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Singaporeans: Let’s move towards the “growth mindset”.

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I took some time this weekend to do some catch up over current affairs in Singapore, and was deeply saddened to find out that a 11-year-old boy just killed himself. I also read this piece by our NCMP Shiao-yin Kuik.

It’s heartbreaking.

Every year without fail, that will be some students who choose to kill themselves over “bad” grades. I personally know one lady who committed suicide because she faced stress as a student. Every time I think of her I tear.

Every time a student jumps off the building, the media narrative would be sort of the same. “Parents shouldn’t be so harsh on the kids, blablabla“, or “Kids shouldn’t be so harsh on themselves, grades is not everything, blablablabla“.

Yes–grades are not everything, but they are everything to the student then. Students imagine judgement. They imagine the harsh, condescending tones of their parents. They imagine their parents saying–“I spent so much money on your education and this is what you get? Can you be more hardworking, or are you stupid?” They imagine the mocking tones and voices of their teachers and friends. “Haha, lousy.”

I know, because I was once a student who was very harsh on myself. Whenever I get a grade below my expectations, I’d get really upset. And it doesn’t matter what other people tell me, because I would think they are lying or trying to console me.

It seems so unfair, callous even– to say so easily, so carelessly that “grades are not everything”. And then have some authority preach to parents or kids “you shouldn’t blablabla” or “you should blablabla”.

So today, I want to talk about the growth mindset.

What is the “growth mindset”? Researcher Carol Dweck explains:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated:Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

(emphasis in bold are mine.)

In Singapore, we do a lot of things with a “fixed” mindset. If there is a sub-par performance in school, we say “Eh can you be more hardworking?” or “Why are you so stupid/ lazy/ unmotivated! Do you know how expensive it is to pay for your school fees and various private tuitions?”

Of course Singaporean kids feel the pressure and stress! This sort of phrasing by parents however, is a result of having a “fixed mindset”.

To promote the “growth mindset”, I learnt a trick from Researcher Carol Dweck. And it is to use the word “yet”. Dweck posits that this word “yet” is one of the most powerful word ever that gives a sense of purpose to students and empowers them deeply.

So instead of saying “Why are you so stupid” to your kid when he comes home with a “B” grade and not an “A”, parents start to say– “It’s okay, you just haven’t gotten an A grade yet. We’re one step towards the goal, great job!”

Do you see how a difference in the construction of sentences can help reframe thought and therefore actions?

Can teachers, parents and students start to use the word “yet” more? Everybody has their shit days and nobody can be perfect all the time. Surely, we can’t let just one performance define our entire being. We can always get better, stronger, more excellent.

My dear fellow Singaporeans: Let’s focus on a passion of learning rather than on social approval.

The growth mentality encourages excitement in learning, improvement and the pursuit of excellence. It encourages the student to find out and pursue what excites him the most.

The fixed mentality on the other hand encourages social approval, and the direct consequence might be that the student starts to pursue social approval at the expense of his personal growth and interest. Along the way, he might not even know what he wants anymore.

Let’s really go for the “growth mentality”, my friends. Just think about it. 

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