The Inner Conversation


In a recent chat with a colleague, we were reminded about how our schools tend to make the best school team train the hardest in every sport – while the second teams or backbenchers are often treated with more laxity. “Shouldn’t the poorer-performing teams be working harder? That way they can get better! And in fact, it’s easier for them to get much better by training harder, as opposed to those who are already good!” I exclaimed. I am basically suggesting the possibility of diverting resources from the best, and propping up the poorer ones – very controversial. Too much ink have been spilled over (see RI boy’s support for elitism and Middle Ground’s comeback) the whole equality vs equity argument and whether elitism is in itself good or bad. I want to consider a very different perspective on the very same issue.

The germination of the ‘winner-takes-it-all’ attribute in sports has bred fixed mindsets. Schools are giving off the impression that if you are no good at something, don’t even bother trying. And the poisonous combination of meritocracy with such a fixed mindset creates social immobility and entrenchment of inequality. Is that the right message we want our students to pick up? Is it true that even for winner-takes-it-all settings, it won’t be worthwhile to strive?

Kids today are smarter than they ever were at the same age – but they have also been brought up in a manner that attempts to get them to ‘play it smart’. Admittedly, when one’s resources and potential are limited and close to its limits, playing it smart is wise. Yet for one who is young and with boundless energy, perhaps learning how to channel those energies correctly would mean a difference for all of life ahead. Are we satisfied with merely selecting students who had shown themselves to be ahead early on in life only to lose out the vast human capital locked in everyone else? In fact, are we destroying the human capital potential of everyone else in perpetuating a system like that? That is something we should think more deeply about than just be stuck in considering whether elitism is good for society and then move ahead. The construct of that elitist culture matters.

Let’s take a detour and consider grit. When writing about mavericks’ attitudes, I actually wrote about the importance of encouraging grit and persistence. I probably had a little inkling that a lot of life and learning is not about being smart but having the stamina to go through the hard stuff. Growth mindset essentially is about structuring good inner conversations that allows one to encourage oneself in times of difficulty; in many ways it is a belief – not necessarily in oneself but in values of persistence and a faith that it would all eventually be worth it. Angela Lee Duckworth’s talk on TED would probably convince you that we have to look more deeply into this. Our only chance at nurturing a more robust future generation would depend on it. And in some sense, it means devoting more resources not in selection of any individuals or any pool of them but nurturing that overarching culture and framework by which individuals strive and thrive.

Is our society investing in grit or forsaking it just so we can have short-term gains in sporting finals of students in teenage? Or for just the sake of being able to select the small handful of ‘future leaders’? In fact, is the thought of someone being a ‘future leader’ merely a manifestation of the fixed mindset we have inherited?

Some questions to reflect on.