Rhea Wong Consulting




Asian Americans account for higher levels of economic and educational success compared with the U.S. average.  Ironically, the skills that have made Asian Americans so successful in previous generations may be the same skills that hold us back as we enter the new future of work.

What characterizes the future of education and work?

It is a world in which basic cognitive and mechanical skills will be replaced by machines, and people will be valued for their uniquely human assets, such as creativity, emotional intelligence, relationship-building, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Here are key ways that traditional Asian values may not serve your children as they make the transition to college or into the world of work — and how to set them up for a new and healthy definition of success:

1. Praising effort instead of intelligence: In my Chinese-American family, the highest praise that any of the children could receive is being called “smart” and producing  the grades to prove it. The groundbreaking study by Stanford University’s Dr. Carol Dweck sheds light on the problems of praising intelligence over effort. Kids who have been told that they’re “smart” tend to avoid challenges, give up more easily, are less resilient, ignore helpful criticism and are threatened by the success of others. By contrast, children whose efforts are praised and who develop a growth mindset are more persistent, willing to take positive risks, see effort as the path to mastery and view others’ success as inspiration.

2. Focusing on social capital for success: Much has been made about the subjective admissions standards applied to Asian American students at Harvard.  Opinions about institutionalized racist admissions standards aside, there is something to be said here about the acculturation of Asian American students and what constitutes a “positive personality.”As the former Executive Director of Breakthrough New York, I’ve worked with high-achieving, low-income students from diverse backgrounds and it has been key to explicitly teach the mores of the dominant white culture in order for them to be read as “socially adept.” These practices include firm handshakes, making eye contact while speaking, speaking in a loud, clear voice, answering questions in complete sentences, asking good questions and knowing how to make conversation. In a world where we expect students to cross cultural boundaries, it only makes sense to teach them the practices of the world they will enter, not just the world they’ve come from.

3. Embracing risk and failure: I recently read a story about Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx, who recounted that her father would ask her what she failed at every evening.  She said that he was disappointed if she hadn’t failed at something every single day. By contrast, in Asian families, failure is a mark of shame. Let’s help our children face fear and learn from the mistakes they will encounter on their path to greatness. By encouraging them to embrace their fear of failure, we also help them build the courage to dare greatly and achieve big things.

4. Training your children for internal versus external validation: The proudest that one could ever make an Asian parent is bringing home a perfect report card or a medical degree from an Ivy League university.  But, when extrinsic symbols of validation take precedence over intrinsic rewards, we are contributing to a generation of individuals who are chronically dissatisfied and who chase satisfaction in external measures of success: salary, promotion and material goods. Intrinsic rewards can be found in satisfaction in a job well done, reaching a goal or demonstrating mastery.

5. Encouraging curiosity, creativity and freetime: What comes to mind when you think of the stereotypical Tiger Mom? I think of overscheduled kids who are enrolled in an endless sea of extracurriculars, from ballet, math classes, tennis, piano lessons, test prep and the like. Despite the best intentions of parents to provide their children with a competitive edge, childhood is a time for kids to follow their interests and to let their minds wander. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote about how he played with a stick for hours when he was a kid, making up imaginary games and stories. That wonderful imagination led him to create Hamilton. In order for our kids to exercise their creativity muscle, we need to encourage participation in the arts, in reading, in acting and in play.

Bottom line: stop scheduling children and encourage them to follow their interests, passions and natural curiosities. Let their imagines run wild — let them be kids!

6. Valuing disruption AND harmony: In my family, as I suspect in many Asian families, talking back and other forms of disrespect towards your elders was unthinkable. While I’m certainly no advocate of disrespectful children, there are ways in which you can teach your child to challenge the status quo. In my family, it was expected to do what we were told without question, but the future will belong to those that question the way things are and envision how they could be. The ability to disrupt convention will be an increasingly valuable skill in the new economy. Encourage divergent thinking and big, audacious ideas. You may just be raising the next Steve Jobs.

7. Rocking the boat. In my Chinese family, it was assumed that you would work hard, not draw attention to your achievements and perform without complaint. My discomfort in drawing attention to my accomplishments impacted my career: I didn’t always get the credit that I worked for, I never asked for raises which I rightly deserved and I was uncomfortable speaking out against policies or practices that I felt were wrong.  In the professional world, it is often the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. As they say, you don’t ask, you don’t so it’s worth teaching our kids how to be brave, and step out of their comfort zone even at the risk of causing waves.]

8. Avoiding yardstick comparison as the only measure of success:  Asian families like to trade in what I call the “Perfect Child Stock Market.” This is the comparison that Asian parents do with one another to compare their children against their friends and family.  Every Asian parent knows whose stock is up, whose is down and who is going to Harvard. The ticker tape of comparison plays in every Asian kid’s head and may not serve them. Ultimately, every person must find and strive for their own definition of success and fulfillment.Traditional Asian values such as emphasis on education and achievement have served Asian Americans well overall in comparison with other minority groups. In a rapidly changing world, however, what got you here won’t get you there. Meshing traditional values with new ways of thinking and parenting will most effectively position the next generation of Asian Americans to survive, thrive and lead.

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