by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School
For someone who is learning Mandarin Chinese, they say that conversational fluency requires knowledge of upwards of 1,000 idiomatic expressions -- what is known as Chengyu. Much of this idiomatic wisdom -- ranging from proverbs to allegorical sayings-- would be readily familiar to English speakers, as it centers around, and emphasizes, the same sort of virtues that our idioms do: hard work, humility, and perseverance. For example, in Mandarin, instead of saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” one says, “The frozen ice that is three feet thick is caused by bitter cold for not only one day.” Same idea, different delivery.
One point of divergence between English and Mandarin idioms, though, is the insults, both in terms of idea and delivery. In English, we tend to quickly default to the lowest-common denominator, thus giving our insults a crude bluntness. In Mandarin, insults can be elegant and corrosive. The one insult that has always stuck with me translates most nearly to, “May you find success early in life.” At first, it seems almost complimentary, and then you slowly begin to realize its devastating malice.
Of course, what is meant by this expression is that by finding success early in life, we will either not have the needed qualities to sustain it or we will have peaked at too early an age, thus spending the rest of our lives chasing something that is no longer attainable. Either way you interpret it, it’s a clever burn.
The reason why I’m writing about Mandarin insults is that I think there’s a lesson to be learned here -- a lesson that applies especially to the middle schoolers out there.
In an age when success is broadcast so widely and amplified so loudly, it is easy to check our Instagrams, Snapchats, and other social media apps and feel like we’re behind -- almost as though at just 12- or 13-years-old, we’ve already missed the boat. We see influencers and celebrities, and we feel that pang of envy. We might even say to ourselves, “I wish I had that many followers” or “I want to be as famous as them.” What we’re missing in this, of course, is that their early success is really more of a curse than it is a gift.
Rather than work towards our own early success, I would encourage middle schoolers to instead work towards early and frequent failure. Early failure, as has been noted by countless people throughout history, is one of the keys to sustained success. Failure has the unique potential to instill in us lessons that can’t be learned any other way. Failure illuminates the horizons of one’s knowledge and lends a meaningful sense of the discrepancy between what is known and what is left to be known. Failure sharpens our self-monitoring, judgements, and skills, and forces us to question our performance and seek guidance. Failure is foundational and fundamental to the learning process.
Middle School is the prime of one’s mistake-making years. Middle schoolers are wise enough to recognize failure and young enough to not need to fear it. They can make a mistake in their learning without worrying that it will appear on a transcript or resume. Mistakes made in Middle School are written in a disappearing ink.
This is not meant as a license to intentionally flunk out of school one mistake at a time. Rather, it’s about embracing the learning process, as opposed to denying it. As Bill Wooditch writes, “If we make mistakes not because we are careless but because we are willing to venture off the accepted path, then that’s a ‘good’ reason to make mistakes. And if we are willing to look back and figure out what went wrong, then that’s a ‘good’ outcome.”
The learning process is one that we know is riddled with confusion and frustration. What we want middle schoolers to know is that this is normal and that there are strategies we can apply to bridge the knowing and not-yet knowing. The more frequently mistakes are made, the sooner students will learn what strategies enable them to learn from their mistakes.
When middle schoolers head to school in the morning, they shouldn’t ask themselves what they can do to be successful; instead, they should ask themselves how they can put themselves in a position to fail. They should actively seek out ways to bring themselves to the edges of their knowledge, stare out over the precipice, and leap into the great unknown, knowing fully that they are going to find themselves at the bottom of a learning pit. Of course, with time, effort, and deliberate practice, they will climb out the other side of that pit, armed with a newfound knowledge on their way to a new and exciting failure.
As one of my favorite Chinese idioms reminds us, “A fall in the pit, a gain in your wit.”
Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.