I’m certainly not saying that we should all adopt the hagwon method. My class also contained a number of absolutely miserable kids who sat in the back and wanted, justifiably, to be anywhere else besides a permanent SAT class. But I’ll tell you something else that doesn’t work: a bunch of the mincing, artsy bullshit I see from Upper West Side white people. Such as throwing expensive educational resources (engineering camp, “environmental science” cruises to Costa Rica, me) at a kid just hoping it’ll “spark” something — with no demands that he justify the expenditure with effort or results. Also: calling me way too late in the game, as a sort of band-aid solution, because “I didn’t want to stress him out.” Hmmn, you know what’s stressful? Not being prepared. Having deadlines you can’t possibly meet. Depressingly low expectations. An young life commemorated largely in trophies for “participation.”
Po Bronson in New York Magazine writes:
American mothers and fathers are dying for permission to be a little tougher on their kids. The point is, kids don’t want to suck at sports, they don’t like being lost in math class, and they don’t enjoy the distorted aural contours emanating from their instruments. The cheering is nice, but they’d prefer that someone actually teach them how to improve.
So, let’s talk about now. You can’t change how you were raised. (If your mom made you practice the piano without bathroom breaks until you got it right, I am truly sorry. And, when my hip-hop-dance-loving student enrolled in pharmacy school, it kind of broke my heart. I had hoped she would break loose and it would be like Korean Flashdance). But you can be your own tiger mother — or maybe, tiger life-coach:
- One of the most cogent points of Chua’s article was this:
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.”
It’s certainly not true that nothing is fun until you’re good at it (lots of perfectly blithe teens are clumsily dry-humping away). But Chua’s point holds for an awful lot of things, including much of your career. People — especially women — are so often encouraged to “do what you love,” despite the fact that most of the things we love 1) don’t make any money, 2) are loved by lots of other people, thus driving down prices, and 3) require doing lots of things you don’t love in order to market, make to spec, and sell the thing you do love. In a lot of cases, we’d be better off picking something lucrative, flexible, and challenging, and applying ourselves to it in a way that becomes ultimately gratifying — and allows us to fund our hobbies on the side.
I wrote in How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo about accepting that you need “a season to create, a season to sell.” My oft-quoted BFF Molly Crabapple gives speeches at art schools about making a living as an artist, and if you raise your hand to say that marketing and networking aren’t part of your job and you “just wanna draw,” she will cut you. (Okay, she will cut you with her mind. Er, she actually probably has more important things to do.) Of course those things are part of your job; they’re part of life in a post-Industrial society. You might love your baby, but you still have to wipe its ass.
- In the last few years, research has come out (see here and here) showing that, actually, you do learn more by repeated testing. Some kinds of stress are actually good for you (there’s a word for that idea — eustress). As I wrote in Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE, one’s twenties and early thirties are the time to “cut out all the fucking around, and you can easily step up your career and life.” That includes seeking out stressful situations that push the limits of whatever expertise you are mid-10,000-hours in developing. It means developing tests for yourself. Offer to speak to a group (the Chamber of Commerce, a local Girl Scout troop, etc.) on whatever it is you do. Prepare for the questions you might get asked. When you are asked questions you can’t answer, say honestly that you don’t know (admitting you don’t know something actually can build your credibility regarding the things that you do know). When you do find out the answers to those questions, you will remember them forever.
- In a graduate-level education class, I once questioned the enthusiasm of my classmates (largely elementary school teachers) for the “teaching” method by which students are put in groups and forced to teach each other. I tried to word it politely, but, essentially, I asked, “Isn’t that just wasting the smart kids’ time by forcing them to drag the dumb kids along?” Several teachers responded that, actually, it really increased the (insert politically-correct word for “smart”) kids’ self-esteem. When I responded, “But self-esteem isn’t the same as learning,” I was met with horror. I hold to my position. As it turns out, American students have the highest self-esteem about their math and science skills, and the lowest actual performance; Asian kids, the reverse.
- I think that any self-help book should have a picture of its intended audience on the back cover. Let’s make it really clear that Queen Latifah’ Put On Your Crown is not meant for any of the Real Housewives, most of whom are already far too skewed to the Marie Antoinette end of the spectrum to require additional coronations. Self-esteem talk is for young children and people who cut themselves. If you have passed the basic tests of sustainable adult life (no self-harming, access to clean shirts, you are not a hoarder), then you are well past the point that slapping self-esteem onto yourself like a new coat of paint makes any sense.
Self-esteem talk leads to a lot of praise for a lot of very, very general activity. Kids explore their “multiple intelligences” by learning to multiply in five different ways, but without practicing any of those ways enough to master any of them — practice (the repetitive kind, that gets boring sometimes) has fallen out of fashion. And adult women are constantly exhorted to love themselves and to improve their confidence — apparently, just because all women are special snowflakes. Professional matchmakers often speak of people whose overblown self-confidence keeps them from finding love with anyone who isn’t John Galt in Johnny Depp’s body.
I talked in Five Ways to Improve Your Life Through Math about quantifying your value to your company. Amy Chua is correct that rote repetition is undervalued in building skills and knowledge among children; similarly, I think adults suffering from low self-esteem should stop thinking about the symptom of the problem, and address the problem itself by building skills, volunteering or otherwise improving the world around us (the actual one, not the ones in our heads), and developing a simply unassailable expertise in something. 10,000 hours is a long time. But it’ll probably take even longer (as in, an eternity) to coat yourself in a patina of self-love that you can convince yourself really means anything.
Don’t get me wrong — Amy Chua is kind of an awful bitch. But the reason she’s awful is because her kids didn’t have any choice, and because they’re kids. An adult should be tough enough for an Amy Chua. An inner Amy Chua. A tiger mother of the mind.