By SANDY CLARKE
“I thought I was pretty good at teaching myself – until I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. Her ability to learn on her own blows mine right out of the water.”
Those are the words of Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, who wrote about one of the hottest autobiographies to hit book shelves in a long time.
Writing on his website, www.gatesnotes.com, the life-long learner was so impressed by Tara Westover’s book that he invited her to talk about her unusual upbringing and the challenges she faced, from educating herself to gaining her Ph.D. at Cambridge.
The incredible story of Westover goes beyond the usual tale of ‘overcoming the odds’. Born the youngest of seven siblings into a Mormon family with extreme religious and political views, Westover’s zealot father spent much of his time lecturing the family and preparing them for the End of Days.
As a man who believed that conventional education was nothing more than the government’s attempt to brainwash the population, his children were home schooled – although this amounted to little more than religious teachings and speeches.
Even severe injuries were treated with the mother’s herbal remedies (referred to as ‘God’s pharmacy’ by the father). The head of the family – suspected of suffering from bipolar disorder – justified his extreme behaviour by convincing himself he was protecting his family from the malignant influence of the so-called Illuminati.
‘Educated’ tells the story of a young woman that is all at once heart-breaking, inspiring, unbelievable, and empowering. As she finally managed to liberate herself from the strict confines of the sparse home in the shadow of a mountain, Westover’s foray into education left her feeling out-of-place, depressed, and inadequate.
She was exposed to a world where everyday behaviours were viewed as sins by her overpowering father, and the spotlight shone on her ignorance when, in history class, she asked what the Holocaust was, to the astonishment of everyone in the room.
Nevertheless, her thirst for learning and her innate talent was enough to have prominent professors encourage Westover to further her education, which led to fellowships at Cambridge, then Harvard, and then back to Cambridge to complete her doctoral studies in history.
There is so much contained within Westover’s story that provides a rich and in-depth look at how so much in life can go against us, and yet, if ever there was a story to show how much we’re each capable of, Educated sets the standard.
Here are four lessons I took from reading this amazing story:
1. Your voice is powerful – if you have the courage to use it
As Westover writes, “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
So often, we yield to the opinions and expectations of others to the extent where our own potential becomes stifled.
How often do we seek validation and approval from others, without giving consideration to the idea that we are capable and talented enough to shape our own path?
When we lose ourselves to the opinion of others, we suffocate the greatness that lies within each of us.
2. To see what you’re capable of, push beyond your limits
Describing her struggles with reading complex works, Westover recognised that the struggle was pushing her in the right direction. “The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.”
Mostly, we stick to what we know, which is great for our ego, but terrible for our growth. When we try something new or take on an unfamiliar challenge, we are literally informing ourselves through proactive learning.
Even if we don’t get it at first, the unconscious connections we make provide us with a strong foundation of critical thinking and the ability to view problems from different perspectives. As a result, this gives us a clear edge over those who remain in their comfort zones.
3. Never be afraid of uncertainty – it can be your greatest guide
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”
The noted physicist, Richard Feynman, believed that “nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world.” One of the most brilliant minds in science insisted that to live in uncertainty was not only powerful, it’s also the most realistic way to live.
By embracing the Socratic ideal that “we know nothing”, it inspires us to be curious about everything – and it’s the people who can separate themselves from the herd that tend to breathe life into ideas that change the world.
4. We all have our critics – walk your own path anyway
“Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.” Westover’s memoir is peppered with expressions of guilt and inadequacy that stemmed from her upbringing which dictated that a woman’s place was in the kitchen and her main ambition was motherhood.
Although far from being at fault, Westover nevertheless felt guilty for having her own ambitions and later pursuing opportunities beyond her family’s wishes.
Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices in order to free ourselves from the shackles that bind us. There will always be critics, and nothing can change that.
That said, we can choose to emancipate ourselves from our guilt, doubts and fear that hold us back from unleashing the possibilities that we can create once we give ourselves permission to do so.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.