“How do you manage to keep on doing this?” one of my team member in the office asked me, right after my boss gave me a stern warning for not delivering the targeted completion date of my project. “Why aren’t you more upset? How could you be so strong?”
I remember I just stared at her, not knowing how to answer the question. It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t upset at all. It was my project, after all. And if I took the warning lightly, I could risk my professional credibility as a project manager. So it wasn’t like I was fooling around, either.
But what my team member said had some truth. Despite being upset, I never did show it to everyone. Despite being torn apart by the warning, I kept on managing the project like it was just another day—as if I never screwed up.
When I couldn’t answer her answer, she just shook her head in bewilderment, saying that she didn’t know how did I find the strength to keep treading on.
But… was I really being strong by being indifferent after what had happened? I never considered myself a strong person; I whine and complain about everything like everyone else. So when a friend told me that I am, in fact, a strong person, it took me by surprise.
In the first place, I wonder what makes a person strong. Or rather, I wonder what constitutes a strong person in the first place? Is it simply having the courage during adversities, or is it something more?
For the longest time, this rhetorical question never bothered me. Yet after experiencing a series of misfortune within the last few months, I came to contemplate the presence of strength itself; what does it take for a weak and vulnerable person to withstand hardships?
I recall it almost clear as day; the 8-year old version of myself was standing in the corner of my mother’s bedroom. Earlier that day, I just learned multiplication at school. Right after my mother knew of it, she immediately asked me to prove to her that I could do my multiplications right.
So there I stood, holding back my tears as I said, “one multiplied by one equals one. One multiplied by two equals two…” and so on. I recall I had trouble multiplying 7, 8, and 9. And instead of correcting me when I was wrong, my mother would hit me hard—saying that the pain would help me remember; that the pain would make me smarter.
My mother had always been strict to her children. She was one of the smartest students during her school years, and she projected her expectations directly to her children—something that both me and my sister had experienced.
“You have to be smarter than everyone,” she used to say. “The world is cruel. Life is unfair. And if you’re not smarter than most people, the world would crush you.”
I believed her, and I did my best at school. Sure, it took me several beatings every now and then, but I managed to get good grades in school. Granted, I was never the top of my class, although I was never near the bottom of the list either. But for the most part, I was known as a studious, diligent student who always took notes during classes.
Of course, little did the teachers (and my mother) know that, instead of taking notes in class like everyone thought I was doing, I was actually writing my novels. And since I always got good grades anyway, nobody ever suspected me from doing such thing.
At some point in my life, my mother stopped nagging about the need to get smarter than everyone else. She still said the same thing to my little sister, so it wasn’t like she stopped believing in it. But for the better or worse, she almost never brought the topic up when she was with me.
Which led me to believe that I was already “smart” enough; at least to my mother’s standards. That I could protect myself from being crushed by the harsh, unfair world. All my life, I had pursued excellence, and around the time I finished high school, I thought I had achieved it.
The fact was, being “smart” never shielded me from being trampled by life.
Like everyone else, I struggled with my early university years. All of a sudden, everyone around me became very independent and driven. They all had goals they wanted to achieve, and they knew that going to the university served as the means to do that.
And it baffled me to no end that people whom I considered “less smart” than I was could function just as well—if not better—than me the older we got.
A timid girl from my high school, for example, who used to always get average scores for her exams, joined the student council of my university, and rose to the top in just two years. Gone was her shy and reserved demeanor when I met her. All I saw was a confident young woman, who was as equally smart as she was charismatic.
I wondered if there was a secret recipe of some sort that everyone else knew and I didn’t. I wondered if there was a cheat code so you could instantly transform into a much better version of yourself with a single click.
I started to wonder that perhaps, being “smart” was not enough.
And during the 3 years I’d spent in the university, that was perhaps the most valuable lesson I had learned; being smart is not nearly enough.
What use is your academic skills, if you couldn’t make friends, for example? A lot of the assignments were group-based. And you’d be screwed if you thought you could do everything on your own. This was the time when I finally realized that there were a lot of other skills we have to adopt in life: social skills to build relationships, communication skills to get your thoughts across, patience, empathy, determination, commitment, being responsible—the list went on before I even knew it.
Yet, although those skills would get you far in life, it never really shields you from hardships. Nothing ever does.
This isn’t about how stupid and naive I was growing up. I know now that being smart and academically accomplished don’t necessarily mean you’re going to lead a smooth life. Quite the contrary, in fact, by thinking that you’re better than everyone else, you risk throwing away your chance of growing up.
My mother always said that being smart means you could protect yourself from being hurt. For the longest time, I had always thought that being smart was the means of getting stronger in life—because it’s the “adult” thing to do.
Yet when I look around and see the people around me—those whom I consider have achieved a state of contentment in their lives—they were never the smartest, nor did they never get hurt.
The timid girl from my high school? She had endured bullying and verbal abuse before she rose to become the president of my university’s student council. The snotty boy from my grade school, who couldn’t even multiply numbers properly until he graduated, was always told that he was stupid and would never get anywhere decent in life.
How does he fare right now? Not much—but at the very least, he seemed to live his life happily.
So maybe, being strong isn’t about avoiding the shittiest part of life. Just like how your fingers will develop callous when treated roughly in an extended period of time, perhaps strength is not something to be found—but something to be developed.
The more we do something on a regular basis, the better we get at doing it. Just like how I got better at doing multiplication by constantly repeating it in front of my mother, and how I got better at studying by forcing myself to study every day.
The only way to get “stronger” in life, is to embrace what hurts you.
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