In 2020, “involution” had become a buzzword and someone in my social media feed posted, “I’ll vomit if I hear the word ‘involution’ again.”
Fast forward to 2023 and it seems we still can’t escape it. The word and the phenomenon it describes have become even more pervasive in the past year, increasingly binding us all.
Why can’t we break free? Some media outlets have analyzed the problem well, arguing that involution is fundamentally driven by individual rationality.
The goal may be something as small as wanting your child to attend a good primary, secondary or tertiary school. But on a larger scale, if you lose at any of these stages, you may fall down the social ladder.
Accompanying this trend is the term “getting on the boat.” If you get into your desired school, it’s expressed as “I’ve gotten on the boat of such and such school.” This is extremely clever – in the midst of involution, it’s like being in a rushing river, tense and disordered, only getting on the boat can bring a sense of security.
Therefore, the underlying motivation for participating in involution is seeking this sense of security.
However, Jiang Xueqin, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a global teacher award judge, and the founder of the Shenzhen Middle School and Peking University International Program, says that involution will only take away your sense of security.
This is not just the musings of an education expert. Since the 1980s, education in North America has been caught in the vortex of competition, and Jiang Xueqin has been both a winner and a loser in this game.
As a winner, Jiang Xueqin grew up in Canada and entered Yale University through personal effort in high school. After graduating, he wrote for mainstream media in the United States, leveling up as a standard cultural elite. As a loser, Yale’s education left him lost and self-doubting for a long time.
“I spent four years walking into Yale, but it took me ten years to walk out of Yale,” he said.
He wrote about his thoughts in his new book “The Unseen Forces: The Truth About Success, Learning, and Creativity,” which was recently published. We took this opportunity to interview him.
Yale graduate must succeed immediately
Jiang Xueqin once thought that Yale was the answer to everything.
At the age of six, he immigrated to Canada with his parents. With a difficult background and little favor from his teachers, the only expectation his parents had for him was to “not end up like his father with a bad back from washing dishes, or like his mother with bad eyesight from sewing clothes.”
In ninth grade, inspired by a substitute teacher, Jiang suddenly saw the possibility of attending a prestigious school and escaping his current life.
Jiang was very intelligent and worked hard. In four years, he transformed himself into a standard Yale candidate: high IQ, strong leadership, and full of character.
He transferred to the best public school in Canada, took the most difficult courses, edited the school newspaper, joined the football team, and read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly on the subway from home to school. He even spent his lunch break doing SAT practice tests and 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 again. Jiang recalled that after entering Yale, “I delved into the most profound books, faced the most demanding professors, and developed a high level of analytical intelligence–this earned me many awards and the praise of professors. After graduating from college in 1999, I was confident that with the education I received at Yale, I could conquer the world.”
Even though others saw Jiang as doing well, he was not satisfied. Out of his educational ideals, he came to China to teach at the best school in Beijing and wrote articles for some mainstream American media. However, he couldn’t be satisfied because as a Yale graduate, he must succeed immediately.
When he failed to publish his own book or get his articles published in magazines, he fell into deep despair. “I felt lost, angry, and confused about the world. I jumped from one profession to another, never settling down, and eventually fell into serious depression in my late twenties,” Jiang recalled.
Winning External Validation Comes at the Cost of Losing Security
Jiang Xueqin is not alone in feeling lost.
One time, Jiang and two friends, one from Yale and the other from Harvard, discussed an interesting phenomenon: many friends from their schools dreamed of becoming poets, but gave up quickly when they did not achieve fame after one or two years. However, other friends from non-elite universities continued to love and practice writing poetry.
They later analyzed that “graduates from elite universities care too much about external validation. They would give up if they don’t receive recognition and success in a short period of time. On the other hand, those who are driven by internal motivation and continue to love poetry can persevere and dedicate themselves to this path.”
External pressure kills internal motivation.
At the same time, to enter elite universities, one must pass a series of strict external evaluations, such as scores, competition rankings, art exams, athletic skills, and so on. This so-called educational escalation is driven by external evaluation.
And for those who successfully break through and graduate from top universities, they have become accustomed to relying on external validation to view themselves after winning external evaluations time and time again.
The side effect of this self-awareness is losing security.
Carol Dweck, the creator of growth mindset, received her undergraduate degree from Columbia and her PhD from Yale. A top scholar, she is often troubled by insecurity and self-doubt.
Since she was young, she has been a teacher’s pet. They praised her by saying, “You are so smart!” “You work so fast!” “You do it effortlessly!”
Although praised by her teachers, Dweck was not happy. Instead, she felt scared and nervous.
She said, “The scariest thought is that I am just ordinary, because I need to prove myself. Every comment and look from others has a significant impact on my intelligence score, attractiveness score, and popularity.”
What does losing security mean?
Dweck found that children who lack security usually have four characteristics:
1. They avoid challenges and fear exposing themselves as not intelligent.
2. They become emotional and give up easily when faced with setbacks.
3. They have difficulty accepting others’ advice and criticism, refuse to admit failure, and reject criticism.
4. They envy those who are better than themselves in certain activities, and will try to deceive or harm their opponents, and cannot be happy for others’ success.
Extensive research shows that security is closely related to lifelong learning, creativity, growth mindset, emotional management, emotional intelligence/empathy, and internal motivation. Therefore, having security largely determines one’s success in life.
Lacking security makes you afraid of failure and easily give up, making it difficult to achieve lasting success in the real world.
How do you know if you have security? Jiang Xueqin suggests asking yourself these questions:
Do people in your life understand you, believe in you, and love you unconditionally?
Do strangers enjoy meeting you and spending time with you?
Do you believe the people around you will help you when you need it?
Do you believe 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?
Xiao Cai is not a trap, but a treasure trove of diversity
During a period of confusion, Jiang Xueqin returned to Canada. He studied singing, piano, bass guitar, attended driving schools, cooking schools, drama schools, and 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 one year. After all, he graduated from Yale and even knew how to recite John Keats.
However, Yale did not help him win good luck. In class, when he presented his 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'”.
Among Jiang Xueqin’s classmates was an 18-year-old girl who truly loved cooking. She woke up at 4 a.m. every day to exercise, went to work at a catering company from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then rode her bike to cooking school from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. She did not pursue money or fame, she just wanted to make better dishes.
“I tried many activities that I had never participated in before in one year, whether it was cooking classes, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, rock climbing, or stand-up comedy. I met many outstanding young people who were motivated purely by their own inner drive to learn. That’s why I gradually realized that society is very diverse and exciting, and my previous views were very narrow and extreme,” Jiang Xueqin recalled.
In fact, the recent reform of China’s basic education in the past year, including lottery enrollment, joint enrollment of citizens, and admission quotas, has also made efforts to promote diversity.
Chen Jie, an expert in housing and urban construction research, said in a media interview, “Students should adapt to the diversity of society early on, learn to get along with people from different backgrounds, and be placed in the same environment. In fact, it creates a simulated society. When students become diverse, they will find their own differentiated positions and easily form a relatively relaxed environment, alleviating the anxiety of students and parents.”
From Jiang Xueqin’s experience, this speculation has already been confirmed in Chengdu.
Chengdu Public Education Receives High Praise for Equity and Inclusion
According to statistics, more than 90% of parents in Chengdu are satisfied with their public education system, making it one of the most balanced and well-performing cities in China, as recognized by the Ministry of Education. Unlike some cities where only the best students are accepted, most schools in Chengdu welcome all students regardless of their academic abilities.
In his book, Jiang Xueqin highlights the example of Tonghui School, a public school that serves low-income families and strives to support children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study alongside their peers.
Jiang observed a sixth-grade student with ASD who performed well in class. The Chinese teacher recognized his strengths and encouraged him to recite poetry rather than analyze it. Despite being less fluent, the student was confident and performed well.
Other students told Jiang that this ASD student’s presence opened their minds and taught them to respect people who are different from themselves, while also appreciating their own strengths.
It is believed that with China’s education reforms and the release of high-quality resources from top-tier schools, coupled with diverse student populations, the “good schools in our neighborhood” could become a reality, avoiding the “school selection anxiety” and “school trap” of the past.
Jiang’s experience made him realize the limitations of the North American elite education model and the need for China’s education reform to take a different path. Chengdu, with its emphasis on safety, happiness, and empowering every child to succeed, offers a promising educational model.
“Building creative schools is not only about a better future for all children or creating a fair society. The ultimate goal is to preserve our humanity,” said Jiang Xueqin.