What I Learned of Honesty and Dedication in China (Part III)

APU
5 min readMar 24, 2021

By Dr. Gary L. Deel
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University

This is the third and final part in a three-part series on my experience training in kung fu in China and what it taught me about honesty and dedication to one’s pursuits.

In the previous parts of this series, I told the story of my trip to China to study kung fu with the Shaolin monks and how it forever changed my views toward and honesty and commitment to goals in pursuit of greatness. But upon returning home to the United States, I was conflicted about how to reconcile the Chinese discipline-driven model with the less rigorous American approach.

This conundrum reminded me of a comedy bit by Australian comic Jim Jefferies. The routine is crass and even mildly racist, but humorous nonetheless.

In it, Jefferies talks about how “you can’t compete with the Asians” because they “acknowledge stupidity.” Jefferies goes on to explain how in America every child is coddled and reassured notwithstanding their actual abilities, while in Chinese culture people are quick to hone greatness and shun ineptitude without any qualm.

We Need to Be More Honest with Feedback when Encouraging Our Children to Improve

On balance, I’m not advocating the Jim Jefferies recipe for excellence. Children in particular should be encouraged to explore their interests and talents to learn what they might like and what they might be good at doing. They shouldn’t be ridiculed or admonished if they aren’t good at something.

And I don’t think corporeal punishment has any place in a civilized learning environment, regardless of student ages. But in the same breath, I don’t think there’s harm in being honest with children about where they stand and how much work they have ahead of them if they are to improve.

For example, I am not a particularly strong proponent of the “participation trophy” culture that turns a blind eye to merit or ability in any of its forms. If you want to acknowledge basic effort, that’s fine.

But let us not pretend that there are no differences between competitors — even child ones — and that the skill they bring to a sport or challenge doesn’t matter. To have this attitude is to be dishonest with our kids and to imprint upon them a delusional sense of unearned equivalence among individuals. It breeds arrogance instead of humility — an ignorant and dangerous path.

Providing the Proper Motivation for Children to Succeed

In the real world, accomplishments and success are earned with hard work and effort. And a child who thinks there is no difference between first place and last place in a foot race might naturally carry that lesson forward to an assumption that everyone is entitled to success and recognition, notwithstanding the amount of time they dedicate to their craft and the skills they cultivate through that commitment.

It’s better, I think, to be honest with our children about where they stand and then provide them with the love, support, and encouragement they need to excel and improve. For example, suppose your son or daughter does finish last in that footrace. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging their effort. If they gave it their all, then there’s no shame in losing and they should be proud that they tried.

But we should also be honest with them about how they did and the work that is needed if they want to be more competitive next time. That feedback is not mean or cruel, just honest.

We might be tempted to tell them they are “perfect just the way they are.” And that the results of the race don’t matter, in order to spare them the anger, frustration, or sadness that often come with losing or coming up short.

But saying this would do our children no favors at all. Rather, we would just be cultivating a mindset that effort, ability and performance don’t count for anything.

Anger, frustration and sadness are painful emotions to experience. And as a father, I can attest that they are even more painful to see in the eyes of my child.

However, on the other side of that pain is the motivation and drive they need in order to practice, to improve, to work at their goals, and to do better next time. We can teach our children not to dwell on or obsess over these emotions, but instead to use them as fuel in order to excel. We can show them that these feelings can actually be useful if we leverage them to push forward.

On the subject of American martial art school rigor — or rigor in training toward any challenge for that matter — I would never recommend that teachers should raise the bar to a height that is dangerous to students. I know my Shifu back in China was only trying to help me when he forced me down into a painful split.

And fortunately I wasn’t seriously injured, but the reality is that I could have been. And that would have accomplished nothing. On the other hand, aspiring to mediocrity or pushing a learner to only a fraction of her actual potential is a wasted opportunity.

Creating the Right Mindset for Greatness by Combining the Best of Chinese and American Culture

The key, of course, is not too much and not too little. And in that spirit, I think that somewhere between the Chinese no-mercy doctrine of relentless grinding and the American zero-expectations approach of comfort over quality, there is probably a place of better balance where participants of all ages can be challenged without being put in a position where they might overdo it.

There is no single recipe for this goal; it takes dedicated, reflective teachers that have the situational awareness to recognize the point at which they are applying enough pressure to bring out the best in their students, without crossing a line and breaking them.

Following my experience in China and the opportunity to compare it with the American way of approaching challenges, I think we could learn a thing or two about honesty and dedication from the Shaolin monks. To be clear, we needn’t sacrifice our self-esteem, our dignity, or our health and safety.

But if we can muster the courage to simply be truthful with ourselves and those around us about where we stand and what it will take to excel, and then commit ourselves fully to pushing our potential and optimizing our self-actualization, we can aspire to levels of greatness not previously within our reach.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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