On the Pursuit of Excellence

Almost a decade ago, I memorized the following paragraph for the written portion of my black belt test:

“Mastery in one’s career and consciousness growth simply requires that we constantly produce results beyond and out of the ordinary. Mastery is a product of consistently going beyond our limits. For most people, it starts with technical excellence in a chosen field and a commitment to that excellence. If you are willing to commit yourself to excellence, to surround yourself with things that represent this and miracles (when we speak of miracles, we speak of events or experiences in the real world which are beyond the ordinary), your life will change.”

At the time, I didn’t truly understand what mastery was. Recently, I watched “Whiplash,” and I think I have finally grown to understand what I memorized so long ago.

“Whiplash” struck a chord in me. It was so much more than a guy finding success in drumming—it was about the pursuit of excellence at the cost of all else. When Andrew stumbled—head and hands bleeding—out of a car he just crashed to attend a concert he couldn’t afford to miss, I felt a mixture of disgust and admiration for his dedication. When he told Vanessa that he couldn’t be with her because he believed they were too different, I was both blown away by how insensitive he was and how focused he was in achieving his dreams. (Granted, I took a lot of issue about how females were portrayed in this film, but that’s another story.)

I won’t praise or condone Andrew for his dogmatic pursuit of excellence, but the movie made me think a lot about what I want out of my life and the lengths I am willing to go to make that happen.

“I’d rather die at 34, drunk and broke, and be talked about at a dining room table than 90, sober and rich, forgotten.” — Andrew from “Whiplash”

What I’ve realized through watching this film is that one of my core missions in life is to achieve mastery—not necessarily for fame or riches, but for myself. Through the pursuit of excellence and reaching a “flow” state in a chosen field, we can become fulfilled. And to me, happiness is derived from fulfillment. Therefore, the root of happiness is in the pursuit of excellence.

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” — Aristotle

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On Priorities

This semester, it became more apparent to me that I cannot have everything I want. I have always had an idealistic view of my life—I would have an amazing career, take photographs of amazing places and get my work in prominent art shows, read and write and travel and expand my mind, have friends who I deeply care about and who care about me, marry an incredible guy, raise compassionate and intelligent children (and a dog), live in a two-story house with my own observatory, run marathons and be a health nut, etc. I thought I would be able to juggle it all, but especially now in college, I’m realizing the tradeoffs and sacrifices that must be made. Perhaps I can’t be rich if I pursue my real passion. Perhaps I won’t have time to take photos if I want to exceed in my field. Perhaps I won’t get to pursue a career at my fullest potential if I spend time raising children.

I know it’s too early to worry about, but I’m already starting to feel the pressure of priorities. And I also suppose there is a time and a place for priorities—maybe now I may be consumed by my studies, but later I will focus on my art.

At the beginning of this semester, I applied to and was selected to be in a freshman seminar (a pass/fail class with only ~10 other students) on photography in the national parks. The topic was exactly what I’m interested in, and the professor was someone I extensively researched about online—I was familiar with her art and watched the videos she had online. I was so excited to learn from a famous photographer who had her work in the MOMA and other places—I had a dream that I would learn so much from her and that somehow I’d turn into an amazing photographer and get my work in museums or something.

But as I sat in class the first day, I realized that all of the time I put into this course would be less time sleeping and doing other work. I also realized that instead of taking a course on photographing national parks, it might be a better use of my time to later just go to national parks myself and take photographs. And as my STEM courses started, I realized that I would never put my photography above my career. I dropped the seminar, and while I won’t say I regret doing so, I will say that it has raised questions about what I value and why I dogmatically “pursue my dreams” rather than broadening my intellectual interests.

I know college is not a pre-professional activity—it’s so much more than that. But at the same time, I realize that I will never feel truly happy if I don’t love my work. And for now, that translates into working hard to get where I want to be in my career. I’m also not sure if this view was inflicted on me by society—after all, “work” is a societal construct. But I do believe that if I spend upwards 60 hours a week on something that I get paid for, I will have to love it.

Some people work to live—I’d say that I live to work. Maybe that’s my view now as a college student, but I have always felt like I needed to fulfill a higher purpose—and for me, that higher purpose comes from how I contribute to society through my career.

My Father

Written in eighth grade, randomly stumbled upon recently:

“I could’ve been someone,” my dad says. “The next Einstein or Newton, I could have made the next Google.” I believe him, and I tell him this.

He grew up in a small, poor town in China, but nevertheless got into the best university in the whole country at the age of 16. For four years of his high school life, he did nothing else but study, study so that he could get into the best university, so that he could get the best-paying job, so that he could have a good rest of his life. His hard work paid off though- he brought his whole family to America. If he had stayed in China, I wouldn’t even be alive, due to the law which restricts having more than one child.

My dad is the life of parties, the one who always is in the center of the spotlight. He’s the motor of the family, the backbone of his workplace. He comes up with the strangest ideas, like bicycling to work, or digging a hole to make a jacuzzi in the sand. When I have questions in math, I know who I should talk to. He’s always there, as sure as the next tick of a clock, as steady as the beat of a butterfly’s wings.

Sometimes I feel bad, like somehow I know that if he didn’t settle down and have a family, if he hadn’t spent so much time and energy into making the family function, then he could have been someone big.

But then I realize that maybe devoting one’s life to something that seems small, like raising a family and watching children grow up, can sometimes be better than being someone big.

In Defense of Melancholy

I look back on my childhood as a time of constant bliss. I remember asking my dad, “Why am I so happy all of the time?” There was just nothing to be sad about — I had love and support from my sister, my parents, my grandparents. I spun stories with my friends and lived my life in books, drinking knowledge. I had school, where I felt free to learn and grow. Life was so kind and I loved everything and everyone around me.

When I started to feel melancholy in middle school, I realized that seeming happy and carefree is directly linked to how much people like you. To a small extent, I molded my personality and even my thoughts to fit this realization.

Now, I no longer care to repress these periods of melancholiness when I feel the weight of the world. Nothing triggers it, and I still love life — but in a more deliberate, deeper way. I’ve become darker, more sensitive and empathetic. Feeling melancholy isn’t sadness in its entirety; it’s seeing the subtle shades of sadness interlocked with the joys in life. It’s seeing past the facade of bright lights and acknowledging the suffering beneath the smiles of those around us.

This feeling of melancholy has allowed me to reach in the inner parts of who I am and has helped me achieve a sense of peace. I have come to terms with the meaningless of our existence and the fragility of life, and through this acceptance, I have found a beautiful new appreciation of the world around me.

Numb

Sometimes I think I my heart is deformed. My capacity to love is limited. As scary as it sounds, I can turn off my emotions. I can feel nothing. I can make myself feel completely numb and uncaring.

I turn off my emotions as a defense mechanism. When something bad happens, I stop caring. I turn to books, music, homework, silence―anything to isolate myself from the rest of the universe. I am selfish because I don’t want to get hurt, even though I know I should care. But if I let myself feel, my emotions are intense and uncontrollable, like releasing a dam of feelings. I avoid emotions. But just like dams, there is a limit to the walls one can build until they crumble and the water rushes out.

My sister has always had a big heart. I was always the stingier one, the socially awkward one. She is so capable of love, and just radiates joy and energy. She is able to find good people to surround herself with can connect with virtually anyone. I respect her capacity to love and her ability to connect with virtually anyone. I am too cynical, too cold, too unforgiving. I see both the good and bad in people, but I have trouble bringing out the good in people because I see their faults too clearly. Even though I find success in school and will later in work, I am not a good person. It’s hard, because no one teaches you how to be a good person. Only life does, but it is always too late.

So before I regret not developing my emotions sooner, I need to start opening up now. Since high school is supposedly the period of self-discovery, I will experiment in this little realm and learn how to let people into my life. Right now, even my closest friends don’t truly feel close. We have connections, but I don’t think I have truly opened up. I know that they are great people, but I am scared to make the conscious decision to take a leap of faith and love them. Love is so vulnerable but so worth it if invested in the right people.

There is a disconnect between how people view me and who I truly am. Some people at school may even say that I am open, loving, and sweet. Little do they know how far away they are from the truth. Little do they know how much I lack a heart, and that my sweet side is just a facade. I want to close this connection, to make my presentations a little less sweet and make my true self a little more loving.

Maybe this is just a phase I am going through. It’s probably just today. I know yesterday I was happy. Most of the time, I feel like I love the world and all is going well. Maybe this momentary numbness is part of growing up. But I know deep inside that these rare, dark times when I feel numb and heartless hold the most truth to my character and in order to develop as a person I must learn how to control my emotions.