In 2020, “neijuan” (the Chinese term for a phenomenon of fierce competition and pressure in education and career) became a hot topic. Some people even said, “I’ll vomit if anyone mentions neijuan again” on their social media accounts.
Fast forward to 2023, and we still can’t seem to escape neijuan. This term and the phenomenon it describes have become even more pervasive over the past year, and we are increasingly trapped in it.
But why can’t we break free? A recent media analysis shed some light on the matter: neijuan is fundamentally driven by individual rationality.
In pursuit of better education for their children, many individuals set small goals, such as getting into a good primary, secondary, or tertiary institution. However, if one fails to achieve any of these goals, it could result in a downward shift in social class.
Coupled with the phenomenon of “neijuan” (internal competition), there is a term called “shang an” (lit. “getting on shore”), which is used to describe successfully entering a desired school. It is a clever analogy, as being caught in the “neijuan” is like being in a rushing river, causing anxiety and a sense of disorder. Only by reaching the shore can one feel a sense of security.
Thus, the underlying motivation for participating in “neijuan” is to seek this sense of security.
However, according to Jiang Xueqin, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a judge for the Global Teacher Prize, and founder of the Shenzhen Middle School and the China International Program at Peking University, “Internal competition will only take away your sense of security.”
This is not an empty talk from an education expert. Since the 1980s, the internal competition in North American education has already begun. Jiang Xueqin himself has been both a winner and a loser of North American education’s internal competition.
As a winner, Jiang Xueqin grew up in Canada and entered Yale through personal efforts in high school. After graduation, he wrote articles for mainstream media in the United States and became a standard cultural elite. As a loser, the education at Yale kept him in confusion and self-doubt for a long time.
It took him four years to enter Yale but ten years to walk out of it.
He has written his thoughts into the book “The Invisible Force: The Truth About Success, Learning, and Creativity,” which was recently published. We had the opportunity to speak with him about it.
01As a Yale graduate, immediate success was a must
At one point, Jiang Xueqin believed that Yale was the answer to everything.
He immigrated to Canada with his parents at the age of six, in difficult circumstances and not well-liked by his teachers. His parents’ only expectation was that he “would not ruin his back like his father did washing dishes or ruin his eyesight like his mother did sewing clothes.”
In the ninth grade, inspired by a substitute teacher, Jiang suddenly saw the possibility of getting into a prestigious school and escaping his current life.
Jiang was very intelligent and worked hard. Over four years, he honed himself into a standard Yale candidate: high IQ, strong leadership skills, and full of character.
He transferred to Canada’s best public school, took the hardest courses, edited the school newspaper, and joined the soccer team. On the subway from home to school, he read The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and did SAT practice tests during lunch breaks. He slept only four hours a day.
In 1995, he successfully entered Yale. However, he quickly realized that his efforts had only led him into a bigger arena.
He needed to break out once again. “I delved into the most profound books, faced the most demanding professors, and developed a high level of analytical intelligence – this won me many awards and praise from professors. After graduating from college in 1999, I was convinced that with the education I received at Yale, I could conquer the world,” Jiang recalled.
Even though he appeared to be doing well to outsiders, Jiang was not satisfied. Fueled by his educational ideals, he came to China and taught at the best school in Beijing, while also writing articles for some mainstream American media. However, he still wasn’t content.
Because as a Yale graduate, immediate success was a must, Jiang fell into a deep depression when he couldn’t publish his own book or get his articles published in magazines.
“I felt lost, angry, and confused by the world. I jumped from one profession to another and never settled down. Eventually, I fell into a serious depression when I was almost 30,” Jiang recalled.
02Winning external recognition leads to a loss of security
Jiang Xueqin is not the only one who feels lost.
Once, Jiang Xueqin was chatting with two friends, one from Yale and the other from Harvard. They discussed an interesting phenomenon: many of their friends at school dreamed of becoming poets, but gave up quickly after writing for one or two years without achieving fame. However, other friends from non-elite universities continued to love and maintain their writing habits.
They later analyzed, “Graduates from top universities are too concerned with external evaluations. If they cannot gain recognition and success in a short period of time, they will choose to give up. Other people who write poetry out of internal motivation, still maintain their love for writing and can continue to persevere and dedicate themselves to this path.”
External pressure kills internal motivation.
At the same time, in order to enter top universities, one must go through a series of strict external evaluations, such as scores, competition rankings, art exams, athletic skills, and so on. This so-called education internalizes external evaluations.
Successful graduates who have broken free from this cycle have become accustomed to relying on external evaluations to define themselves after winning them time and time again.
The side effect of this self-perception is a loss of security.
Presenter of the growth mindset, Carol Dweck, is a top student with a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia and a Ph.D. from Yale, yet she is often plagued by anxiety and self-doubt.
From an early age, she was the teacher’s pet, praised for being “so smart,” “so fast,” and “so effortless.” Despite receiving such praise from her teachers, Dweck was not happy, but rather scared and nervous.
She said, “The scariest thought was that I was just ordinary, because I had to prove myself. Every comment, every glance from others carried immense significance, affecting my intelligence score, my charm score, and my popularity.”
Losing a sense of security means what?
Dweck found that children without a sense of security typically exhibit four behaviors:
- Avoid challenges, fearing that they will expose their lack of intelligence
- When faced with setbacks, they lose control of their emotions and give up easily
- They have difficulty accepting feedback and criticism, refusing to admit failure and rejecting criticism
- They envy those who are better than them at a particular activity and will try to deceive or harm their opponents, and are unable to feel happy about others’ success.
Lifelong learning, creativity, growth mindset, emotional management, emotional intelligence/empathy, and intrinsic motivation are closely linked to a sense of security, according to numerous surveys and studies. Therefore, having a sense of security largely determines one’s success in life.
On the other hand, lacking a sense of security can make you afraid of failure and give up easily, making it difficult to sustain success in the real world.
How do you know if you have a sense of security? You may want to consider the questions posed by Jiang Xueqin:
– Do you have someone in your life who understands you, believes in you, and loves you unconditionally?
– Do strangers enjoy meeting you and spending time with you?
– Do you believe that the people around you will help you when you need it?
– Do you believe that the world is a good, just, and fair place, and that you can work hard to achieve success?
– Can you see the strengths in everyone you know?
03A small dish is not a trap, but a treasure of diversity
During a period of confusion, Jiang Xueqin returned to Canada. He learned to sing, play the piano, play the bass guitar, attended driving school, cooking school, drama school, tried parkour, rock climbing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, crossfit, yoga, meditation, woodworking, photography, and even organic farming.
Previously, Jiang Xueqin never cooked, but he was confident that he could become the best chef in the world in a year. After all, he graduated from Yale and even knew how to recite Keats.
However, Yale did not help him win good luck. In the homework submission class, when he presented his own dishes, the teacher “glanced at my old beef and greasy chicken soup, crossed his hands and shook his head, saying,’I won’t eat this’.”
Jiang Xueqin’s classmate, an 18-year-old girl, truly loves cooking. She wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to exercise, then goes to work at a catering company from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. After that, she rides her bike to cooking school and takes classes from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. She is not pursuing money or fame, but only wants to make better dishes.
“I tried many activities that I had never participated in for a year, whether it was cooking classes, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, rock climbing, or stand-up comedy. I met many outstanding young people who worked hard to learn purely for their own intrinsic motivation. So I gradually discovered that society is very diverse and exciting, and my previous views were very narrow-minded and prejudiced.” Jiang Xueqin recalled.
In fact, the recent reform of China’s basic education over the past year, including the lottery system for school enrollment, unified college entrance exams for all citizens, and allocation of quotas to schools, is also an effort to promote diversity.
Expert in housing and urban construction research, Chen Jie, recently spoke to the media and said, “Students should adapt to the diversity of society early on, learn to get along with people from different backgrounds. Putting different students together actually creates a simulated society. When students become more diverse, they will find their own differentiated positioning, which can easily form a relatively relaxed environment and ease the anxiety of students and parents.”
From Jiang Xueqin’s experience, this idea has already been confirmed in Chengdu. Chengdu residents are very satisfied with their public education system, with statistics showing that parent satisfaction can reach more than 90%. This is also a city where the Ministry of Education believes that public education balance is well done.
Most schools in Chengdu welcome all students, not just the best ones. In his book, Jiang Xueqin shares the example of Tonghui School, a public school that serves low-income families and tries to help children with autism attend mainstream classes.
He observed a sixth-grade student with autism who performed well in class. The Chinese language teacher understood his strengths and had him recite poetry in class instead of analyzing it. Although not fluent, the student was very confident.
His classmates told Jiang that the presence of this student with autism had opened their eyes and taught them to respect people who are different from themselves and to appreciate their own strengths.
It is reasonable to believe that with China’s education reform, high-quality resources could be released from top-tier schools and combined with more diverse student sources, making “low-performing” and “troubled” schools a reality of good neighborhood schools.
Jiang Xueqin’s experience helped him realize the limitations of elite education in North America, and he recognized that China’s education reform should not follow the same old path. In Chengdu, he saw a very promising education model that emphasizes safety, happiness, and empowerment for every child.
“Building creative schools is not only about a better future for all children, or even about creating a fairer society. Its ultimate goal is to preserve our humanity,”Jiang said.
Jiang Xueqin's advice to parents
There are three sentences that you should try to say once a day:
1. ”I don’t know—maybe you can tell me.“
2. ”I‘m sorry – I made a mistake.“
3. ”I need your help.“
In addition, there are three simple tips to remember when talking to children.
1. Always keep a calm and even tone – never get angry or lose your temper.
2. Always maintain a dialogue – ensure that children/students can respond.
3. Laughter – laughter can strengthen relationships.