Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Is Ivy League always good for your kids?

I'm sure you have heard stories about the tremendous effort parents are willing to put into helping their kids to get into elite schools. To those parents, getting in elite schools is almost like a ticket to success for their kids.

Is that so? I don't think it's that simple.

My little story

My high school was one of the most famous ones in Hong Kong. Because of its fame, the admission competition is quite fierce (I've heard one student saying that it's happier to be admitted by my high school than winning lottery). Naturally, my classmates were all pretty smart.

I was kind of an average student back then. Instead of studying, I spent a lot of time playing Chinese chess. As you know, the more one works on something, the better s/he gets and the more confident s/he feels in that discipline: a positive feedback loop. I even managed to win a few prizes in some joint-school Chinese chess tournaments. My academic performance? No, it wasn't that good.

After I came to Los Angeles, I went to a so-called below-average community college to continue my study. It's not as bad as some outsiders think actually (I had one of my best teachers there). Compared to other nearby community colleges, however, the courses were relatively easy, and the students weren't as smart as my classmates in my high school.

Consequently, I got good grades for most of my courses and maintained a decent GPA. I started to believe that I could do well in academics and my interest in math grew a great deal during those days. Finally, I was admitted to UCLA as an engineering student and finished my graduate study there.

During all those years, my intelligence didn't change; I was just as smart (or as dumb, if you wish :P) as I was before. What changed a great deal is my confidence in academics, the belief that I wasn't that bad after all.

My story was by no means a rare case. A friend of mine had a similar story: she did pretty well in her first year in high school. Because of this, she was transferred to an elite class and suddenly she became the student with the lowest grades. She was then "thrown" back to the original class and has lost confidence in academics since then.

As you can tell, confidence is extremely important for one to succeed in any discipline, even much more important than his/her talents.

How does confidence form though?

That's a good question. My answer:

We become confident in something if we think that we are good at it and can continue to do a good job.

"How do we know we are good at something?"

That's even a better question. Although I can't deny the fact that people have the innate ability to appreciate the quality of things (like artwork), we usually conclude that we are good at something because we do it better than others.

I always think that I type pretty fast. According to a Facebook game, my top typing speed is 107 wpm. That sounds pretty good? Well I've seen quite a lot of people typing over 130 wpm before. I would say that I'm above average but not very fast. You just don't know how good you really are until you compare your work with others'.

Is it morally correct to build your own confidence by comparison? I won't try to argue on that since that's not the point of this post. The point is that we often do build our confidence that way.

If we do build our confidence by seeing worse performance from others, "helping" your kids to get into an elite school will probably destroy his/her confidence altogether when s/he realizes that s/he doesn't really "belong there". And, as s/he feels bad about him/herself, s/he will tend to perform worse, and s/he will feel like trash. You can see how it is going to end.

To be honest, my argument should be some kind of cliche; how can no one thinks of this before? Nevertheless, when I see how competitive the admission process is for all those top schools in the nation, I highly doubt if those parents have given a second thought to whether those "top" schools are really good for their children or not.

Everyone is talented in certain area to a certain degree; the job of education is to discover and nuture it instead of burying it by destroying students' confidence and making them feel that they're worthless. Your thought?


  1. Hmmmmmmmm your post is so long don't know how to reply... one thing I want to say is that, "confidence" should be built on who you are, not what you have. Confidence that was built on what you have is not real confidence and can be easily destroyed when you cease to have the things you built your confidence on.

    So I basically have a totally different view of what you said. Confident people will be confident no matter what. To echo your friend's story. I had very good grades in high school, but that wasn't my source of confidence at all, I didn't quite care about school. My teacher also asked me to go to honors (elite) class but I refused cuz I don't want to spend too much time on my study. (!) Then, I went to a (pretty) good college, but of course, I also didn't study that much so my grade sucks! But, that didn't affect my confidence also. Because I know who I am, what I have. My inability to study hard doesn't mean I'm stupid. Haha. Anyway, enough of my arrogance. :P

  2. Yun: Thank you for your comment. Let me respond in the following:

    > "confidence" should be built on who you are, not what you have

    In my post, I said that confidence is built on the ability to do a good job in a certain field (such as singing well). If you consider that ability part of "who you are", I agree with you.

    > Confidence that was built on what you have is not real confidence and can be easily destroyed when you cease to have the things you built your confidence on.

    I think you want to refer to the people who build confidence on the things they have, such as a nice car or a big house. Although those people may truly feel confident because of those stuff, I think that it's silly and nothing to be proud of. As you say, this confidence isn't real and can be destroyed easily.

    That being said, ability also is something you can lose if you're unlucky. A successful soccer player WILL lose all his confidence in soccer if his legs become disabled. Although soccer skills are something he may lose, I'd still regard his confidence in them as real confidence.

    > Confident people will be confident no matter what.

    I can't really agree on that. Genetics may affect how confident a person is, but I certainly believe that the environment carries a much heavier weight on it. People do lose confidence in themselves when something bad happens. Also, people who've no confidence can manage to gain it; they're not hopeless.

    > My inability to study hard doesn't mean I'm stupid.

    By saying that, you implied that not being "stupid" is important to your confidence. And, to know that you're not "stupid", you still have to compare yourself with others, whether consciously or unconsciously. If everyone around you is smarter than you, it's just hard not to feel "stupid".

    > Because I know who I am, what I have.

    That's a good point. And the thing is, kids usually don't know who they're. They're too young to really understand themselves. So, my point is to help kids discover what they're good at instead of forcing them to perform well in academics.

    Speaking of this, I think you've misunderstood me for meaning that we can only build our confidence by getting good grades. Alas, that's exactly opposite to what I want to say. There're many different careers in this world. My point is to find something you're good at and work hard on it; it doesn't have to be academics :P

  3. No I didn't misunderstand your post. Anything you can lose consider as "what you have," which mean ability also; which also include intelligence. I gave that grade example is not to prove "I'm not stupid," but to illustrate that, in a circumstance of having good or bad grades, I still have my confidence intact, because I do not rely my confidence on my abilities.

    Confidence that can be lose is not true confidence. If you can follow the my logic in the previous paragraph, then you would understand what I mean. (So your example of the soccer player is not true confidence.)

    Confidence should not be confused with self-esteem. Though they are similar. I do think some people are bless with born with high confidence. (such as myself. haha!) People who truly confident about themselves don't need to be pretty, smart, or think they are better than other people. True confidence is to know who you are, (not how good you are,) and to understand the goods and bads of oneself but truly embrace everything about oneself. There's no one to compare with and nothing to compare with.

    I know this must be difficult to comprehend... but I often puzzle about people's low self-esteem, because they keep compare to something--sometimes even to themselves. I wish people can see what I see, then everyone is happier!!! Yay!!! (But reality is not!)

  4. Ohh I want to add that, of course confidence can be built, it is through the acceptance to oneself, as who they are, good or bad.

    I know what you were trying to say, like I said in my first comment, I just want to say a few things about "confidence."

  5. yun: It seems that you and I have a different use of the word "confidence".

    When I use the word "confidence" in my post, I'm referring to the confidence in ability, that is, the faith or certainty you have in performing some job.

    For you, the word "confidence" means self acceptance, which I usually call it, hmmm, self acceptance. And, yes, I agree with you that self acceptance is independent of anything you can lose. In order to accept yourself, you just have to love and respect yourself as a human being. As you said, there's no need to compare with others.

    If you read this old post written by me last year, you'd know that I hate comparison in most circumstances. Comparison is a good thing only when you do it carefully and constructively.

    Unfortunately, kids like to bully each other a lot; they won't understand what "constructive comparison" is. That's why I suggest to avoid putting your kids (if they're not as smart) in elite schools so as to avoid these detrimental comparison.



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