YESTERDAY was that time of year again, when you log onto Twitter in the morning and find yourself swamped with the best words of wisdom that the great and the good of social media have to offer young people. It was, of course, exam results day.

Aside from the fact it’s funny, and wonderfully self-indulgent, that we all seem to think the nation’s young people are waiting patiently at the end of their smartphones to read the wonderful advice of us relatively old folk, this annual outpouring of success stories bothered me this year in ways it hasn’t before.

Like many others, I have a great story to tell. I was the problem teenager who wound up leaving school with no prospects. It was all terribly bleak, but plucky little me battled through the years and finally found my path. So there you have it kids, if I can do it, you can do it! It’ll all work out, and one day you can spend a Tuesday on Twitter retelling the tale for the umpteenth time, knowing full well that if you’d tried dishing out that beautiful story to the younger you you’d probably have received an earful in return.

This year’s wisdom-fest was accompanied by the hashtag #NoWrongPath, to make sure our young people realise that exam results alone are not predictors of where they’ll ultimately end up. Those of us who didn’t do too well back in the day point out that it didn’t stop us getting jobs and careers that we like, while those who did go down the university path after school discuss how they ended up in very different places than expected.

It’s well-meaning, but I worry now that all we’re doing is patronising youngsters. We realise as adults that those results actually don’t mean that much. We realise that if we hadn’t achieved the results we wanted first time, we could try again. We could retake exams, or we could use a college course as a stepping stone to university. We realise we could return to studying later as a mature student. There are actually a lot of options when it comes to education, if that’s what a person really wants to pursue.

If that message was really getting through to young people, we wouldn’t need this annual pat on the head for the kids experiencing the crush of disappointment when they don’t perform as well as they’d have liked. Teenagers are still operating under an immense sense of expectation and pressure. Exams have become one of the most pivotal points of the transition between childhood and adulthood; we’ve allowed them too strong a place in measuring ability.

We need to foster a culture where exams just become part of a process of young people plotting out a journey ahead. We should encourage excellence because we want our young people to be self-motivated to be the best they can be, but we need to balance that with the understanding that academic excellence is not always the strongest attribute.

By telling our stories of success despite early academic underperformance, we’re by default reinforcing the idea that it is still generally a necessary requirement. We tell our stories as though they’re exceptional: “I failed my exams, but I still managed to amount to something in life.”

Regardless of our words, the truth is that if we were faced with a younger version of ourselves telling us that they weren’t too fussed about exams and instead they envisioned a wild path ahead encompassing lots of different jobs, hopping around from one idea to another until they settled on something they liked and generally just trying to have a blast while they’re still young, we’d never encourage it.

Even now, despite everything I’ve worked hard for, I still harbour a sense of shame that I didn’t come dancing out of school with straight As. Everything I’ve achieved since almost feels like I’m making up for the academic failure of my youth, and it’s very difficult to shake that off when there is so much pressure associated with a bunch of tests in areas that you will likely never even continue an interest in after your school days.

There’s more talk these days of apprenticeships and other routes towards careers, and it’s welcome because it recognises that there is a stigma attached to anything that isn’t a letter of acceptance for university. It’s understandable that we want to push kids towards achievement and a strong mind, but we’ve done it by elevating academic performance above all else. The sense of failure associated with a bad set of exam results can knock a young person’s confidence so severely that it steals months, even years, of their lives before they realise there’s a big world out there and they have a lot to offer it.

I wonder how much school drop-outs like me really believe that we don’t care about it any more, despite all the bluster, and I can’t help worrying that our tales of adversity simply reflect the lingering inner sense of failure that we’re trying to shield our kids from.