In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes how back in the late 1960s, a computer purchase at Seattle’s Lakeside High School brought destiny calling to its two most famous students. Computers back then were large and unwieldy, but for whatever reason Lakeside mothers still decided to buy a machine that most people had never heard of. Two students, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, became fascinated with it, and when it broke down they hiked all the way to the University of Washington to play with that university’s computer instead. So, when the computer revolution finally came to the United States in the late 1970s, college freshmen Gates and Allen were already veterans.
Practice makes perfect, and according to Gladwell a person needs to practice for about 10,000 hours to be truly good at something. Hard work is an attribute of success, but it’s passion that drives people to work hard. That’s why, I tell Shenzhen Middle School students, America’s top universities search for that elusive quality in admissions applications.
But passion is part of the process, and Chinese students only understand results. They apply their national examination mentality to the US application process: they memorize vocabulary lists and take test cram classes so they can score high on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) so that they can get into a US News and World Report top-25 American university.
I ask them why they want to study in the United States, and it’s clear they don’t really understand the American education system. I ask them what major they want to study, and it’s clear they’ve never thought about their careers. When I tell them to research the country’s liberal arts colleges because they’ll provide a better education than the Ivy League,they tell me the point isn’t to get an education but to get that Ivy League diploma. When I tell them that it doesn’t matter what school they get into but how they perform, the students think there’s no point in talking to me. And when I talk about passion and how Chinese students lack it they think I don’t understand them. Of course, they have passion: they’re passionate about scoring high on tests, very passionate about getting into an Ivy League school, and extremely passionate about making a lot of money in the future.
In January, one of my students Pan Fangdi returned to talk to the Special Curriculum’s new first-year students. I introduced her as a success story and a role model: she was performing well in challenging courses, she was on the university dance team, and she flowed easily between the mutually exclusive worlds of US and Chinese students.
A student raised his hand, and asked which school Pan attended. She replied that she went to the University of Wisconsin, and the room fell silent and flat.
I told them that Wisconsin was a great university, and that Pan Fangdi had spent a year building the Special Curriculum. She came in to manage the coffeehouse students when they were in limbo, and she finished the renovation of the coffeehouse when that went awry. She worked hard to renovate the Special Curriculum rooms and facilities, and did all that numbing paperwork necessary to bring over the US faculty. Without her, I told the class, there would be no Special Curriculum. But the students remained cool and indifferent.
Then one of Pan’s classmates returned to talk to the students. He took the easiest courses he could, and still struggled through them. He spent his time with his rich Chinese classmates watching the New York Knicks play at Madison Square Gardens or hanging out at bars. But he filled a lecture hall with Shenzhen Middle School students—because he was at Columbia University.
A long time ago, China became a great civilization because its elite sought self-cultivation and learning. But too often today, Chinese only care about brands and labels, statistics and results. Yale is not an opportunity to receive an education that will make you successful—just getting into Yale is success enough. You don’t buy a real Louis Vuitton bag to enjoy your wealth—you buy it to show you are wealthy. Getting a high score on the national examination is not the result of your love of learning—it’s because you crave the praise and admiration of your classmates, parents, and teachers.
Chinese admire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, but they also admire Napoleon and Stalin. In China it doesn’t matter how you obtain wealth and power, and everyone just assumes that if you have wealth and power it’s because you’re wicked.
‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ seems to be the motto for too many Chinese students.
Chinese saw my job as director of the Special Curriculum as getting students into the Ivy League, and I saw my job as educating students and developing their passion.
Take Zhou Yeran, who spoke perfect English, shot music videos, and wanted a career in film. I introduced him to two difficult works of journalism—James B. Stewart’s Den of Thieves and David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter—and he loved both. I suggested he shoot a documentary about the building of the Special Curriculum, and he began shooting the renovation work and the coffeehouse students. The more I got to know Zhou the more he impressed me: he worked hard, and he was so serious about everything he did.
I asked Zhou Yeran to be editor of a new English magazine I was starting, and he readily agreed. He did all-nighters to learn the publishing software Quark Express. He wrote features on migrant workers, and his writing was strikingly mature. He had worked so hard on the magazine (www.sz-greenroom.com) he didn’t have time to study for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but he got a 2260 out of 2400 anyway, and a 790 out of 800 in the reading section.
I thought for sure that Yale would take Zhou Yeran, and he would prove to all Shenzhen Middle School students that my philosophy was right: be passionate and work hard to develop your passion, and you’ll be successful.
This April, when Zhou Yeran failed to get into Yale or any other Ivy League school, his classmates mocked him on-line for being a failure. How was he a failure? At 18, Zhou Yeran now knows how to write magazine feature articles in English, and shoot and edit his own documentary. That’s what I told him, but I could see that he blamed me partly for his failure. I thought he wouldn’t speak to me again, and I began doubting myself.
Then one day Zhou Yeran re-appeared at the school with his video camera and started filming Special Curriculum classes and interviewing students. From then on, he came everyday to the office to shoot and edit his documentary. He showed me his edits, and I was so impressed I paid him the highest compliment I could think of: I told him he was so talented he didn’t even need to go to college.
The Ivy League will never know Zhou Yeran’s brilliance, but the world soon will. Zhou Yeran has passion, but he has a rarer quality seldom found even in the United States—character.
In a well-known Chinese parable, a farmer loses his best stallion one day and his neighbour comes to offer his condolences, but the farmer just replies, ‘Wait and see.’ The next day, the stallion returns with three wild mares, and the neighbour runs back to congratulate the farmer, who again replies, ‘Wait and see.’ The next day, the farmer’s son falls from the wild mare, breaking his arm and his leg. The neighbour offers his condolences, and again the farmer says, ‘Wait and see.’ The next day, the army comes to conscript village youth, but finds the son an invalid. And so on.
Life will always have ups and downs, Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns us in his book Fooled by Randomness. Chance is omnipresent and omnipotent, and we humans foolishly and futilely seek explanations and reasons and patterns for what after all are just random coincidences. In a world of flux and randomness, Taleb exhorts us to be above all stoic, to maintain dignity even in death—in other words, to have character.
Zhou Yeran may be going to a US state university, but he’s discovered his passion and has proven he has the character to maintain his passion despite failure and adversity. Before I thought that I could have it all, and now I see that I must choose either to develop students’ passion and character or get them into the Ivy League. Knowing that Pan Fangdi is so happy in the United States and seeing Zhou Yeran in the office every day excitedly and happily showing his edits to my office staff, that choice is obvious and clear.