Education & Family

Anthony Seldon: Five things I have learned

Image caption Anthony Seldon says he has learnt most from his own experience

In our occasional series, Anthony Seldon reveals the five most important things he has learned in his life. As the head of Wellington College, he threw out GCSEs and established his own curriculum - which includes lessons in happiness.


Name: Anthony Seldon

Occupation: Master of Wellington College since 2006 and political historian. He is the author of 25 books on contemporary history, politics and education, including biographies of Tony Blair, "Trust" and "An end to Factory Schools".

Education: Tonbridge School; Worcester College, Oxford (politics, philosophy and economics); London School of Economics (PhD) and King's College, London (PGCE).

Lives: At the Master's Lodge at Wellington College and in Brighton "whenever I can get away".

Born: 1953, The London Hospital.

Family life: Married to Joanna, whom he met at Oxford. Three children, Jessica, Susannah and Adam, aged between 19 and 24.

Unusual fact: Stands on his head each morning as he practises yoga.

1. Stop worrying

Learning that nothing in life ultimately matters, and that we have bravely to face up to whatever life throws us, over which we have no control. I was brought up by a wonderful but fear-filled mother who made us all full of apprehension about some impending disaster. I spent my adolescence, 20s and 30s full of anxiety about terrible things happening to me, my wife and our children - even to our dog, help us!

In my late 40s, I began to understand that everything in life is as it should be, and that worry can be a terribly self-centred and limited way of thinking. Luckily I married, Joanna, who is a worry-free zone, but even with her help, it took me many years to begin to free myself. Worry is a denial of trust, about which I wrote a book last year. As Camilla Carr and Jonathan James write at the front of their book about their kidnapping by Chechen rebels, "being human, our nature is love, our nurture is fear".

2. Happiness is the opposite of selfishness

Happiness is the very opposite of selfishness. It involves conscious choice every second of every day. Much of my life has been spent either unhappy or in a kind of neutral state and I now realise that one can make a conscious decision to be happy.

Image caption Dr Seldon says happiness can be a conscious decision

Happiness follows from a sense of living in harmony with oneself and with others, and turning one's mind to the present and away from one's own self-centred thoughts. If one beats up one's body, feeds it the wrong things and drinks too much, one will feel lousy. But by living naturally and exercising regularly, the body will tell the mind to be happy.

The same goes with one's relationship with other people. If one is in conflict with others or is taking advantage of them, it is inescapable that one will be unhappy. I have tried hard in the last few years to live in harmony with my own body and with others. It has made me happier as a result and, by being so, it has benefited those around me.

3. Live by water

I need to live or at least spend time by water. It could be a pond, a river, a lake or the sea. If I am cut off from water for long times, I begin to feel miserable. We are so lucky to have a house by the sea in Brighton and to be able to hear the waves crashing on the beach as we fall asleep. At Wellington College, we have several lakes, and a small pond in our own garden. My ideal home would be to live in an old house on an estuary with a wooden mooring. To feel the water surging in and out twice a day is to hear nature breathe.

Philip Larkin wrote: "If I were called in to construct a religion I should make use of water." Water is the essence of life. I can neither sail, swim nor row well, but I love all three and feel a profound harmony when I am either by or on water.

4. Learn from experience - not just university

Most of what I learned at university in my course has not proved of enduring value. I studied politics, philosophy and economics. Little of it explained the world as it really worked. It could have been so much more imaginative but was killed by an obsession with a very narrow version of intellectuality. To have ignored Eastern philosophy, which offers a much more profound view of the world, was a huge shame.

I have had to learn about politics, philosophy and economics, as well as about life, from my own experience.

5. Be yourself

I have learned to be myself - not to try to be somebody else. It was my own fault, but I did not feel that my schooling or upbringing especially helped me to understand myself or what I wanted to do in life. It is now an obsession with me as a head master that young people are encouraged to make their own choices and learn how to live. Happiness lessons help here - we have them at my school. They learn that making mistakes can often be a good thing. Learning to meditate and do yoga helped me enormously.

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