is not someone you want to hang around with. In that sense, Dare To Be You also touches on mental health, quoting a study that says, on average, people spend two hours a day worrying.
A colourful orange book cover
‘It’s really positive that we’re more open about mental-health issues, but we shouldn’t always medicalise anxiety. I think it can be quite a normal emotion for young people. For instance, going back to school wearing masks and being in bubbles will be weird, so it’s natural for them to be anxious. In the book, I talk about when worry becomes destructive, and offer classic techniques like writing your worries down and putting them in a box.’ 

Finally, Dare To Be You draws upon the power of role models, particularly a next generation of change-makers like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg – ‘because they are highly moral and courageous’. Syed also looks at his personal childhood hero, Kevin Keegan, as well as Sergey Brin who cofounded Google and Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo – two stories of immigrants who embraced their difference and made it to the top of their business. 

While young people today have been hailed as the activist generation, Syed can see why this applies, but is ambivalent when it comes to sweeping generalisations about Gen Z. ‘I think every generation of young people is idealistic, wants to change the world, has big ideas and is slightly less motivated by money than older people. These are all great things and things that I definitely hear from employers,’ he says. ‘But we often underestimate them, and stereotype them as “lazy” or “snowflakes” too often. They’re also much more diverse, and almost always more mature than we give them credit for.’

However, while Gen Z might not be totally unique, the world they’re growing up in is. The fact that young people are living in a social-media age portraying images of perfection, and a digital landscape that is constantly changing the job market, means that combatting their fear of failure and promoting their ability to adapt is more key than ever. If Syed’s famous book Black Box Thinking was all about learning from mistakes, his last children’s book You Are Awesome was the young person’s equivalent. Similarly, 2019’s Rebel Ideas focused on embracing the diversity of thought, with Dare To Be You following suit. 

‘Ultimately, I think for parents, if you want to provide your kids with a toolkit for how to cope with the world and give them a bit of optimism, hopefully this will do the job,’ he concludes. ‘Change is inevitable – it’s our attitude towards it that matters the most. I want our children to have the capacity and the courage to really face up to change and deal with it.’

Dare To Be You is available now 
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