Complacency

by Jin, 07-06-09 // 45 comments

I moved to the States from China in ’89, right after I started seventh grade. In the past 20 years, I’ve had countless people comment to me how “smart” they think Chinese people are. I’m not sure if they really think that way, or they’re just patronizing me. Every time, I give them the same spill, it’s almost like reciting a script.

You see, in China (and most other Asian countries) you start competing in school from first grade. At the end of elementary school, you take a very difficult placement test to get in the magnet middle school. Only the kids who get in a magnet middle school have a shot at getting in a magnet high school, and that’s after they pass another difficult placement test. At the end of high school, students will take another test to get in a magnet college. For every one student that gets in, thousands don’t. The brightest students get to study abroad in a country like the US, which is the ultimate goal of this long and painful process of elimination. So the Chinese you meet here are the cream of the crop. Yes, you can say all the nerdy Chinese you meet here are smart, but I can also show you millions of big buff ones back home who are not.

I still remember the end of my elementary years. My school days were from 6am – 6pm. After I got home it was a brief dinner and then I studied until I went to bed. Everyday. Winter and summer breaks were short, also burdened with homework. During the final preparation for the middle school entry exam, I studied so hard the corners of my text book pages became translucent. I took every practice exam I could get my hands on, multiple times. I remember once I went to bed without being able to solve a math problem. I dreamed about it and solved it. I sprung off the bed and quickly wrote down the answers. I honestly didn’t know why I was so desperate to get in that magnet middle school. Maybe it had something to do with the constant reminder from my grandma “If you don’t get in this school, you’ll end up being a janitor.” My grandma had ways of mentally torturing a 12 year old.

The entry exam consisted of three tests: Chinese(100pts), math(100pts), and science(50pts) for a total of 250 points. The magnet middle school I applied for required a minimum of 247 points. I scored 247. I remember at the celebration party, my relatives and family friends gave me looks of approval. My father reminded me that this was only the beginning of an even tougher road.

Two months into the first semester in middle school I came to the U.S. to visit my mother. I ended up staying permanently. How could I not? School here was a cakewalk. Everyday was a vacation to me. I didn’t have to come to school at 6am to clean up the class room, there were janitors doing that. (Maybe they didn’t pass their middle school placement test, I used to think). The school bus, recess time, little homework, friendly teachers, field trips etc. Kids here were different. They seemed… happy and not stressed. America was heaven, no wonder why people wanted to come here.

My mother used to tell me that I got lucky, that I took a shortcut to the US. She said I had to study extra hard like my peers back in China. I tried to do that. But over time, I realized that I had no incentive. There was no need to be in the top of the class. There were no entry exams to get in high school, not even to enter college. There were no relatives or family friends that I had to impress. I didn’t learn anything new in math until I was a junior in high school; I was coasting off what I had learned in China.

I was being complacent and I was totally OK with it. It felt good just to be a kid. I even felt I deserved it. Although at times I thought of my friends back home who were going through the toughest time of their lives trying to get in the college of their dreams. It made me feel guilty. The guilt quickly went away as soon as I turned on MTV or video games.

Thanks to the internet, I regained my competitive spirit. In 1995 I got my first web design intern job. I had a strong urge to impress my manager and other interns in the office. If I didn’t do well, according to my mother “You’ll get fired, and you won’t be employed again.” I quickly realized I really loved this web design thing. Internet may get HUGE one day! And HUGE it became.

As the web evolved, I had to constantly learn new things, out of necessity as a web designer, but also out of passion. Simple HTML couldn’t match clients’ needs, so I learned Javascript, Flash, ASP, ASP.NET, and database programming. Eventually, I even got MCP on ASP.NET.

Then I got married and had kids. Life became comfortably routine. For a couple of years, I didn’t learn anything new at all. I felt even though my skills weren’t exactly up to date anymore, they were “adequate enough” to do my job. One thing about being complacent is that you give yourself excuses and sometimes you can even fool yourself. Deep down, I knew I had enough free time to learn new things if I didn’t watch TV or play games. I knew I wasn’t the only one who was being lazy. As one gets deeper into this thing called “life,” responsibilities creep up, and the urge to learn new things gets dimmer.

I started reading web design/programming blogs in the early 00s. I found many quality ones, and others through them. What I was amazed about them wasn’t just the good content, but also the bloggers who wrote them. Most of them were like me, having a full time job, married with kids. It was a wake up call for me. I really didn’t have any excuses to slack anymore.

Looking back at the times when I studied or worked hard towards something, whether it was the middle school entry exam, or the dotcom era skill-ups, I almost see the source of it was desperation. I have to ask myself, or anyone out there, why should desperation be the driving force out of complacency? As I get older, there isn’t a clear incentive. There are no more exams or the need to prove myself to anyone.

I’ve been productive for quite sometime now. Everyday, I learn something new on the web, via blogs, twitter, coworkers or readers like you. My driving force now is my passion for web design. It’s more than a 9 to 5 job. Whenever I sense that complacency is creeping up, I think of the summer of 89 when I was 12 years old, studying for that exam.

I’m curious about how other people fight complacency.

Bonus Question

Below is the final question on my middle school entry math exam. Go at it.

45 comments

also feel free to contact me on twitter or via email
Jeff 07-06-09

Great entry. There are many details there that I wouldn’t have considered before. I thought much of the work ethic was from the Cultural Revolution, where people didn’t have enough to eat, so they ate the soles of their shoes because they were made of cowhide, and this made the struggle to succeed all the more important. My construction worker friend (who works his ass off and owns his own company) told me he heard this theory of why many think Chinese people are smarter: it’s because the main staple of our food, rice, takes three times longer and is three times harder to grow and cultivate and harvest than other crops. So we’re not actually smarter, we just have it in our brains and genes to work that much more at something.

For me, I think complacency is an aspect of Taoism, so I always feel like I should be embracing it. But I never do, and I never need to fight it, because there’s always something out there that I want to learn, a new medium I want to explore, whether it’s music, photography, web design, etc. I get so much enjoyment out of learning and improvement, that it never feels like work.

As for the bonus question, I’m completely baffled. I feel like I’m missing an angle somewhere to tell me where to start. Oh wait…maybe I need to do this on a piece of paper so I can measure certain distances. Am I going in the right direction?

Patrick 07-06-09

Is the answer 57.0750? Done on paper by splitting the shape into two – then found the area of the circle, divided by four, and subtracted out half of the square. Then doubled this.

Ken Sykora 07-06-09

Is the answer 528.3? ~~ ((pi*10^2) – (0.5*10*10)) * 2

Ivan Kolarov 07-06-09

I like your post very much…

@Jeff: I think i have a solution it took me about 3 minutes… you take this square on picture extend it by another 10 on right side and on bottom so you get circle inside a 20×20 square. After that it is very easy…

BradC 07-06-09

57.0750 is the area of the shaded region. Nice puzzle.

ani625 07-06-09

A = 2[(100∏/4)-(100/2)] = 57.0795

Devan 07-06-09

Umm…this has really challenged my neurons, but I get 57.8…am I close?

Dat Nguyen 07-06-09

57.0750. Thank you, I can finally sleep.

Luke L 07-06-09

Excellent story, it’s often disheartening to see those around you not working to their fullest potential, but even worse to be complacent yourself. It’s the old idea of never taking life for granted.

As for the question, I get 57.0750 but that’s working it out quickly in my head.

Scott Little 07-06-09

Interesting essay. Complacency as I grow older is something that I think about quite often. I do see myself slacking off more and more, depite thinking that I should be doing the opposite.

As for the question: assuming that the curves are tangential to the vertices: 85.85 !

Captain Domestic 07-06-09

I can’t remember the reference, but I love the quote: “the best way to be productive is to love your work.” I was lucky to always do things I wanted out of a curiosity and seeking approach instead of a punishment avoidance approach.

Since I couldn’t resist: SPOILER WARNING!!!!

The shaded area is equal to twice the difference between the area of a quarter circle of radius 10 and the area of a right triangle with width and height 10.

2*(pi*10*10/4 – 10*10/2) = 50pi – 100 = 50(pi-2) = 50*1.1415 = 5*11.415 = 57.075 ~= 57.08

Agos 07-06-09

Found this beautiful post linked by Jeff on twitter.
As for the solution, we can take one quarter circle (10*10*π/4), subtract half square (10*10/2), and double it since we found half the gray area.
(10*10*π/4-10*10/2)*2 = (25π-50)*2 = 25*2*(π-2) = 100*1,1415/2=114,15/2=57,075

Ken Sykora 07-06-09

ahhh, I forgot the / 4 for the circle. I always make careless mistakes.

Ken 07-06-09

47.075

andy matthews 07-06-09

I’m gonna take a guess at the answer for this problem.

Is it 39.25?

If the dark grey area was a quarter circle then I’d feel confident of my answer, but since it’s like 1/8 of a circle (roughly), I’m doing the work, then guessing the rest of the way.

Jessica 07-06-09

Ok, I admit, I used a calculator… but I did remember the steps to take.. it took me a while to dust the cobwebs off but it came back to me… is it 28.5375?

That was a very interesting post =]!
I am also driven by my passion (as a developer), I find it very important to do something which you truly have a passion for.. this was an inspirational read, Thanks!

Nice blog post. Good to read you found an internal reason not to be complacent. Doing things for other people only gets you so far. Doing things because you think they are important and loving it for that gets you much further and keeps you happy at the same time. Actually, when you are motivated like that, there is no complacency and nothing to feel guilty about either. I think.

By the way, I would solve the problem like this:
take the area of a quarter of a circle with radius 10 minus the area of half a square with sides of 10, times 2.

In a formula:
(((pi * 10 ^2) / 4) – (10 ^2 / 2) ) * 2

Stefan 07-06-09

Oh, what a great post!

It made me think about some shortcomings of my own life. It made me also reason about the education of my children. As they grow older I often find myself asking how I could avoid letting them run in the same problems I had. But more and more I see that is a kind of Oedipus problem and rationalizing about isn’t always the solution. BTW: thank you. Next time my kids complain, I’ll have a link or them (just kidding).

I think curiosity and love for the things you do are important. For example, at the time I went to school, which taught Italian or German as second language, I had no English classes (but Greek and Latin.) So, all I know about English came from activities I chose deliberately: reading books, playing with my home computer and listening to songs – later watching movies and using the internet. Somehow I felt that this was important and it was much easier.

P.S.: Nice math problem. You have to visually *see* solution. Or the solution has to see *you* – it’s an eye.

Lakshman 07-06-09

Jessica, Its 2*Your answer.

Bill 07-06-09

Good post. Without some level of stress or “better-ing” of one’s self, it’s easy to fall prey to complacency. Good healthy competition with yourself or others is the only way forward. I agree with Steven though – you have to love what you do.

Rob W. 07-06-09

Wow. Refreshed before posting a comment and it went from one comment to lots.

I got 57.075 as well. Same method as a lot of people. Area of quarter of a circle of radius 10 minus area of enclosed right isoceles triangle, times 2.

I would bet few rising middle schoolers in this country would get it right, but I suppose that’s the idea, isn’t it?

All *that* nonsense out of the way…

I also got complacent for quite a few years. I justified it by providing a stable environment for kids, etc, etc, etc. Not entirely a lie, but there was so much more that I could have been doing.

In the past few years, I’ve had several friends that I’ve had to bury, most under 50, all FAR too young.

It caused me to reassess my complacency and make steps toward reaching those goals I had set so long ago. I quit my soul-crushing job. I’ve started consulting again, but on MY terms. I am working on my own projects. And what do you know, I’m doing better work than I’ve ever done, and I’m in demand, even in this economy.

I’m still a ways off from my goals, but I sleep better at night knowing that I’ve made at least one step toward them every day.

I wish it had taken something other than the loss of a friend and loved one to wake me up, but I suppose it is a way for me to cope with something tragic, and turn it into something more positive.

Best of luck to you.

Jeff Moser 07-06-09

Great article! Thanks for sharing your story. I wrote about my battle with complacency in my “Wetware Refactorings” post (I put it as my name URL here).

I’ll bite real quick at your math question.

It looks like the shaded region is part of a circle of radius 10 with a triangle cutting the corner.

So area of the circle = pi * r^2 = 100 pi.

If we looked at a real quarter of the circle, the area is (1/4) * 100 pi = 25 pi. Now, the unshaded part would be the area of the square minus the circle part… 10*10 – 25 pi = 100 – 25*pi. We have two of these unshaded spots = 200 – 50 pi. The shaded part would then be the area of the square minus this or 100 – (200 – 50pi) = 50 pi – 100 = 50 * (pi – 2) = 50 * (3.1415 – 2) = 50 * 1.1415 = 5 * 11.415 = 57.075 if my arithmetic is right.

Unexpected 07-06-09

I had no idea how to solve that problem. Perhaps if I had printed it out and noticed that each point on each arc was equidistant from the bottom-right or top-left corner. With those arcs being part of a circle, it’s a doable problem. I had assumed they were just two random arcs, which is what had me stumped.

As for solving complacency, I’m stumped about that as well. Right now I’m fairly complacent.

Jin 07-06-09

57.0750 is the correct answer. As soon as I saw the “Atwood Effect” coming, I knew I’d be getting tons of answers from you techies :) This problem stuck with me, because it involved a bit visualizing, also the last and hardest question on that test.

Thanks everyone for the comments. Please excuse me if I don’t respond to you individually. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already stay on top of things.(not because of this blog, just blogs/internet reading in general.) There are many who you work with probably don’t. I think it’s equally important to expose friends and coworkers to new things as well. After all, I was introduced to reading blogs by my friends years ago, it’s helped me profoundly.

Of course this applies to all walks of life, in their perspective medium.

Being passionate is a common trait among those who I admire. We must love what we do, then work becomes fun instead of an obligation.

Thank you all.

Bobby Borszich 07-06-09

Great post “Jeezy” .

I went to business school with lots of so called *super-smart* Chinese students. But after talking with a German friend of mine I quickly realized how much countries other than the U.S. really have a brave new world style of education. Which I totally agree is why most foreign students in the U.S. are so driven.

I love that here in the U.S. we have so many oppourtunites, including the opportunity to be lazy and fail. My passion for excellence and quality is what keeps me going and I at times thank the complacent, because they allow more room at the top for people who truly want to succeed.

Thanks again for sharing

Stef 07-06-09

I am terrible at math so I’ll skip trying to work the problem, but I can say that I have fought complacency by returning to school for my MBA. The whole downfall of the economy has been a real wake-up call for me. Up until the past year I have never had an issue with becoming employed and now it’s a whole different world out there. I can slog through loathsome retail/customer service positions no longer.

Also, I dig around daily online for ideas and inspiration to keep me thinking and devoted to lifelong learning, just to see where it takes me. Being idle is not an option.

Great post, Jin!

Yantra 07-06-09

A drill sergeant has been developing within me. We converse aloud when I’m alone and I become abruptly driven. Lately this has become the ONLY WAY I’m able to rise above indolence and do something I deeply wish to do. Life is truly to be lived doing (or at least trying to do) exactly what you truly want to do, otherwise I believe- your body will clock out.

Thanks for your blog- btw- Your blurred pick here—> looks like post-BAD Michael Jackson…

aidan 07-06-09

Astrologers refer to the period where Saturn returns sometime between 25 and 35, and the weight comes down on your life causing you to reassess just wtf you’re doing. I found what it seems you did, that it is my passions that drive me now – programming, music, writing, art. And I know that there is no deadline to achievement or even starting some of these projects I dream about.. complacency has stopped being the fear I thought it was for the last 10 years – or perhaps the right against it has just become natural .. who knows.. I’m sure I’ll have a new spin on myself ten years from now also. peace. great piece.

Will 07-07-09

Glad to see I got it right at 57.075… then again, I am not entering middle school, am well beyond that. That said as an elementary school student I was selected to go into a higher level program to challenge those thought able to handle advanced concepts. I was deemed a talent and I had to write an entry exam.

I failed it.

The only thing that I cared about in that failing was that I had friends that went on to it.

So as a near-advanced student I ended up coasting through much of my educational life. Somehow I managed to pass everything and do so without breaking a sweat. That goes for university as well. In fact, the only time I recall ever really applying myself was when granted absolute freedom to challenge a course or design my study program… or when presented with a teacher/mentor who went far beyond the ordinary (both in accomplishments, depth, and inspirational ability).

It wasn’t until years later (call it maturity, if you will, maybe wisdom, too) that it struck me that complacency comes naturally to anyone who is comfortable (how very Orwellian), satisfactory work can come from a challenge, but true art comes from passion.

And how do you know where you are in that? Oh, you know. You know very well if you are being complacent, productive, or an artist.

Dmitry 07-07-09

I think the answer on fighting complacency lies at the start of your story. You mentioned exams that you had to take, and that success in these exams was vital if you were to succeed later in life — these exams guarded the way to further opportunities. You had a goal, or maybe more than one — a yet shapeless goal about what you want to do later in life (although you knew you had to succeed at these exams as your grandmother reminded you), and an actionable goal of actually passing the exam — getting those 247+ points.

You had motivation and drive because of that goal — you knew what you wanted to achieve — what you *had* to achieve — and so you worked towards it because you could see how your actions now would directly influence the outcome of that goal. Complacency then, should be fought by working towards *something*. You have to know what you want, you have to know why you’re spending this time learning or working. What is it that you want to achieve? I think if you can’t answer that then it would be difficult to not get complacent as you will simply switch to doing things that bring short term pleasure rather than some long term benefit. E.g. shift from learning hard at school to playing computer games because that 247 point exam is no longer looming overhead.

Jin 07-07-09

@Yantra, you’re not the only one who made the Asian Michael Jackson remark… Under the current circumstance, thanks? :)

@Dmitry, I think you hit it on the nail. Sometimes I feel like learning new things and not applying them to something more concrete can take a toll on my attention span. I have a few side projects I’ve started working towards, and they’re more tangible goals than just aimlessly browsing blogs.

Kim H 07-07-09

Wow – I didn’t receive problems like that until my first year of Calculus in college.

Learning standards, markup, and the many ins and outs of CSS is only the beginning of web design; the entire life of web design and development is constant learning – as you mentioned in a past post it’s also about the taste of the designer, but it is also learning what is up to standards as of now.

The indolence is certainly difficult though. Whenever I began college, I had just gotten out of an easy ride through high school. Granted I took the most advanced courses I could (and did well), but finding the motivation to do my college work was… difficult, to say the least, and my grades suffered for it. Same when I worked from home; some days I felt like taking a “break” because I’d stayed up late the night before doing whatever. I’ve learned to overcome this sloth though through discipline; even on my days off from here at the office, I wake up to an early alarm clock every morning and go to bed at a certain time, and every day after work I do some coursework or housework, and client work.

But as Dmitry said, you had motivation because of this goal, and that’s where drive comes from. The drive to be a better designer in order to have clients (and a job), and in the case of a college student, the drive to finish classes to have a good career or graduate school, or in my case doing client work + cooking for myself and my fiance + work + everything else (I’m a couch potato otherwise).

This is a very good post though; I really enjoyed reading this slice of life.

Also, not sure if anyone else answered it, but 57.0570 was what I got for the answer :)

Nathan Bowers 07-09-09

The real answer is “hey, that’s the leaf from the Apple logo!”

Great story Jin. Enjoyed reading it. I’m also facing the “okay, I’m almost mid 30s, and things are good, but I’m not Batman yet.”

Jin 07-09-09

@Kim, I’m not a morning person. :) Thanks.

@Nathan, I’ll call Liam Neeson so you can get some Batman training.

Too Smart 07-23-09

[...] in a field I do not like. A job I am still in today. All because I was lazy. I was, and still am, complacent.  If I was smart, I would have recognized the power of what I had, and used it in a much better [...]

Sula 07-23-09

I loved you posting. I am from Ecuador where I attended a German School. Although it was not as strict as you describe yours, we had to study every single day in case we were randomly chosen for a graded review. If we had bad grades, we had to repeat the whole school year! That “training” served me in my university days in the U.S. where keeping a high GPA seemed like a walk in the park. I was able to obtain scholarships thanks to my good grades. I admit I have fallen into complacency myself. Articles like yours and finding people like you remind me how awesome it is to live a life with passion, learning new things every day and striving to be better. Thanks

Oscar 08-07-09

I love your post. I read it to remind me not to be complacent. Lately I’ve realized what I’ve always heard and been told. At the core of me I relized that the only way to fight complacency is to want something and to work through *anything* to get that. If you don’t have that dream, the goal –some call it, then you have nothing to strive for or even try so why would you. Especially like you point out, when in this culture things are relatively “easy” to get if you just want to be average.

Tyler 10-19-09

The Rhythm of Life by Matthew Kelly addresses alot of the same stuff you’re talking about here. You should give it a read.

Chris Ballance 11-18-09

Coming up with 57.0750 really made me think. I haven’t solved a good puzzle in ages. You’re right, it is easy to become complacent (and reliant on a calculator for things that you should be able to do in your head). Thanks for the reminder that this that we can all do better.

Naveen Bachwani 04-09-10

Excellent, excellent post!

I have seen countless bright folks (friends and family) with immense potential, waste away their talent by becoming complacent. So far, I’ve managed to buck that trend and it’s been a conscious effort to do so.

I especially liked your references to how those of us who’re reading blogs in general are already doing at least one thing to stay current and relevant, and how it also becomes our duty to help others along the way by exposing them to such a way of Life.

Keep the torch burning… Subscribing to your feed, now…

[...] few days ago, I encountered a blog post by Jin Yang entitled ‘Complacency‘.  In it, Jin writes about his early years growing up in China, and then moving to the US [...]

Daniel White 03-09-11

Good article, and I failed miserably at the equation you wanted us to figure out.

I hate math with a pure passion.

Nicole 06-15-11

Asians have more integrity far beyond that of US. US is more based on Ego stuck up their hole and competition. Inferiority complex? Im american by the way would have like a far more rounded up education that not only builds you intellectually. But hey, almost all developed countries are based on complacency, thats number one weapon. Up to oneself not to stick with it.

Edoardo 03-05-12

Uh, in a wayI kind of get the context where you come from. I’ve worked with non EU people and other than for myself – as a subordinate – I felt terribly sorry for them as victims of their own self-imposed, self-mortifying discipline…

The problem is nice, but still quite a challenge; at what age were you asked to solve it?