Bullish: What I Learned About Success in a Korean Cram School

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.

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    • porkchop

      People like to dump on memorization like it’s empty. I’ve been thinking lately about how, if you read a poem in a class, you get to interpret it within the context of that time and place, and who you were at that time, but that’s it. Also, you start to forget right away. If you memorize a poem, then you’ll be reminded of it periodically, you’ll relate it to new things, and you’ll enrich your understanding of it over the entire rest of your life.

      The modern, open-ended, interpretive approach to humanities has real merit, but it often degrades into an exercise in pandering to the teacher/professor and scoring points. You remember less and get less long-term value. I know that you’re writing from a more purely practical viewpoint, but what you’ve said applies to intellectual pursuits as well, I think.

      • Jen Dziura

        An excellent comment. Yes, I didn’t want to write even more in a career column about education, but I am very interested in this topic. The AP US History exam is currently being reworked to involve more “analysis” and less memorization. Of course, the exam already had three pretty hardcore essay assignments — it wasn’t all multiple-choice, and the multiple choice questions have always been good. For instance, they never just ask what year something happened, but they often ask questions where you need to know, for instance, whether the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act happened before or after WWI, which you could do by memorizing dates or more contextually, by having internalized the “story” of US History. It’s a good test as-is, and I’ve seen a lot of standardized tests. And actually, everything I know about US History, I pretty much learned in 11th grade AP — you really just have to memorize 250 years’ worth of facts to be able to put events in context and do analysis in the first place.

        The idea that no one should memorize anything anymore because they can “just look it up” is severely limited. Tell me about an event in, say, Jamaican history (something I know basically nothing about). I would have no context or ability to analyze, and I wouldn’t even know what to look up — the problem of not knowing what you don’t know. To make intelligent connections, your head needs to already contain all the things you might want to connect.

        I’m glad you brought this up! I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on this matter, and here in the comments is as good a place as any.

      • Eileen

        Why would anyone want to change the APUSH test? I mean, yeah, ideally you would have to write a term paper instead of just answering the DBQ, but it’s about as good a test as can be designed to make sure you’ve gotten out of a high school history class what you should have gotten out of a college history class.

        (And yes, I got a 5, and I’m now two classes away from a degree in history, so my opinion on the topic is worth slightly more than total bullshit)

        I think my main problem with Chua is that she made her kids study only violin and piano. There are other instruments that are just as good! At least let them play the cello or something if they want.

      • Lilit Marcus

        Ditto what Eileen said about letting her kids pick different instruments. I knew a girl in high school who played the oboe. She was the only person in our high school’s band who played the oboe, so she was always first chair, made it to state band, and eventually got a scholarship to college. Whereas the violin kids had to work way harder to stand out in a crowded field.

      • Jen Dziura

        The laws of supply and demand at work in the high school orchestra! (I did that with viola). Nerd party!

      • Eileen

        Oooh, viola: I am impressed. My friend Carolyn insists the only reason she’s any good at viola is that she can dislocate her finger joints on demand.

        And being good at the oboe, English horn, bassoon (double reeds are hard) = you will always have the solo. Being good at violin = maybe you’ll make second chair.

    • Lindsay Cross

      First, as in inflammatory as this might be, I could never be happy with John Galt. That just seems like way too much work for me.

      But on topic, I think you bring up a reall good point that a lot of the Chua criticism has missed. Education needs to be pushed! The fact is that schools alone can’t prepare kids for college and the world beyond that all on their own. Parents need to be active and even forceful, when necessary, in their children’s education. I just don’t think that should come in place of affection. And there has to be room for the child to be an individual person as well.

      I don’t agree with Chua, and when I first read the article, I was horrified. But I do think there needs to be a balance between building up all that confidence and building up something to substantiate it.

      Sorry, I know you didn’t want to get into kids too much. Obviously, we should challenge ourselves as well!

    • georgeelliot

      Gladwell’s assertion that mastery in a given field requires ten-thousand hours of practice is similar to a bit of advice given to writers. i don’t remember who said it, but the counsel was that a writer finds her voice only after she has written a million words. I think it’s telling that artistic pursuits are seldom referred to as “disciplines” anymore. That is exactly what they are and what they require. That notwithstanding, Chua does sound like a total bitch.

    • Sarah

      “The idea that no one should memorize anything anymore because they can “just look it up” is severely limited.”

      THIS. I’m a graduate student in library and information science, and in my reference class, which is basically “advanced looking things up on the internet,” we memorize sources and what kinds of things they cover. Because of that, I can find out authoritative information about all kinds of things I know nothing about, MUCH more quickly than anyone else.

    • André M. Smith

      Professor Chua is a woefully ill-informed parent, one ignorant of just what is happening in some parts of education in America. Fully confident in her presumed success as a writer with an editorial staff at Penguin shadow boxing for her and unapologetically wearing her signature plastic smile for public appearances, the Lawyer Chua is trying to persuade and convince; on both counts controversially, but with enough negative reactions to cause her subsequently to attempt a dilution of the intensity in her initial self-congratulatory tirade by latterly asserting that her writing is merely one person’s experiences of some trying times in motherhood. To gain working points among the Old-Boy network, the prime lubricant of Yale, Professor Chua initially claimed that she is a Tiger Mom as Chinese maternal type; Fierce! When that showpiece veneer didn’t sit well with mothers who are the real thing, i.e., mothers from China, this faux cat altered the validity of her claim to violence by stating that she is a Tiger Mom because she was born in 1962, a Year of the Tiger. That a tenured Professor of Yale can – must? – openly justify her self-classification with superstitious underpinning should provide anyone what is needed to draw a conclusion about the level of intellect afoot in Yale Law School. Professor? Indeed!

      Any of Chua’s public statements of the purposes of her work evolve to fit the tenor of the evolving criticisms directed at it. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/amy-chua-tiger-mom-book-one-year-later_n_1197066.html It has passed, in her own words, from (1) practical handbook for parenting to (2) tongue-in-cheek (whatever that’s supposed to mean), to (3) memoir, (4) satire, (5) parody, (6) “a coming of age book for parents” (7) “the book is about a journey”; and who knows what else as she makes the rounds of the book circuit trying to snare yet more unsuspecting purchasers into her net. That she can, without blushing, class a single work with such a range causes me to wonder what kind of grade she got at Harvard for her command of the English language. She’s Trollope (the author), Pope (the author), The Wicked Witch in Hansel und Gretel and Gullible’s Travels all penned together into one oversized Pamper. Anyone who can’t read the monetary cynicism driving the kaleidoscope of this whole Tiger Mom scam and its spurious, unproven claimed insights into parenting, with variant latter-day reflections by the author herself, deserves to have paid full retail price for this book.

      “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/parents-like-amy-chua-are-the-reason-why-asian-americans-like-me-are-in-therapy/
      Stamp collecting, fishing, lazing about on a summer day, science club, Brownie Scouting, baseball, birthday parties, church annual picnic, kite flying, visiting relatives, kissing, jumping rope, student council, insect classification . . . Away with this woman! “Fun” must be one of the more overused, misunderstood words in the American lexicon. Chinese parent = The Model Minority? In China?

      “I’m happy to be the one hated.” http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/parents-like-amy-chua-are-the-reason-why-asian-americans-like-me-are-in-therapy/

      “If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. http://amychua.com/

      That’s it perfectly stated in Tigerese: Either / Or; not both. Amy Chua is a chameleonic con artist. PT. Barnum certainly was right, one “. . . born every minute!”

      André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
      Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
      Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
      Formerly Bass Trombonist
      The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
      Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
      The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.