What my 16-year-old English Student has in common with Richard Branson, and why she will be more successful than you.
When Aurora, now a 16-year-old student in Northern China, missed out on first place of her school’s English speaking competition, she took it personally. This isn’t uncommon in Eastern countries where such an intense importance is put on academic achievement and getting ahead of the competition (competition, in this sense, refers to every other adolescent in the classroom, and nationwide). Students have large expectations placed on them from their families, teachers, peers, and themselves.
First prize is awarded to one, and in a classroom of 100 students, the odds were not much in her favor. Aurora did not have a terrible performance, but it was not the best. There was nothing stopping Aurora from placing the loss on lofty expectations, too large a group for the competition, unfair judging, or any number of outside sources. But, that was not Aurora’s frame of mind.
Only a few years later, Aurora is now a student of mine. I work with her exclusively on her writing skills. We don’t spend a single lesson on her speaking skills because she is nearly flawless. After losing the competition she went straight to her mother and expressed her desire to increase her efforts to learn English. Being taught English in a school with a non-native speaker and 100 other students did not provide the best learning scenario for her. She and her mother sought out English books to practice her reading skills(last I knew she was finishing Pride and Prejudice) and English tutors online to get speaking practice with native speakers.
I’ve taught English to students of all ages from Taiwan, China, France, Japan, Spain, and Russia among other countries. The only students I’ve worked with who speak with a higher proficiency than Aurora are those who have spent multiple years living in an English speaking country.
What has separated Aurora from other students? Is it simply a greater interest in the English language? You might attribute her work ethic to her interest, but the fact that she is interested in the language does not make her an anomaly. There is no shortage of interest in learning English. The advantages to a person with English speaking skills are well known. Plus, in many Eastern cultures there has been long been an interest in becoming more Westernized.
While teaching in Taiwan, I made a point to poll students about their interest in learning English. Combining the classes I had regularly and the ones I saw only as a substitute, I was able to poll almost 400 students. In most of the classes there it was around a 50-50 split between the students who actually wanted to learn English and who were just pressured to be in class by their parents. Of the students who expressed an interest in learning English, only ¼ of them made a noticeable effort to speak in class. Of those I heard make an effort, I can remember only five students making an extra effort to come and speak with me directly during break time, before, or after class. Unsurprisingly, those five students were by far the best speakers I’d seen in the classrooms.
In defense of the hundreds of other students I taught and millions across the globe that struggle to learn languages, attempting to speak a foreign language with one of it’s native speakers can be a terrifying experience. This is where Aurora set herself apart from the other people who said they were interested in learning English: she never made herself a victim. She did not excuse herself because the class sizes were too big. She did not complain about the absence of native speakers to speak with. She did not hide behind the nerves of possibly making a mistake when speaking a language.
Instead of making excuses and playing the victim, Aurora made sure she found a way to improve regardless of her circumstances. This is the kind of thing that will not only set her apart in the academic environment but also in any endeavor in which she wishes to succeed.
Refusing to be a victim is a common theme that plays out through all of the world’s most successful people. Donald Trump did not play victim and make excuses when he was in billions of dollars of debt. He instead worked to revive himself and regain his wealth and status. Michael Jordan did not play victim when he did not make his high school’s varsity basketball team. He instead used the event as motivation to prove the coach had made a big mistake in not selecting him. Richard Branson did not excuse himself when struggled in school. He instead started his first business at the age of 16 and later set up a mail order record business that would eventually grow into Virgin Megastores. He has since expanded to Virgin Group which comprises more than 400 companies and has an estimated net worth of US$4.9 billion.
Maybe comparing my English student to some of the wealthiest and most successful people in the modern world is putting too much praise on her. One way or the other, it is clear to me that she shares something in common with these figures that many people lack. I won’t be so bold to make the claim that a Richard Branson level of success is in the future for Aurora but if that is what she decided to set her mind towards, I wouldn’t doubt her for a second. In fact, I would probably invest in her now while her stock is still low.