Aspiration, Achievement and Affluenza

The Observer newspaper occasionally gives away a promotional booklet of extracts from a book that’s recently been published. This week the book that’s advertised is called “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” by Maria Semple. It’s highly recommended by Jonathan Frantzen, whose most recent novel, Freedom, is brilliant.

On the Amazon website we find the following information:

“A shrewdly observed portrait of Seattle-life.”

“Maria Semple deliciously sends up the privileged, overachieving, PC world of Emerald City.”

“Maria Semple dissects the gory complexities of familial dysfunction with a deft and tender hand.”

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a triumph of social observation and black comedy by a skillful chronicler of moneyed malaise.”

“The characters in Where’d You Go, Bernadette may be in real emotional pain, but Semple has the wit and perspective and imagination to make their story hilarious.”

“She ranks among contemporary literature’s finest satirists.”

“An astute social critic.”

“Wicked, razor-sharp, acid-etched humor.”

“A compassionate look at family dysfunction.”


Key words in the above –

familial dysfunction
emotional pain
social observation
social dysfunction
social critic
moneyed malaise

We’re not here to persuade anyone to buy this book. Instead we’d like to persuade you to read a book called Affluenza, by Oliver James.

We’d also like to suggest that the subject matter of Maria Semple’s book should be in every school’s curriculum for the benefit of every teenager –

What is ‘overachieving’?
What is ‘familial dysfunction?
What is ’emotional pain’?
What is ‘social dysfunction?
What is a ‘social critic’?
What is ‘moneyed malaise’?


Extracts from “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” –

“Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humour. Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic, not merely getting a good grade. Bee exhibits extraordinary concentration when working alone; when working in a group, she is a quiet and confident leader. I am already mourning the day Bee graduates from Galer Street School and heads out into the world.”

– extract from Bee’s school report.

“You need to start raising large sums of money for your own children’s private school. To do this, you must emancipate yourselves from what I am calling Subaru Parent mentality and start thinking more like Mercedes Parents. How do Mercedes Parents think? My research indicates the following:

1. The choice of private schools is both fear-based and aspirational. Mercedes Parents are afraid their children won’t get ‘the best possible education’, which has nothing to do with actual education and everything to do with the number of other Mercedes Parents at a school.
2. Mercedes Parents have their eyes on the prize. Let me rock it straight: the first stop on this crazy train is Kindergarten Junction, and nobody gets off until it pulls into Harvard Station.

– extract from a letter from a business consultant to the Galer Street School Parent Association.


Extracts from Affluenza by Oliver James:

“The Affluenza Virus is a set of values which increase our vulnerability to emotional distress. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous.”

“Infection with the Affluenza Virus increases your susceptibility to the commonest emotional distresses: depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder (like ‘me, me, me’ narcissism, febrile moods or confused identity).”

“We have become absolutely obsessed with measuring ourselves and others through the distorted lens of Affluenza values.”

“The great majority of people in English-speaking nations now define their lives through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity, and those things are making them miserable because they impede the meeting of our fundamental needs.”

“Psychologists squabble over what those fundamental needs are, but usually agree on four: we need to feel secure, emotionally and materially; we need to feel part of a community, to give and receive from family neighbours and friends; we need to feel competent, that we’re not useless, are effective in chosen tasks; and we need to feel autonomous and authentic, masters of our destinies to some degree and not living behind masks. Virus values screw us up by conflating what we want with what we truly need – confusing Having with Being.”

“I contend that most emotional distress is best understood as a rational response to sick societies. Change those societies, and we will all be less distressed.”

“The scientific evidence shows that the methods employed for the transmission of values from parent to child . . . are a prescription for Affluenza. Parents do it in two main ways. A controlling pattern uses rewards, threats, deadlines and hectoring words, pressuring them to think, feel and behave in conformity with parental dictates. Love is conditional upon achievement of goals laid down by the parent – there is no love for the child who does not achieve them. By contrast, supportive care takes the child’s perspective, minimizing pressure and encouraging the child to find out for itself what it wants: self-determination by the child is valued.”

“Supportive nurture has a completely different outcome. In place of pressure, there has been affection and encouragement for what the child wants, and into its own chosen mix the child has welcomed some of what the parent wants. For self-regulation, it has ‘identified’ with them, rather than introjected – made an active choice. . . If this child is a hard worker and high achiever, it has chosen to be so of its own accord; its self-esteem does not depend upon how it is ranked against other pupils, or on living up to parents’ or teachers’ standards.”

“The inner compulsion driven by introjection is absent, as is the fluctuating and fragile self-esteem, because nothing is contingent on the performance of externally provided goals. The child may be upset if it does not live up to its own standards, but at least they are its own, not someone else’s.”

“Experience will have taught them that the price of love is success, starting with school performance, and usually involving an equation between money and exam success, as in ‘work hard to be able to get a good job and earn a good salary’. The kind of parents who are controlling are . . . likely to have Virus values themselves and to seek to pass them on to their children. If the family is living in a Virus-stricken society, those values will be even more likely to be inculcated in a people-pleasing child who strives to conform to them.”

“ Having disentangled what you really care about from what you were forced to value, you are then in a position to choose. (e.g. realising that it’s unimportant whether you replace your car with a brand new one, or keeping the house spotlessly clean.) The key is to start work on finding out what really matters to you, not your parents [or ‘society’], and colonise for yourself.”

Chapter 8, Educate Your Children (Don’t Brainwash Them), begins with this paragraph:

“In most of the developed world today, you learn in order to earn. Especially in English-speaking nations, education has been hijacked by business. The goal is to create good little producers and consumers, whereas it should be an enquiring mind, capable of both scholarship and a playful, self-determined and emotionally productive life. The result is Virus distress.”

“Wherever you look in the English-speaking world, a new obsession with exam performance is to be seen. Compared with previous generations, schoolchildren are menaced from ever-younger ages by assessment.”

“The yoking of the wagon of education to business and to money-making, once limited to America, is now found throughout the English-speaking world. . . . The legislation for the new city academies, personally promoted by Tony Blair, effectively permits wealthy individuals to run state schools, often with strongly Selfish Capitalist values and sometimes tied to strong religious convictions. The curriculum of the State system is being increasingly divested of subjects which will not contribute to the economy . . .”

“The key message is that the purpose of education is not to find out what has intrinsic interest for you, but to work hard at school for long-term financial reward. . . . [This] is a prescription for the absence of flow during work, for low self-esteem and a host of other problems. Ironically, on top of that it is death to the capacity to think imaginatively – the foundation of our economic future if the ‘skills economy’ is as important as politicians are always telling us it is.”

By contrast Danish children are “by far the most positive about going to school, and the least likely to be in a hurry to leave“.

And the reason? They don’t regard school as something that gets in the way of their “real” lives, and they don’t have teachers who pressurise them to “work hard”.

“The official [Danish] rhetoric is that education is for creating good citizens rather than economic performance, very different to that of other countries.”

[Certainly very different to England, where measurable test performance is all, and almost nobody has cared very much whether children become “good citizens”, whether they have high degrees of social and emotional intelligence, whether they espouse decent values that enhance everyone’s wellbeing, including their own, and whether they have any proper personal and spiritual development, or intelligence. The prevalence of teenage gangs and knife crime is an indicator of how poorly our schools have been developing citizenship, including emotional intelligence & spiritual intelligence.]

“This rhetoric is reflected in the [Danish] pupils’ emphasis on learning to function well as part of a group. The curriculum is crafted to encourage them to find subjects that interest them and to be pursued in ways that also achieve this. In terms of fostering intrinsic rather than Virus motivation, this ought to result in confident, creative and autonomous children.”

[Doesn’t this make you distressed that our own children’s education isn’t driven by the same set of values and assumptions? If not, just think how you and your family and friends would feel if it was your child who was the target and victim of teenage thugs and killers who think it’s cool or even necessary to carry a knife, who think that it’s essential to punch, kick and stab anyone who shows you ‘disrespect’ or dares to enter ‘your’ territory.]

“The Danish system’s strength is in its emphasis on emotional literacy. Social skills are very valued, recognizing emotions as important.”

“The Danish approach offers an important vaccine which also serves them well economically. In this respect, like the other Scandinavian countries, they are imaginative and innovative. The grinding obsession of parents and government in [most other] developed nations with children’s exam performances is unjustified on economic grounds, and absolutely indefensible in terms of emotional wellbeing.”

“Modern education has been sold under a false prospectus containing three untruths. The first is that it will bring meritocracy, which it has not; and the pretence of it – requiring absurdly long hours devoted to passing mind-sapping, pathology-inducing exams – is hugely harmful to our children’s well-being. The second is that by enabling people to rise up the system, it will confer wellbeing, which it does not. The third is that exam results are crucial for our individual and national prosperity, and that is simply not true.”

“The truth is that in all the countries I visited, except Denmark, education is used mercilessly to put the needs of employers and economic growth ahead of those of children and emotional well-being.”

“The education systems of the English-speaking countries, which purport to be giving children opportunities to become richer than their parents, are actively hostile to the flourishing of creativity and emotional development.”

“Blair presented education as increasing ‘opportunity’ and encouraging ‘aspiration’. What is really meant by these words is ‘to make money, become as rich and famous as the folk on TV’, not to have the intrinsic satisfaction of identifying and pursuing one’s authentic interests – which is the goal of Danish education.”

[It’s also the goal of Finnish education – as detailed in previous 3Di posts.]


Our recommendation is that everyone should read this important, stimulating, original and enlightening book – available now in Vermillion paperback for a mere £5.74. It’s a key sociological, psychological, educational and philosophical text, which is also clear, engaging, and jargon-free.

As Will Self said in his review, “Oliver James is our foremost chronicler of what ails us. Affluenza should be mandatory reading for everyone, but especially those in politics, business and the media who are intent on upping our society’s dosage of toxic affluence”.

Educationalists should also take note, and think carefully what they can do to stop the spread of affluenza. For the sake of all our children.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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