Foxy Insights: What Makes a Student

Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulphur enough to stop the fleas,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,
Poison enough to kill a cow

This is a verse I first read in Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (very much worth a read), called “These are the Things that Make a Man.” It refers to the spirit of Winter, who searches for these things because he’s fallen in love with the protagonist, Tiffany Aching. He wants to be a human so he can court a human. However, all this creates is a body, not a human. The Wintersmith has just the trappings of humanity, not the substance.

I feel like society has its own version of this list, a list of things that make a successful person, like:

Money enough to live in style,
Sex enough to brag about,
Face enough to take a picture,
Body enough to be a model,
Friends enough to never be alone,
Power enough to be invincible,
Personality enough to be unique,
Confidence enough to be an ass.

Something like that. Pretty much all the marketing, all the messaging, all the social conditioning that surrounds us tells us to want this ideal, and exists to help us achieve it. Nearly all industries are out to help us become a successful person, provided we conform to their idea of successful. It’s overwhelming, and nauseating if you think about it, which is why we try not to. But just like the Wintersmith, this list is only the trappings of success. Success is a complex concept that is twisted with happiness, honed by maturity, and unique to each individual, but it’s hard to pursue uniqueness. So society simplifies success, and people pursue the wrong thing, out of fear of failure.

I see this a lot in university, where people use their grades to approximate their future success. You have a 90+ average? You’re golden. An 80 will still probably get you places. 70s you start the worry and 60s, you really start to panic. Failing means you’ve failed as a human being, because you’re never going to be successful in life with a fail on your university transcript. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

For those of you who’ve been reading my blog before, you might remember that I failed before. Even if you haven’t, you can still see how ridiculous the story is from an emotional distance, but to the kids who face failure for the first time in their lives, it’s their reality. I see it a lot, especially in academically rigorous programs that have really incredible alumni and a reputation for being tough. That panic, that fear, is part what’s going through their head when they’re facing down the first 60 or 50 or 40 or 30 or 20 or whatever.

It’s not just the students, either. We, as a society, have put too much emphasis on marks to simplify the narrative, to make it glamorous, to make it a story. After all, no one wants to read the thousand rags to rags stories when there’s one rags to riches story. It’s lead to this delusion that good jobs are equal to marks, marks are proportional to effort, so if a student works hard enough, they should get a good job. As a result, students feel entitled to be rewarded for process and not results. Anyone who’s worked a real job knows that results, not process matters, which I think, is the only real lesson to be had from taking grades so seriously. But using them to measure a person? It’s like telling someone that all 6″2′ blond guys with blue eyes are equally attractive (which they’re not).

Don’t get me wrong, aside from teaching and storing a lot of information, universities still will sculpt good corporate citizens. It’s not as hand holdy as high school, which is scary, but in the end, university still provides plenty of support for fledgling adults that doesn’t exist in the real world. The classes give structure to learning that doesn’t exist in the workplace. The tests check if you know how to use a concept or an idea before you risk millions of dollars or lives on an application, and the grades tell you what concepts you don’t quite understand yet, when your boss would just fire you for a mistake.

And yet for a lot of people, being a good corporate citizen won’t be success. But what really is success? We’ve try to boil it down to a number, a GPA, a salary, whatever, but that number is not what you learn in university, in any school, in life, nor is it really success, just a sad proxy. And while I can’t define success for you, I can tell you what really makes a human, according to Pratchett.

Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.

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Written Gems: NaNo-Not-Mo

NaNoWriMo ends tomorrow, and all I’ve been able to write is about how I can’t write.

I’ve been trying to write a book since I discovered the library and the English Language. I’ve been trying to do National Novel Writing Month since I discovered it existed in 2010. I have yet to succeed.

I thought I’d be free this month. I thought I’d have time to write. 2014 would be my year.  But then this happened, and that happened. I discovered a new game and there was always another assignment, another report, another group project, until bam.

It’s November 30th, and I’ve written exactly 849 words of a supremely narcissistic piece of crap.

It’s supposed to be a memoir of my life. My life? Hah. I’ve lived twenty some odd years and I haven’t done anything interesting except be born in another country. In a country of immigrants, it ain’t that special. How’s that going to read? Why did I think for a second that would be interesting?

And yet the sad thing is that it is more interesting than anything else I’ve been able to write so far. Besides one disastrous experiment of a finished novel in grade 7 (which you can resurrect if you look hard enough, but please don’t), I haven’t been able to complete anything. Every time I try, they become…. too.

Too not right. Too not wrong enough. My male characters are too wooden, and my female characters are too caricatured. This world is too simple. That world is too complex. One plot is too twisted. Another plot is too straight-forward. One scene is too detailed. Another is too plain. It’s all just too, which is worst than it just being twee.

With this memoir, as plain and dull and as uninteresting as it might be, it’s been the first project I’ve felt like I can continue. I won’t ever get stuck for a plot, because it’s already happened. I won’t ever have to worry about crafting characters, because they’re already crafted themselves. I’ve gone back to writing fanfiction, playing with someone else’s sand castle because mine keep falling back into the ocean.

I think I’ve learned two important things this NaNoWriMo, despite having written hardly anything (I haven’t even set up my novel profile). First of all, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for writing time. I write when I can, when I have words, not when I have time.

Second of all, I’m going to go back to prefab. I started writing by borrowing other people’s characters, and I was excited about that. I wrote pages and pages on that. They weren’t very good pages, but they were pages. I think that I started to drift away from it because I decided that now I was getting older and more mature, I should be making my own. But maturity is not something conferred by age, and in this area, I am still a tiny babe in arms. So I’m going to go back to using characters who have already developed, and write about things that have happened, when I don’t have to make up a world or a plot or anything else, and I can just be a story teller, not a world builder or an omniscient god. Maybe some day, I’ll move back to fantasy. Someday.

All I want to do right now is to write.

Written gems are pieces of my life, polished and shined up a bit. Read more here.

Project 14 – Day 3: Ambitions and Goals

“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
Sylvia Plath

Day 3 of my project 14 is about what I want for myself, and until a month ago, how true that quotation was to me.

In my previous post, I wrote a lot about how I knew my childhood was over a month ago, and how my priorities in life shifted around then. However, if you’d asked me a week ago about what I considered my goals and ambitions in life, they would’ve followed my old priorities pretty closely. It wasn’t until I had a loud shouting match with my mom about a week ago, that they snapped into focus as well.

To understand what drove my goals and what I still do in part think, you have to understand what I consider the difference between what we call “Western” and “Eastern” civilization. Now, as a disclaimer, this is not true for every family or every individual in the “Eastern” or “Western” cultures, and I will probably make some generalizations that will annoy some people; however, I am not claiming that any one way or system is better than the other.

Western culture, what we associate with places like Canada, the US and Europe, emphasis the individual: Individual freedoms, individual rights, individual responsibilities, and individual success. The so-called American dream is all about working hard and to the best of your abilities to become wealthy, successful, and upwardly mobile. This seems like a “no-duh” statement to anyone who also grew up in the west, and it’s what we all strive for,

When I was in high school, however, I asked my mom what she’d consider the Chinese dream. She looked absolutely flabbergasted at me, so I explained the idea of the American Dream in the Great Gatsby. Very impatiently, She responded as if I was asking a question that I already should’ve known the answer to: the Chinese dream, to her, was seeing my little sister and I happy with families and steady jobs, having enough money to support her own parents in China, and (since I was nearly eighteen at the time) she mumbled something about grandchildren. And I guess it’s true, I should have known. In most Chinese families, there’s an understanding that a child owes her family the ultimate obedience for them bringing the child into this life, and nurturing her until she was old enough to be independent. In return, parents are expected put their children’s well-being far above their own.

There’s another big difference in “Eastern” and “Western” cultures. While most “Western” parents say words like “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” all the time, most “Eastern” parents do not. It’s not because the Eastern parents love their children less or any less proud of them, they just take it as a matter of course that the child already knows, just like they know that the child loves them even though the child often forgets to say it or show it.

Growing up in both cultures means I grew up with both sets of expectations: become wealthy and successful, reach for the top, become the best, or otherwise I couldn’t support my family. It somehow conflated in my mind to I need to be the best, I need to be perfect, I need to be happy, it’s what my family expectS of me. It’s a pretty laudable sentiment, but it’s a really, really stressful one.

As far back as I remember, my big life goals have been job and education oriented. My family is big on education, as it’s been our ticket out of poverty for as far back as I can remember, so I’ve never considered anything but a top tier university. By nothing short of a miracle, I’ve also never considered a career that hasn’t required a university education, but that might also have something to do with my upbringing (I like to joke that in my family, there are two directions to go in: finance with my dad’s family, or science with my mom’s family. My parents are the black sheep, as they’re both in Computer Science.). When I was younger, I’ve wanted to be a pediatrician, a politician (briefly), a journalist, and a corporate lawyer. What I really wanted was to be able to wield power in the world, to really make a difference in this world, somehow, so my goals followed that. My top goals and ambitions in life were to rise to the top. Get the top grades, get the top extra-curriculars, meet people who were worth spending time with and learning from and who would rise to the top, get scholarships, make the right connections, all so you can make your family proud.

As a person, I’m ambitious, and I refuse to apologize for that. But anyone who’s lived as a perfectionist or with big, big, heavy dreams that don’t quite fit you as a person knows that you build coping mechanisms. My coping mechanism was to make other little things goals so they’d also be important to me, and it made me felt like I was doing something towards my goals, except in reality, I was just procrastinating on my big goals.

In short, I had a goal for everything in life. I had a goal to become successful and wealthy, I had a goal to get top marks, I had a goal to aggressively network, and I had a goal to become more involved in my program and mentorship programs and blahblahblah. I had a goal to be an artist and a goal to sort out my closet, and another goal to read my mile long list of books to read. I had a goal to hang out with my friends more, I had a goal to make some new ones, I had a goal to find a boyfriend and be attractive (god alone knows why), and I had a goal to become “popular”. I had a goal to try a million new things while simultaneously doing the million old things that I was already committed to. And for some reason, I thought they were tied to my future success, so if I failed any of these, I would never succeed in life and I would be a failure.

You can already see how impossible that was, but I didn’t until I imploded from the pressure. My grades sucked, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking care of myself or really doing anything, productive or not. My parents were wonderful through it, but they didn’t quite understand it, until I sat down with my mom and my first 70 and she asked me what the hell happened to me, because I’d never gotten less than a 80 in my entire school career.

I yelled at her, that I was under too much pressure, that I was too tired, that I had too many expectations piled on my head, that I’d made mistakes, that they’d never told me I was good enough or that they were proud of me. She sat there open mouthed, and then responded much in kind, and what she said totally changed my worldview.

She told me that my parents had always been proud of me. That she thought the fact I’d gotten into my double math and business degree program with a 93 average was excellent. That she’d been proud of all the crazy extra-curriculars and AP classes that I’d done. That all she and my dad had ever wanted for me was to be financially stable, and have a decent job for the future. That if at any point in my 20 years, I had said “This is the best I can do” or “I don’t want to do any more”, they would’ve supported me. That all they’d ever wanted from me was for me to be normal and healthy, that they’d only supported me in my dreams of wild success because they thought it was what I wanted. That they didn’t want me to have regrets.

Now, I only ever remember my dad being disappointed that I didn’t go to Harvard or some other American Ivy league. That my mom had tsked and told me that if my average was two marks higher, I would’ve qualified for an additional scholarship. That they’d both complained that I should’ve dropped my AP classes to get a higher mark, even though classes had been more fun for me, and that they’d both reminded me that they’d never gotten less than 100 in any math. But then I also remembered that my parents hadn’t said anything when I came back with my first less than stellar mark in any math in first year, or that they’d told me that it was perfectly fine if I went to the local university and became a teacher instead, because I didn’t have the right temperament for business. I used to take that as a reminder that I was failing them somehow, but really, it was as much an expression of concern as I would have listened to.

It was like this massive weight fell off my chest. I could be normal. I didn’t have to excel at everything I did. It was okay to fail every once and a while, so long as it didn’t stop me from doing what was important. And my family would always be there for me, pass or fail, success or mediocrity, stress or not stress. I realized I was so afraid of disappointing them and just being mediocre that it’d paralysed me, because I felt they’d always expected me to be extraordinary, even when the stress of it was too much.

This hasn’t changed a whole lot. I still want to be a power broker when I find a job, but I’m not so worried as to what will happen if I fall flat on my face or if I don’t “make it”, because I know I’ll find somewhere else to make it to. I’m ambitious – that’s part of my personality and that won’t change, but I have fewer goals. Now, my goals are to get a co-op job that really interests and challenges me, to get an A or more in my five classes next term, and to hit the gym at least four times a week, and I can focus all my considerable energy and ambition on these things. Everything else, including exploring kinetic typography, working on a story about zombie geese, finishing those Discworld novels and writing this blog, is a want that I refuse to feel guilty about putting aside.  Maybe I’ll even actually get something done, with those goals, instead of starting a million things and never finishing anything.

Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize  who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.