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Sushi Restaurant in the Omicho Fish Market, Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture in Japan.

Photo Courtesy of Everett Shen 

In high school, I never received a single letter grade on the traditional A to F scale, and I didn’t even know my exact GPA until I began applying to colleges and had the opportunity to look at my transcript for the first time. I went to a progressive, liberal high school where grades were de-emphasized and our teachers discouraged us from focusing on raw numbers. Instead, we were told to think about our growth holistically within a subject, using growth as a measure for success rather than our test scores and essay grades. In alignment with this mentality, we received “verbal equivalents” (e.g. EXCELLENT, NEARLY EXCELLENT, VERY GOOD, etc.) instead of letter grades. Sometimes teachers would return papers and tests without a verbal equivalent or any other tangible indication of performance aside from constructive feedback. Our school never selected a class valedictorian for senior graduation, and we couldn’t graduate with honors or any other form of distinction.

Because of my high school’s philosophy towards grading, I didn’t think that my confidence or sense of self-capability could be damaged by the intense academic rigor of college. For my first semester at Princeton, I felt relatively unaffected by the academic talk of GPA and writing sem grades and other various conversations that students would have about their grades. But I think that perhaps I was initially distracted by the novelty of Princeton — the excitement of new people and interesting classes — which made it easier to ignore my feelings of inadequacy and “imposter syndrome.” Only when I began taking my writing seminar in my second semester did I come to terms with the fact that I was heavily connecting my self-worth as a human being with my grades.

Over the summer, I studied abroad in Kanazawa, Japan, as a part of the Princeton in Ishikawa (PII) program. Although students from all over the United States were encouraged to apply to PII, the program was mostly comprised of Princeton students. During the program, students lived with a homestay family while taking either year two or three of Japanese — normally two semesters each at Princeton — compressed into an eight-week course.

I decided to apply to PII because of my love for traditional Japanese arts and design as well as my desire to directly engage with people and artists in Japan. I’m not a gifted language learner and speaker, and I hadn’t been a superb Japanese student at Princeton, either. In fact, I had been on the waiting list for PII and only got accepted when someone rejected their offer. As a result, when I arrived in Japan for the program, I already had a negative mindset regarding my language ability. Once classes began, my feeling of inadequacy only intensified; I constantly felt confused during lecture, and while trying to communicate with my peers, all of whom seemed to pick up new grammar rules and phrases easily, I felt like an idiot. In my mind, I was worried that they saw me as stupid as well.

My motivation for studying became fueled by an intense hatred of my helplessness and feelings of stupidity during class. I would have trouble staying asleep due to my stress and became consumed with guilt when I took the luxury to explore Kanazawa and enjoy my time in Japan. I would only study with the fear of embarrassment and humiliation in front of my peers in mind. At first, my fear of failure prevented me from talking to people openly in Japan, as I was afraid of experiencing the same level of embarrassment I felt in the classroom on the streets of Japan. Ironically, my fear of failure paralyzed me and prevented me from practicing more to prevent failure in the future.

I only felt embarrassment and shame because I would constantly compare myself to my peers within the classroom. I believed that I sucked at Japanese because I lacked the ability to match the proficiency of my peers, equating my current skill level with my inherent mental capability — or lack thereof. Once I overcame my mental block and spoke with Japanese people in a real-life setting outside of the classroom, I found that I had a very different experience speaking the language.

One of my friends in the program explained to me how he thought about interactions with people in Japan. He explained that he liked to practice his speaking and listening skills by walking into a department store and speaking to a sales representative as if he were going to buy something. When the sales representative looked upset or annoyed after he left, he reasoned that their disappointment was most likely due to the fact that they had expected him to buy something. Their facial expressions had nothing to do with his Japanese language skills.

From my friend’s perspective, I realized that I needed to change my mindset about communicating with people. First, I had to approach conversations with the knowledge that there were an infinite number of reasons for why the person I was talking to might look disappointed in me and that my proficiency in Japanese was only one of a multitude of options. Second, I realized that I needed to eliminate the expectations I had for myself, which I allowed to be set by my peers. Rather than beginning with a strict set of expectations, I needed space for a new set of expectations tailored to my capabilities.

With a fresh perspective, I tentatively began conversing with a few people I met in stores and restaurants in Kanazawa. When I spoke with people in Japan, I found that my previous comparative mindset completely disappeared. I would always preface any conversation I had with a new person by stating that I was a student from the United States studying the Japanese language. By creating a distinction between my language ability and my conversation partner, I mentally removed any expectations for how fluently I should be able to speak Japanese. In a way, the brief disclaimer was a way for me to clarify to the both of us that I shouldn’t be expected to sound like a fluent, native speaker and that it was okay for me to fail and make mistakes while speaking. Counterintuitively, I felt that I didn’t have this space to fail in the classroom.

By removing all expectations for how proficiently I should be able to communicate in Japanese, I found that I could often impress myself and my conversation partner by how much I was able to communicate. In the class, by comparing myself with my peers, I had a subtractive mindset: I held a standard for what I should be able to do, and for everything that I couldn’t, I mentally subtracted away my self-worth and capability. But when I stripped away all expectations and started from a baseline of nothing, adding instead of subtracting from my potential, I found that communicating in Japanese began to feel fun rather than embarrassing.

After this summer, rather than measuring my self-worth by comparing my progress to others, I’m trying to direct my feelings of self-frustration towards a specific, concrete skill set that I can improve. Recently, I’ve become interested in improving my memory because I feel that I struggle to remember grammar and vocabulary. As a means of working towards this goal, I am (trying) to exercise regularly, as exercise has been said to stimulate growth of neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory. Previously, I’ve struggled to find consistent, steady motivation for exercising other than purely aesthetic reasons, but the desire to improve my memory to become better at remembering vocabulary to eventually become a more fluent Japanese speaker is the right motivation to keep me excited about exercise. By focusing on the concrete practice of exercise as a means of change, I can directly target the mind as a part of the body and hopefully improve my memory while also transforming my mindset.

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