For China’s ‘Good Students,’ 2023 Has Been a Wake-Up Call
When Zuo Gang failed to land a job during China’s graduate hiring season this summer, it didn’t just knock her confidence. It made her question her entire worldview.
Like many young Chinese, the 25-year-old had been raised from a young age to be a “good student.” As long as she kept her head down, followed the rules, and worked hard, her teachers and parents said, money and success would naturally follow.
Zuo had followed their instructions to the letter. She aced exam after exam, winning a place at a prestigious college in Beijing, before going on to pursue a graduate degree.
Then, things went awry. As she prepared to finish her master’s, Zuo sent out a string of job applications — and got nothing back. She didn’t just fail to land her preferred role; she didn’t receive a single offer.
For Zuo, the failure came as a crushing blow. After a lifetime of being a high-flier, she was emotionally unprepared for such a setback. She struggled with anxiety for months afterward: unable to sleep, racked by guilt, and feeling compelled to repeatedly apologize to her parents and teachers.
Fortunately, Zuo managed to pull herself out of her mental tailspin. She eventually realized that her failure to find work wasn’t her fault: With China’s economy still recovering from COVID-19, the job market is brutally competitive and millions of graduates are facing similar challenges.
“I don’t think I made any missteps in planning my career — it’s simply a different era,” Zuo tells Sixth Tone. “In contrast to my parents’ generation, hard work alone no longer guarantees success nowadays.”
But the ordeal has left a profound impression on Zuo. The former teacher’s pet has transformed into a passionate critic of what she calls the “good student mentality.” In her view, Gen-Z Chinese like herself have been misled: Trained to judge their self-worth by their ability to achieve a narrow set of goals — and blame themselves if they fail to do so.
This mindset always had flaws, Zuo says. But in today’s economy — where even top graduates are having trouble finding well-paid jobs — it’s becoming increasingly harmful and counterproductive, leading young Chinese to beat themselves up for things that are beyond their control, she adds.
Many other young Chinese share her frustration. In January, Zuo set up a group on the social platform Douban named “Victims of the Good Student Mentality,” and it has quickly attracted a passionate following. It now has more than 80,000 members, and has developed into something resembling a giant self-help program.
New members take a self-assessment test — devised by Zuo — to identify which symptoms of the “good student mentality” they suffer from. These include a relentless need for positive feedback and a habit of spiraling into self-doubt over minor errors.
The group then offers to help members break out of this mentality, and embrace a new identity as a “free person.” Many of the posts are from young Chinese documenting their efforts to become “free people,” or sharing tips on how to stop judging yourself based on society’s conventional metrics for success.
Though relatively niche, the online community reflects a wider shift in public opinion in China. Concerns have been rising for years about the harm the country’s intense, results-driven education system may be doing to students’ mental health.
“Good students” like Zuo tend to be particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. In the West, successive studies have found that high achievers are far more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse issues than the general population. This is because — as Zuo intuited — high achievers often excessively rely on external validation to support their self-esteem, leaving them unable to cope with setbacks.
The high achiever mentality exists all over the world, but it appears to be especially prevalent in China. Competition in the education system is intense, and the pressure to get outstanding grades starts at a young age. Though the government has tried to reduce the burden on students, the country is still seeing a worryingly high number of schoolchildren developing anxiety issues.
“Many parents have exceptionally high expectations for their children. Even when a student scores 98% on a test, it’s common for Chinese parents to focus on the two points missed rather than praising the child,” Liu Zhen, a child psychologist at the Shanghai Mental Health Center, tells Sixth Tone. “Over time, students adopt the external world’s evaluation criteria as their own yardstick for self-assessment.”
If left untreated, these issues have lifelong consequences. People who have internalized an unhealthy need to excel often become fearful of participating in activities that will be judged by others, which can hinder their personal growth, Liu says. They are also vulnerable to being exploited at work, Wang Fang, a professor of psychology at Beijing Normal University, noted in a recent interview.
‘Riddled with errors’
Zuo internalized the “good grades, good life” mentality at a young age. Growing up in a small town in southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, she always craved her teachers’ approval. At her school, the top students were the most popular, the kids with low grades relentlessly mocked.
One day, Zuo recalls going up to her math teacher after class to seek help with a question she’d been unable to answer. Not only did the teacher refuse to help her, he scolded her for not paying close enough attention. Then, during the next class, the teacher called on Zuo to answer a similar question. When she was unable to do so, he made the entire class chant in unison: “Zuo Gang’s solution to the problem is riddled with errors.”
These episodes of public humiliation were a regular occurrence, Zuo recalls, and she quickly learned to shut up and not ask questions. By the time she’d finished high school, the instinct to be a well-behaved, straight-A student was deeply ingrained in her.
“Those experiences instilled in me the belief that even a minor mistake in my homework was unacceptable, as it could potentially have severe consequences for my life,” Zuo says.
At 18, Zuo tested into a good university in Beijing — an impressive achievement for a student from rural Guangxi. But her obsessive drive to succeed didn’t let up. Throughout college, she pushed herself hard, working long days during the semesters and filling her vacations with internships, summer study programs, and other activities.
“I couldn’t stop,” Zuo recalls. “If I took more than two days off, I found myself grappling with the feeling of being useless, a waste of space.”
When she found herself unemployed, her negative self-talk went into overdrive. She regularly lay awake till 10 a.m., wondering what she had done wrong. Unable to face her family, she avoided going home for the New Year holiday. Instead, she called her parents and teachers to apologize for letting them down.
Sometimes, the influence of the “good student mentality” can persist even after graduates start work. Zhang Liqun, a 25-year-old from Shanghai, got a job at an accountancy firm after finishing university in July, but he still feels the same need to please his superiors. The only difference now is that he’s serving his boss rather than his professors.
At work, Zhang feels compelled to say yes to every request. He often takes on more tasks than he can handle, forcing him to frequently work overtime. Even after he gets home, he feels like he must check his messages every time someone posts a message in his work chat group.
“I constantly question my performance, subconsciously comparing myself to my colleagues,” says Zhang. “I find it hard to derive meaning from leisure time. I always feel the need to learn or improve myself, to avoid ‘wasting time.’”
This mindset, however, doesn’t always make young Chinese more attractive to employers. Qi Siyu, a human resources manager at a Shanghai-based technology company, says that in today’s economy being a “good student” isn’t enough to secure an attractive role.
“While good grades and compliance with orders are certainly important qualities, employers often look for a broader set of skills and attributes when defining what makes a good employee or candidate,” says Qi. “This can be disheartening for candidates who consider themselves ‘good students’ but find that their performance doesn’t necessarily translate into recognition by employers and competitive salaries.”
In fact, the “good student mentality” can often be a hindrance in a professional environment, Qi adds. While employees might think they are excelling in their roles by diligently completing every task assigned to them, their managers might be looking for something more.
“From a company’s standpoint, this may not be considered satisfactory, especially when the job requires employees to be more proactive and to make things happen,” says Qi.
It’s clear that a diverse range of young people can fall victim to the “good student mentality.” Not all the members of the Douban group are high achievers in the conventional sense. Many only got average grades, but still left school with the same intense fear of failure.
One member of the group — who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Momo for privacy reasons — says that she falls into this category. She describes herself as “a ‘good student,’ but with quotation marks.”
Though she was never one of the smartest kids in class, Momo says she was one of the most obedient — always anxious to please her parents, teachers, and later her bosses. She puts this down to the strict discipline she was subjected to at school, and says a lot of the group members have had similar experiences.
Girls appear to be particularly vulnerable to the high achiever mindset. Nearly three-quarters of the Douban group members are female — a fact that several members who spoke with Sixth Tone attributed to China’s lack of gender equality, which can leave girls feeling less valued than boys.
Growing up in a traditional part of central China, Momo felt that she always had to work harder than her brother to win her parents’ and teachers’ affection. She tried to compensate for this by striving to outperform the boys — to prove she was just as capable as them.
“As a student, the best way to prove that was to get good grades and be a ‘good student,’” Momo recalls. “I felt that love came with conditions.”
In Chinese society — and especially inside the education system — there is growing recognition that student anxiety is a serious problem. A teacher at a top middle school in Shanghai, surnamed Dong, tells Sixth Tone that the “good student mentality” is becoming ever more prevalent, with well-behaved, introverted children continuously seeking praise and awards as a way to boost their self-esteem.
The trend has led Dong and his colleagues to discuss whether the school should rethink its policy of trying to foster an “elite school student” mindset among the children. Like many top Chinese schools, it has built its reputation on its ability to prepare students to win a place at an elite Chinese university. But the system puts students under a lot of pressure. If they fail to meet the school’s incredibly high standards, there’s a risk that it will trigger an emotional breakdown, Dong says.
With Chinese schools now required to monitor and take care of their students’ mental health, the hope is that in the future fewer students will leave school with a “good student” complex. But for graduates like Zuo, all they can do is try and come to terms with their past — and break free of their old hangups.
After months of effort, Zuo says she has managed to do just that. She now describes herself as a “free person,” and has added the label “awakened” to her account handle on Douban to signify her newfound status. “I just don’t care anymore,” she says.
Earlier this year, Zuo finally found a job at a Beijing-based media outlet. But she’s already planning to jump ship, as she can earn a higher salary elsewhere. “If it was the old me, I would have considered this disloyal to my current company,” says Zuo.
Sometimes, however, Zuo still feels gripped by her old “good student mentality.” For her, there’s no clear-cut divide between being a victim and a “free person.” “You might find yourself oscillating between the two roles, shifting from one to the other from moment to moment,” she says.
Some former “good students” use more direct methods to express their rebellion, such as dyeing their hair or getting tattoos, says Liu, the child psychologist. She interprets this as a way for young people to assert their independence, and signal that they reject social norms.
“I think this marks the moment when they start to realize that they no longer wish to adhere strictly to the values imposed by others,” says Liu. “However, they might still be in the process of defining a new set of standards for themselves.”
In reality, some “free people” are still searching for a genuine source of inner peace or a clear direction, Liu says. Their rebellion against the “good student mentality” is just the start of a long journey, which can sometimes take years. But if they stay focused, they will get there eventually, she adds.
In her Douban group, Zuo recently wrote a welcome message offering new members some advice: “Be kind to yourself; challenge the norms; treat yourself well; hold others accountable.” And, most importantly: “You can be a ‘bad’ kid.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: IC)