Life is not a binary string of successes and failures
Even though I wish my life were a point-calculating spreadsheet, it’s more like a painting
I often think about those short films shown during the Olympics of athletes’ backstories. Specifically, I remember watching a clip about J. R. Celski’s return to the Winter Olympics in 2014 after a dramatic, internationally televised injury during the 2010 Olympics. The hardships he endured in physical therapy and his dedication to returning to the rink were beautifully framed as a redemption story, a perseverance story. It was like watching someone appear at the end of a cliff and realizing, in complete awe, that they had climbed a veritable monster. But, I wondered, how many people never reach the top? How many climb back down because of doubt, fear, or exhaustion?
I think that’s why I struggle to completely throw myself into activities. Because, if I quit before I reach the top of the cliff, wouldn’t it have been better to invest my energy in something else that I could actually succeed at? I’ve sometimes wondered whether my effort is a waste of time or simply perseverance through difficult times. If it is actually wasted time, I risk losing part of my identity in extricating myself and should quit immediately. If it’s part of my success story, then I should work harder, right? This is actually a terrible take. It’s like evaluating a relationship for its two possible endpoints: married happily ever after and broken up.
But still, I struggle to even start any activity. I have this idealized world in my head where I can only begin as long as everyone else is also just starting. Attending a high school where most of my classmates came from a much higher-achieving middle school made me feel like I couldn’t breach certain subjects. In standardized subjects like math or history, I was ready to perform, but their middle school had extra computer science and scientific research programs, fields that I never even knew about. It turns out computer science applies well to my logical, math-based thinking, but I didn’t discover this until junior spring when I took Advanced Programming. I had envisioned myself failing to catch up with my classmates and, unfortunately, let that dictate how I chose my classes. I vividly remember when I was six, I adamantly refused to sign up for the dance class. I had joined Chinese school in the middle of kindergarten, and starting dance one year behind everyone else? Well that would definitely be the most mortifying thing to ever happen to me (spoiler alert: my mom signed me up anyway).
I also played the flute for nine years, and it was probably the only thing I interacted with on a daily basis (other than like, my phone and my backpack). It broke my heart to decide not to continue pursuing it in college. As much as I wished, I would never be granted more than 24 hours in a day, and there were just too many other things that I wanted to try at MIT. Yet, I felt like I was betraying my teacher when I told her, and I couldn’t help feeling like I had wasted nine years of my life. What was the point in crafting a skill like musicianship if I was just going to throw it away? My teacher gave me a completely different perspective, telling me a story about her best friend who became a dentist. She didn’t even own a flute anymore, but she would sometimes call up my teacher and ask to loan a flute to play, just for fun. “There are feelings you can express through music better than words, and if that’s all you gain from playing the flute, I’d be more than pleased.”
In about four years, I’ll look back at my time at MIT and be able to evaluate if my effort in various areas were “wasted time” or “perseverance.” In about ten, I’ll be able to say if being course 7 was the right choice. But for now, there’s just no way to know. In the meantime, I’m going to start thinking about quitting (or pausing) certain activities as less of a wasted period and more of a chapter in my book of life.