Happiness and Academic High-Achievers
October 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
This article is transcribed from an informal talk and question-and-answer session I held with Chinese-American parents and teenagers. I covered topics such as sources of happiness amongst high-achieving youths, parental versus peer influence, the importance of time management skills, and expectations for college.
This article is adapted from a talk I gave in October 2009 to a group of Chinese-American parents and teenagers in Cupertino, California, a city known for academically competitive schools. My talk, entitled "Happiness and Academic High-Achievers," was intended to discuss how high school and college students can achieve a balance of high academic achievement and personal happiness.
Since I welcomed questions and interruptions throughout my talk, it quickly morphed into a question-and-answer session where parents were fishing for tips on how to get their teenage children to be more disciplined and motivated. Meanwhile, all of the kids were playing games on their smart-phones and barely paying attention; clearly, their parents had dragged them there!
Even though I did not plan for those sorts of questions, I had a lot of fun improvising my answers. Only the first hour of my 2.5-hour talk was recorded, so I transcribed the audio track and polished it up into this article.
The title of this talk is "Happiness and Academic High-Achievers." I'm going to start with the assumption that, if you are a teenager, you want to be an academic high achiever. You want to get good grades, get into a good college, and be in a profession that is intellectually stimulating and rewarding. Similarly, if you are a parent, then you want your kids to be top-ranked in their high school and get into a good college. So I'm going to start with that assumption and then build upon it to talk about how you might achieve and maintain happiness.
I'm not a self-help or psychology expert, so I'm not trying to claim, "here's the universal solution for happiness" or whatever. My message is specifically for this target audience of people like myself and my peers who have grown up in an academic high achieving culture.
First of all, why even talk about this idea of happiness or satisfaction? Because I think it's more important than any individual achievement you might make. Achievements are things that you can write on a resume, like "I got the highest SAT score in my class" or "I got into a great college" or "I got this great job." But how you feel about and carry yourself throughout life is something that is constantly present; it stays with you 24 hours a day.
From talking to my friends, I've identified three main sources of happiness in college:
First, maintaining good relationships with people around you: parents, friends, and perhaps your significant other. The good news for you parents in the audience is that out of all of my friends who were very happy with their college experience at MIT, all of them have positive relationships with their parents. This one trait is fairly universal, in my experience, and it makes sense too, right? Because when you're young, your parents are probably the most prominent people in the foreground of your life. As you go to college, your peer group dominates more of your experiences, and as you get even older, then your spouse and kids enter the foreground. But for young people, the quality of relationships with parents definitely affects their base level of happiness, even if they don't want to admit it.
The second source of happiness comes from knowledge and perspective. One source of youthful anxiety arises from a lack of knowledge about how the world works. I remember when I was 18 years old, I didn't have a lot of the perspective that I have now at age 25. One example is knowing your own personality, interests, and abilities. The second example is perspective about where you stand in the world, and how the world works. I remember when I was little, the cause of a lot of my anxiety was not knowing about how things work, such as how jobs work, or how money works, or how relationships with people work. All of this is obvious to you parents in the audience since you have lived in this world for much longer than your kids. This is the sort of stuff that you teach your kids, but they often can't truly understand what you mean. So that can be frustrating for both sides.
I remember a common occurrence throughout my childhood: My parents would try to teach me how some part of the adult world works, but I wasn't in the mental state to take what they said to heart. But now as I get older and start my quasi-adult life—renting my own apartment, paying for car insurance, doing taxes, etc.—I started discovering that a lot of the stuff my parents talked about when I was younger turned out to be true. All of a sudden, I started re-learning these same lessons myself and realizing that my parents were right all along. So you parents should be really happy to hear this. Even if your kids don't believe you now, they will believe you in ten years!
[At this point, I was interrupted by the first question of the day and never got around to describing the third source of happiness in college: deep mental engagement in a flow state.]
Question from an audience member: When does that happen [kids believing the parents' teachings]?
That's an excellent question. I think this happens not in college, but right after your kid gets out of college and starts to look for their first job or go to graduate school. Unfortunately, a lot of stuff you tell your kids now, they don't internalize until they are thrown out into the real world and have to figure things out for themselves.
When you're a kid, you're supposed to be sheltered by your parents; your parents take care of all of this day-to-day stuff and shield you from the real world. When that shield disappears, you will have to get along on your own. You will end up asking your parents for help even on mundane things like how to pay taxes or how to find good deals on car repairs. And that's why having good relationships with your parents is crucial!
When you're a teenager, you may not believe your parents and just feel like they're lame, but as you get older, you will actually ask your parents more and more for advice. This exchange is good for both sides, but unfortunately, as a parent, it will take your kids a long time before they reach that point. As long as they're living in your house, they won't understand.
I remember that, as a teenager, around the ages of 14 to 17, I started learning a lot of stuff, and I knew more than my parents did about many topics, especially subjects covered in school. This isn't too hard to achieve, especially with immigrant parents who don't know much about American culture or society. I remember having a really strong sense of wanting to be taken more seriously. I thought that I could be independent, but the truth is that I was still a kid. I was still under my parents' supervision and protection.
I think that's why being able to go away to college is such a huge step for maturity because it's the first time you get to be away from home. But you're still in a sheltered environment, since college is not the real world. If you graduate from high school and have to go into the real world to find work, then things are far different. College is this privileged place—an intermediate stage between being a child and being an adult.
Are there any questions?
Parental versus Peer Influence
Question: So you never had any problems with your parents when you were growing up?
Actually I didn't. I was very fortunate. Both my parents and I were fortunate that we never had much issues with one another. I was an only child. I was fairly easy to raise, I would say! I think my parents would say that too. Let me go into that in more detail.
But first, I want to mention that with all of this talk about parenting and raising kids, one thing to keep in mind is the problem of very small sample sizes. All parents and kids are quite different, both in terms of personality and socio-economic environment. Since I've only experienced having one set of parents, I don't feel comfortable making generalizations like "All parents should do this," or "All kids should do that." Instead, I'll just tell a bit about my own childhood story and let you figure out what applies to your life.
I think what helped me a lot in not giving my parents a hard time was that I was very interested in doing well in school. I could do well in school fairly easily; it wasn't ever too difficult for me. My parents were both very busy, too, with their jobs. My dad traveled a lot for business, and my mom is a professor who is always busy teaching and doing research. So they left me alone for the most part.
Now I'm not saying that all parents should just leave their kids alone to "raise themselves." I'm just saying this is what happened in my situation. I think that it worked for my family because things were always going well for me, and my parents didn't "rock the boat."
One common issue that I often see and hear from friends is that there are kids who are doing fairly well, but the parents have a sincere wish for their kids to be doing even better. It's a very Chinese thing, deeply embedded in the culture: "You are doing really well, but we want you to do your best; we always want you to do better!" I think that this philosophy, taken to the extreme, can have detrimental effects. My view is that if your kids are doing pretty well, then you should feel fortunate that they are on the right path and not risk damaging their progress. The more you push, the more you risk demoralizing kids who are already faring quite well.
Many of my friends and I were "easy to raise" because we were naturally focused on academics. In high school, there are honors and AP classes, so if all of your friends are together in those classes, then you all motivate one another to do well. If you hang out with this academically-focused crowd, then you naturally stay out of crowds that get into trouble for a few reasons: One, because you want to do well in school just like your friends, and two, because you're probably not "cool enough" to be getting access to copious amounts of drugs, alcohol, risque sex, etc. There's no way my friends and I could've gotten into a crowd that would get into such trouble, since we were simply not cool enough to be accepted by those kids.
To borrow a term from physics, initial conditions are really important. One piece of advice I have for parents is to seed good initial conditions by getting your kids into a favorable peer group before they enter middle school. Here's why. When your children are in middle and high school, you are not going to have much influence on them. It's mostly their peers in school who are going to influence them. But when your children are very young, you are their entire world. When they're in elementary school, they play with friends but still rely on you at home. A huge change happens during middle school where their peers now mean everything to them. Thus, if your kids show above-average mental aptitude, then one way to get them into a favorable peer group in elementary or middle school is to enroll them in more advanced classes. That is usually where the better-behaved kids are going to be.
Let me tell you one story about this topic. My parents were very hands-off in raising me; since they were so busy with work, they didn't have time to micro-manage or coddle me. But they knew the importance of high-level strategy in shaping my future. I moved to California for middle school in 7th grade. Most other students started at that school in 6th grade, so everybody in my grade already had their own friends when I arrived. The most important thing that my mom did at the beginning of that school year was telling me to insist on being placed in the most advanced classes.
Right before I started 7th grade, I had to meet with the middle school guidance counselor 1-on-1 to pick classes. My mom instructed me to adamantly tell him to place me in the most advanced classes, no matter what. I was a bit afraid to seem so boastful. After all, many Asian kids are raised to be humble and not to show off, and I always tried to abide by that philosophy. But my mom said that this was not the time for humility. She wanted me to tell my counselor that I would be able to handle the advanced course material and to just give me a shot at those classes. If I don't make it, then I could always drop to the regular classes.
Many school counselors in America, especially in middle school, don't want to put too much pressure on kids. They want to put you at a comfortable level. When I told my counselor to put me in the advanced math class, he asked me whether I knew how to do fractions or whatever, and I said "yeah yeah I know how to do all of that stuff." I actually did know how to do what he asked, but even if I didn't, I would've still said I did in order to get into those classes.
Thus, starting from day one in middle school, the peer group I formed was made up of more academically-inclined kids. We stuck together throughout middle and high school. Of course, some kids came and left, and we weren't always in the same classes. But if I had started in the lower level classes, I know I would've had a very hard time adjusting, because I was not one of the popular kids. Imagine the stereotypes you see of foreign exchange students looking funny and being mocked as outcasts—that would've happened to me. I would've definitely been a target of bullying. And here's why:
I spent the summer before moving to California in China with my extended family. This was in the mid-1990's when more people were getting prosperous in China, and everybody wanted to feed their kids all the time, because having a chubby kid was considered a sign of wealth and status. That summer, my parents were in the midst of moving to California, so they sent me to China to live with extended family. When I came back to the U.S. after 3 months, my mom almost didn't recognize me when she picked me up from the airport. I had gained over 20 pounds, and I was only about 5'4" at the time. Not only was I overweight, but I also got my hair permed, since my relatives thought that looked cool. And I wore fobby ("Fresh Off Boat") clothes that were popular in China at the time, with all kinds of gaudy logos and misspelled English words.
I had to start middle school in 7th grade in Southern California where almost everyone was a well-off, upper-middle-class preppy Caucasian kid with trendy clothes. I was on the opposite end of the style spectrum: fat, permed wavy hair, and fobby clothes from China. 7th grade was really bad for me, but it would have been worse if I had been put into the lower-level classes because if you stuck out in those classes, then it could be fairly traumatizing. At least in the honors classes, the kids were more nerdy and less obsessed with fashion and trends, so that helped me a bit with the transition.
Hmmm, I forgot what point I was trying to make ... are there any questions?
Question: You are doing so well in school. Did you get any help outside of school, like after-school coaching or tutoring? Like for SAT or AP tests?
I think I'm sort of an anomaly here since I didn't do any of that stuff. I'm not saying that after-school coaching is a bad thing at all. I just didn't have any exposure to it while growing up.
I didn't grow up in an academically centered culture like here in the San Francisco Bay Area where people have tremendous amounts of information and social capital regarding academics. For example, people here know a lot about after-school coaching and standardized test prep. My mother is a social scientist, and one of the things she studies is the importance of social capital, which is the kinds of knowledge inherent in your immediate social environment. So for example, everyone here has a lot of social capital with respect to knowing about how to do well in high school to get into a good college.
In contrast, if you go to a poor urban or rural area and ask kids there about how to get into, say, MIT or Harvard, they have no clue. That knowledge is not inherent in their community. Of course, nowadays, kids can go online to learn, but without a good base of knowledge from their community, they don't even know where to start searching online. With the knowledge base in this community, I'm sure all the kids here would be able to give a better talk about SAT test prep, college application requirements., etc., than I could give.
So to answer your question, I didn't have any exposure to these sorts of after-school prep classes, so I never did them. But I'm an anomaly in the sense that I was always very self-motivated in school, and I was lucky that I actually liked learning.
SAT prep is a specific question I can address. There were definitely SAT prep classes where I grew up. I remember Princeton Review, Kaplan, and other larger commercial agencies held classes in my town, but I don't remember the smaller private classes like the ones who target Asian kids here. Lots of people from my school took those SAT classes because their parents were fairly wealthy, but it was an interesting contrast to classes here. So here, I'm sure if you're sending your kids to SAT classes, you want them to get a very high score. They're already doing pretty well, but you want them to get the highest score possible. But for the classes many my peers attended—and this is my speculation—the parents just wanted their kids to do above average: well enough to get into a decent college, but not necessarily aiming for the top. So I think that classes like Princeton Review, which are for a more general audience, might be quite different than ones focused on top scorers.
Question: So did you attend those SAT classes?
No I didn't. I just studied by myself. I started studying probably 6 to 9 months before taking the SAT I in the middle of my junior year. Actually, I first took the SAT I when I was in 8th grade to get into the CTY gifted kids summer school program. You don't have to do super well to get in, just better than most other kids your age. I remember my mom telling me that I had to take the SAT back then, and I thought it wasn't the real SAT—that it must have been some kid version. But it was the real SAT I exam. I didn't study too hard back in 8th grade, though.
When studying for my SAT I for real in high school, the most useful thing I did was to learn English vocabulary words. I'm sure this advice is relevant today. Learning as many words as possible is the quickest way to raise your SAT verbal score. There are all sorts of strategies and tricks, but knowing vocabulary words is going to give you the biggest benefit for the verbal section. The math section is usually more straightforward for Asian kids.
Question: You said you were self-motivated. What motivates you? Are you really just motivated yourself, or did your parents do something special to put you in such a good mindset?
That's a very good question. I think your question is about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. How am I self-motivated as opposed to getting motivation from external sources? And what effect did my parents have on developing this form of intrinsic motivation?
Hmmm, I'm trying to think from a parent's perspective. The best thing that my parents did for me was to provide a home environment where learning was a positive thing, and they led by example. A lot of your fate is determined by your parents. And I don't mean just what they do for you, but more importantly, how they run their own lives. For example, in the typical American household, the parents go off to their jobs, and they're very tired (and perhaps jaded) at the end of each work day. So when they come home, they sit on the couch, have a beer, and watch the big-screen TV and eat potato chips all night. Now, a lot of these parents say that they want their kids to do well in school. After all, who wouldn't want that? But if you're sitting at night watching TV and ordering your kids to go study, then your kids are going to think that you're a hypocrite. After all, you're being lazy at home and sitting in front of the TV, so why shouldn't they? If you're lounging around, then you have no credibility to be commanding them to do their homework.
In contrast, my parents were always doing intellectual work at home in the evenings. During my formative elementary school years, my mom was an assistant professor and my dad was in graduate school. Our home was filled with lots of bookshelves full of all sorts of books. My mom would always be in the living room at night reading academic journals, editing and writing papers, typing on the computer, or doing other scholarly work. And similarly with my dad too. They never forced me to read the books they were reading, because that would've been a disaster. What was crucial here was that my home environment was set up so that reading was pervasive, and television noise was kept at a minimum. My dad would only watch an hour of late-night TV talk shows after my mom and I went to sleep.
I always got to choose my own books to read. We didn't have that much money when I was growing up—I'm sure lots of you share the same story of immigrating from China and being poor at first—but my parents spared no expense when I wanted to buy books. I loved to go to the bookstore, because that was the only place where I could buy practically anything. Of course I had the normal share of toys, too, but my toy budget wasn't unlimited.
My parents never forced me to read any specific kind of book, but when I was younger, my mom in particular always wanted me to read more fiction, because she wanted me to become more familiar with Western culture. I hated reading fiction and was very bad at reading comprehension. During middle school, I remember getting some bad grades on essays and quizzes about novels I had to read for class, simply because I didn't comprehend them very well. I had absolutely no interest in fiction, but I liked reading a lot of non-fiction, especially illustrated books about science and how mechanical things worked.
I think what is really motivating for kids is to have something that they deeply care about. For me, I cared about reading and learning in general, because I didn't have any real extracurricular interests. Some kids were into music, or into sports, or something else. I did those things casually but never got deep into them. But for me, doing well in school was fun and motivating in itself. Hmmm, I don't know how well I answered your question, though.
Two questions: 1.) When you came back from China to start 7th grade, you said you gained 20 pounds. How did you lose those 20 pounds? 2.) Were you in any sports teams during middle and high school? How was that experience important (or not)?
I lost most of that weight within one year, since I grew taller and wasn't eating 5 meals a day like I had been doing over the summer. I was also doing martial arts for a few years, which also helped with the weight loss. I quit before I got my black belt since I joined the cross country team in high school during my junior year (11th grade).
I only did cross country for one year; that was my only involvement in team sports. Back when I was in high school, cross country was the sport that all of the nerds joined, because it didn't take much athletic ability to make the team. Of course, the fast runners were very skilled, but there was no cutoff on the lower end, so everybody made the team. In contrast, I tried out for the tennis team one year and didn't make it.
Cross country was really good for me because I could see myself improving in a very concrete way. We were training hard all summer before my junior year. We ran 5 times a week as a team throughout the summer, and then we had after-school practices during the fall season. In general, I think it's motivating for kids—actually for anyone—to learn something and see themselves improve steadily in a concrete way. That positive feedback, especially in something easily measurable, is great for feeling good about yourself.
Back in middle school, I was totally out of shape. I was not able to run the mandatory 1-mile runs that we had to do each month in P.E. (physical education) class. The monthly mile run was probably the thing I dreaded the most in middle school. I would try to make every excuse to get out of running it. I would even tell my mom to write me a health note saying that I had bad asthma so that I could just run half of a mile. (I did have mild asthma, but it wasn't terrible.)
In high school, many of my friends joined the cross country team and encouraged me to join too. They told me that if I just stuck with it and consistently practiced, there is no way that I don't get noticeably better at running. So I gave it a shot.
They were right. I discovered that as long as you don't injure yourself by over-training, you will noticeably improve. The time it takes you to run 1 mile, or 3 miles (the cross country race distance) is an objective measurable number. It's not like some touchy-feely subjective thing. Before training, I was barely able to run a mile in 10 minutes, and after six months of training, I could run a mile in less than 7 minutes. That was a huge improvement! I saw myself improving every month and running miles faster and faster, which felt great.
That said, though, I didn't stick with cross country beyond one season because I wasn't really into the competition aspect, and more importantly, I was never good at it. Sure, I improved a lot, but I was still much slower than the best runners. So the long answer to your question is that sports were never a big part of my high school life.
Question: I have a question about your studying habits. Do you listen to music while you study? Also, do you have to get up really early to study? I heard a story about President Obama as a child in Indonesia, when his mother would wake him up early every morning and teach him English every day, and that really impressed me. Did your mom do that to you, or do you have some study habits that keep you motivated?
Back when I was in elementary school, my mother was an assistant professor. Since she had to work very hard to earn tenure, she would wake up at 3am every morning and go to bed by 9pm every night. Between 3am and 6am, that was when she got all of her intense focused work done. That's when her mind got into a flow state and could concentrate intensely without any distractions. I would wake up by 6am, and she would make breakfast, do morning errands, and send me to school. The kids in the audience won't know this, but the working days of adults are filled with errands, meetings, favors for colleagues, and other interruptions, so it's nearly impossible to find focused flow time. Those 3 hours every morning (3am-6am) were sacred for her to get work done.
However, I never did any studying in the mornings, since I had to get up and then immediately go to school. There simply wasn't any time to study in the mornings.
On a related note, the most important part of my study habits is not procrastinating. In high school, that helped me the most in doing well—always spacing out my homework so that things didn't get too overwhelming. Not procrastinating is a form of good time management.
The reason why I could spread my work throughout the week was that I had almost no extracurricular activities after school. So I could just hang out and relax for a bit after school each day, then still have a few hours before dinner to do homework, and a few hours after dinner too. I never felt super-rushed to finish assignments. In contrast, if kids have to do music, sports, and other activities after school, then by the time they get home at night, they're so tired that it's hard to concentrate on homework.
It's still important to stay disciplined, though. I had a lot of friends in my similar situation (not many after-school extracurriculars) who would just watch TV and play games all night, procrastinate, and wait until the last minute to finish their assignments or to study for exams. And then they would stay up all night before a school deadline. So I think that not procrastinating and spacing your work out is the best piece of advice I can give in terms of work habits. However, the fewer extra activities you have going on after school, the easier it is to manage your time.
Question: So you don't listen to music or play video games when you study? [The questioner seemed to be implying that his son, who was sitting next to him, does those things while studying.]
No, not when I study. And I didn't play that many video games either. I would play them, of course, but games back then weren't nearly as sophisticated or engaging as they are today. So it wasn't as much of a distraction. Of course, TV was still a distraction, but the key is to set off blocks of time to study after school, and then you can enjoy TV or video game time for the rest of the night. I think it's hard to multi-task while studying, and it's ineffective too.
Question: So your mom didn't tell you, "You can only play for one hour now" or something, and you managed your own time?
Yeah, pretty much. But I guess my parents always emphasized the importance of not wasting time, and not procrastinating, even though they never used that word in particular. I don't think I even learned the word "procrastinating" until I was in college; it sounded like a dirty word when I first heard it!
A lot of my peers from the honors and AP classes would stay up all night before deadlines to finish assignments, and for some it was justified, since they had a lot of other activities going on outside of school. But for my peers who were in my situation without much extracurricular activities after school, there should be no reason why their course load would be so intense that they would routinely stay up all night. But of course, my school was not as competitive as some of the high schools here, where many more kids might have to stay up late to finish their work. But yeah, I never pulled any all-nighters during high school.
A related performance tip is to get plenty of sleep. I know it's cliched, but a lack of sleep definitely makes you dumber! Because I didn't procrastinate, I usually got 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep each night in high school, which was also crucial for keeping my mind sharp. Many of my classmates got 6 hours or less of sleep, which made them slower during the day and less effective at learning and retaining knowledge.
In college, the ability to self-manage your work habits is even more important, because the main difference is that now you're no longer living in your parents' house, so if you're not self-motivated to have good study and work habits, then everything will fall apart. You don't have to go to classes, and your parents can't tell if you ditch class. You can just sit in your dorm room playing video games all day, and your parents wouldn't know. All your parents see when you're in college are your end-of-semester grades.
I definitely saw a variation in work ethic. I don't personally like hanging out and chilling for long periods of time and then staying up late at the last minute finishing something, because I hate that feeling of staying up super-late and being groggy the next day. I would rather be consistently sorta busy all the time rather than having those enormous bursts of stress. But there are people who prefer the other way too if it works for them. Some kids don't go to class and study for exams the night beforehand; and as long as they're pretty smart and don't take super-hard classes, then their grades will still be reasonable. So maybe that's not so bad, if the end results are decent and the parents are kept happy.
Question: What did you do on the weekends in middle and high school? Did you go somewhere to get extra help with your homework then?
My weekends were pretty free in general. I didn't remember having to do a ton of work on weekends as a kid. I would hang out with my parents to run errands, usually drive 1 hour to Monterey Park (a Chinese community inside of Los Angeles) to eat and do grocery shopping.
Question: So you never studied on weekends? [asked almost in disbelief]
Not really, well except when there was an exam or an assignment due on Monday; then I would work on the weekends. But I don't remember being especially busy on weekends. Again, I didn't go to the same kinds of high school as the kids do here. There wasn't nearly as much academic pressure in my school; you didn't have to do a ton to get good grades.
In college, things were quite different because MIT is known for being a very rigorous school. Hopefully this doesn't scare people, but in college, I was working all the time except for Friday night and sometimes Saturday night. Friday nights were always my time off. Every other waking moment was either spent on something work-related or hanging out with friends. Those were my two priorities in college:
I spent almost no time just chilling alone; I never read a book for fun when I was in college since I'd rather be using that free time to hang out with friends. I felt like when I was in that unique environment, I wanted to make the most of my time there. I could always read for fun when I was home on vacation.
On the weekends during college, I would always be working (except sometimes on Saturday nights), but that wasn't weird because everyone else would be working as well. Again, because I was able to do a good job in time management and space out my work, I never got super busy. But it was definitely much busier than high school every day.
The Goals of College
In my mind, there are four primary goals of college:
[The audio recording cut off after an hour, so I don't have access to the rest of my talk. Sorry to leave you hanging!]