I have a funny story I tell my friends. It’s about how my name is an English language learner’s mistake by my mother and father attempting to christen me after one of the few Americans they knew of, Ryan O’Neil (aka Mr. Farrah Fawcett). I grew up hating my name because, like many kids, I didn’t like the fact that it was different. Or, rather, that it bespoke my family’s status as a visible minority. I just wanted to be called Chad, Seth, or Pete. Man, what I would have done to be called Alex P. Keaton.
I watched a lot of TV as a kid. In those days, American sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss, and Family Ties very much shaped my notion of the ideal life. I wanted a dad like Cliff Huxtable who acted silly and danced while making pasta or one who could play catch with me like Tony Micelli. I pined for a girlfriend like APK’s Ellen Reed, and literally prayed for locks like Kirk Cameron.
So, I dreamt big and unrealistically. These days, I occasionally wish I could relive parts of my childhood just to go back and appreciate things I was actually ashamed of. I throw my fist at my head when I think of the number of times I yelled at my mom for packing me delicious and healthy Korean food in my lunch instead of Kraft Dinner. I scold myself when I think of all the times I pretended I couldn’t speak my mother and father’s mother tongue, when in fact I was fluent.
As you can see, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflecting and navel gazing (it’s a fine line between the two) lately, and it’s very much been inspired by all the reading I’ve been doing on growth mindsets. I keep thinking about everything in my environment, and whether it connects with a growth, fixed, or in-between disposition. The one thing I do know is that I’ve fluctuated from growth to fixed at various times in my life. I’m guessing you have too. What is more, I can’t help but notice a correlation between my ability to approach life and learning with a growth mindset when I felt like an included member of the society armed with a voice.
People who’ve known me a long time often tell me that I surprised them, in particular for what they perceive as a certain focus and drive that I now exhibit. My wife remembers how, in my early twenties, I seemed very resigned to my circumstances, as though I were restricted to a marginal corner of society, dreaming dreams like a child but not really assuming that any of it would come true. In other words, I had a fixed mindset. I approached existence as though our fates were pre-determined. I believe a big reason for this was because of growing up without ever feeling like I belonged. It wasn’t really until my university years that I could see the branches on the tree of possibility grow.
That was where my incredible professors introduced me to cultural theory from people such as Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak, Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, and Paulo Freire. I consumed their works with the fervour of a starved carnivore. It was like Popeye’s spinach for me. I not only started to realize that there were explanations for so many of the questions that haunted me about my identity and its relation to the surrounding world, but also that there were ways for those existential experiences to empower and strengthen me in my life moving forward. To extend the gardening metaphor even further: I started to understand that all the manure I carried around with me from my time in the dirt could be used for new plants, trees, flowers, and food. I only truly developed a growth mindset after digging out, with the help of others, of a brand of learned helplessness.
To learn, we must have the mindset of growth. But we should remember that when you don’t feel important, when you don’t feel that you belong, it is very difficult to grow. Thankfully, as educators and as a system, we can greatly effect these conditions for learning.