You suck (but here’s how you get better)

My parents were products of the Chinese education system. Immediately, images of communism, red scarves, and march-step spring to mind. Desks in neat rows with children chanting their times tables robotically. You wouldn’t be completely wrong. When I was younger, my parents told me about how they learned polynomial expansion: writing it over and over again until it became part of their muscle memory. Inspired by them, I did it myself.

(x+y)² = x² + 2xy + y²

(x+y)³ = x³ + 3x²y + 3xy² + y³

Easy peasy.

So the Chinese education philosophy is clearly different from that of the west. Asian countries clean up on standardized math evaluations, but Chinese graduates reportedly lack softer skills needed outside of the academic setting, namely critical thinking and—as Forbes calls it—morality (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

One of the greatest things they ever taught me is the value of embarrassment. To be embarrassed by one’s work is something nobody ever wants. But when somebody should be embarrassed, we avert our eyes and let it go unspoken. That’s doing a disservice to the person. How can they grow, how can they become better, how can they achieve their full potential, if they’re being stunted by indifference?

I actually used to be a fat kid. Given my age, and the fact that I played sports all three seasons—cross country, basketball, and track in fall, winter, and spring, respectively—I was firmly of the belief that “I was a growing boy” and could eat whatever I wanted. One day, my coach sat me down and gruffed at me, “Hey Alex, why are you so fat?”

He went on to say that I was running upwards of 10 miles a day and should be fighting to keep the weight on. It was only then that I realized I was, in fact, a grown boy. From there I started weightlifting and learning about nutrition and exercise. Because of him, I started a weightlifting club at my school. Because of him I’ve made some great friends at various gyms. And it never would have happened if my coach hadn’t said anything because it was embarrassing.

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This is why this article about public humiliation and entrepreneurship resonates so deeply with me. It reminds me of a story I heard on NPR about a Japanese classroom that had a struggling student standing in front of the blackboard, trying to draw a cube. In the US, it’s usually the BEST student who comes up. But in this case, they brought up the worst kid, stood him in front of the class, and didn’t let him leave until he understood. In this case, failure is to be stamped out, to be conquered together, rather than ignored with thine eyes averted.

This reveals a pretty fundamental difference in how the East and West view learning. In the West, there is so much stock put into skill, talent, and God-given ability™. In Asian learning there is one mantra: simply do it until you can no longer get it wrong.

It’s a philosophy seen in Japanese baseball, where young pitchers “sometimes threw 300 times in a single day; hitters took 1,000 swings“. It is reflected in the word shokunin, “an artisan deeply and singularly dedicated to his or her craft”; this article from Roads and Kingdoms is about a Japanese man named Daibo who has dedicated his life to coffee. The fruits of his 60-odd years on this planet is a singular cup of coffee that seems to send the message: You cannot be better than me; only different.

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A lot is said about the importance of grit. And I’m happy to see Silicon Valley’s culture of fast failure. I think it’s useful for us as a culture to become more comfortable with struggle and surmounting our challenges, rather than chalking it up to mere lack of talent.

I’m going to finish off with the best bit of ad copywriting I’ve ever heard, as it sums up precisely what I mean.

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.



Got an issue? Here’s a tissue…With my name written on it: Alex Dou, and my email:, on it. I like building websites, analyzing Excel, and talking.


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