“Resilience is about learning from the challenges.” With Heidi Wong & Fotis Georgiadis

For me, resilience is about learning from the challenges you’ve faced and applying those challenges to new situations in order to thrive. My dad, who’s one of my role models, would always tell me “if you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right.” In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among […]

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For me, resilience is about learning from the challenges you’ve faced and applying those challenges to new situations in order to thrive. My dad, who’s one of my role models, would always tell me “if you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right.”

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Wong, a poet, artist, philanthropist, and content creator. Throughout Wong’s life, she has been no stranger to hard work, resilience, and ambition.

At only 10 years old, Wong began her record setting streak of national art competition wins in China that continued for six consecutive years. At 15, she released her first poetry anthology. At 17, she raised over 43,000$ for cancer research in China by auctioning off one of her paintings. Now at 21 and with no intention of slowing down, Wong has been published in countless magazines, shown her artwork worldwide, and authored another poetry anthology titled The Blue Velvet Dress Says I Told You So.

With a unique written voice and an equally strong color palette, Wong has definitely proved herself to be a multi-talented young artist. Today, Wong continues to dazzle the world by setting an example for her quarter of a million fans as an iconic figure of confidence, artistry, and female power.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

I’m a poet and artist from Hong Kong. I was raised in Beijing, but I also spent quite a bit of time in New York growing up. I now live between Hong Kong, Beijing, and New York City. I’m also a student at Hamilton College, majoring in Creative Writing and Art. Being a young synesthetic woman of color, I try to represent my experience in my work by encapsulating personal events through visual and narrative storytelling.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

This one’s the most recent story I have. This past summer I was thinking about the past six or so years I’ve spent posting my art and poetry on Instagram and began to wonder whether people like my work because it truly touched them, or because other people seemed to like it too. Gaining an audience on social media is mostly a ripple effect. One person like it, shares it, then before you know it people are talking about your work and you’ve got a following.

I had already applied and been accepted to the NYU Writers in New York summer program, which is essentially a group of young poets workshopping each other’s poems in a mock-MFA setting. I thought during this program, I’d try something different.

My career has always been a huge part of my life and identity. In my college, a lot of people know about what I’ve done before they know who I am. I wanted to turn that around and see if my work could stand on its own two feet. Because social media intensifies the correlation between the legitimacy of subjective experiences such as poetry with quantifiable “likes,” I wanted to eliminate people’s tendencies to adapt a herd mentality as much as possible and discover if just my words on the page were enough. That led to my promise to myself: during the summer, no matter how stressed about work I was, no matter what news I received, I would not talk about my career. This included, of course, my Instagram, my book deal at the time, etcetera.

It wasn’t the easiest. Because we spent so much time together as a tight knit group, there were details I had to work around. For example, after class when everyone would go to lunch together, I’d often have to make an excuse and run off to take a business call, speak to my publisher about my upcoming book, or find time to make content. (This didn’t always make me feel the greatest. A part of me definitely felt guilty, so I was quite relieved when one of my classmates pulled up my Instagram and confronted me during a group lunch. Thankfully everyone understood my intentions and we all laughed about it later.)

But allowing myself to distance my identity from my productivity forced me to dig deeper and the parts of myself that are valuable yet separate from my career — the details I had gotten used to dismissing as unimportant: I either binge watch reality TV or horror movies, there’s no in between. I had a rottweiler puppy when I was a kid, and when he passed away I wrote him a farewell letter and buried it in my back yard. I think winging out my eyeliner and getting my cup of cold brew from the café next to my apartment in East Village are absolute essentials to start my day. Listening to The Killers reminds me of childhood. Playing piano calms me down. The most heartwarming outcome from this was by showing other people these parts of me, I got to appreciate myself more too. I learned that I am valuable and interesting beyond my productivity, which is something I’m still reminding myself every day when things get overwhelming.

I’ve also had a lot of other interactions that made me think. I remember meeting someone at an event who worked for an agency. Since I was interested in learning more about the role of a literary agent, I came up to talk to them after the event. Long story short, I asked if they would be open to new queries from poets and was entirely dismissed. They even mentioned that they would only be interested if the poet “had a significant social following,” insinuating that a 20-something poet would be unlikely to gain “a significant social following” or be ready for representation. I kindly thanked them for their time and rejoined the group.

Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to prove myself to be “just as good as the adults.” But it’s truly been awhile since I’ve been dismissed like due to my age or assumed inexperience. I went home that day reflecting on this, and some days I still do. I don’t know how I can convince others that age does not equal experience or lack thereof. All I can do is serve as an example to other young creatives that anything is possible if you put in the work to turn your ideas into reality.

Other than that incident, the main takeaway from that summer was that poetry doesn’t have to be lonely. It showed me another beautiful side of being a poet — the community of like minded people and the connections you make in person as well as online.

Some may find it surprising that I’m an introvert. Most of my creation process, regardless of medium, happens in my art studio alone or in my college dorm room with my typewriter and a notebook. But Writers in New York was something different. I still wrote my poems alone in silence or with classical piano music playing in the background, but the workshops were much more interactive. Every poet in my class had their own distinct voice, and I learned something from everyone from getting to know them, hearing their stories, then workshopping their poems. And when I got a compliment, I knew that it wasn’t because poem had reached “x” amount of likes on Instagram or because the commenter above them liked it too. The feedback was more real, more personal, more intimate. The critiques were too.

This experience taught me to be more open minded and self aware, but most of all it reminded me that poetry is supposed to be shared, talked about, pulled apart and put back together, turned into light hearted jokes over coffee, read aloud in front of a crowd or to a group of like minded people in a small classroom — it’s a shared experience of true vulnerability.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I think a lot of my followers have realized this, but recently I’ve become quiteobsessed with Shakespeare. I remember reading the bilingual picture book version of Hamlet as a kid and analyzing Macbeth in my IB Literature class in high school, but it wasn’t until Professor Bahr’s Shakespeare class that these plays came to life. Lavinia made me feel less lonely. Lady Macbeth made me feel strangely powerful. Iago intrigued me, Othello moved me, Richard II enlightened me.

There were times I’d read a monologue and have to sit with myself for a second, thinking, “Oh my god, this is perfect. This is what I fell in love with.” I was a child again, reexperiencing the kind of sheer excitement I felt when my mom finally agreed to tell me a bedtime story. It was the joy I felt sitting alone in the library with twenty books in my lap after escaping from my middle school tormentors who made fun of my dreams to be “a real writer one day.”

Throughout the years, life became busy. I became overwhelmed, distracted, all over the place. Like many college students, it’s difficult to find time to read, and when we do it’s often filled with the stress of meeting a deadline or finishing an assignment. Before Professor Bahr’s class, I had almost forgotten the feeling of home that literature brings me, so I am infinitely grateful that she brought that back into my life.

As someone who came to college certain in what I wanted to pursue, I often found it hard to engage with classes I didn’t see a clear use for in my future. I found myself gradually losing my sense of purpose as a student who did learn new information but could not apply it to my life and thus remained uninspired. But Professor Bahr’s vast knowledge and enthusiasm sparked a kind of intellectual and creative enlightenment in me that I didn’t know was possible. Now my friends would watch me jolt up from my seat and my eyes light up when I talk about Titus Andronicus. I’ve begun answering texts with Shakespeare quotes and casually dropping Shakespeare references in everyday conversations. I’ve written new poems and painted new paintings inspired by Titus Andronicus, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I think the best educators don’t just present knowledge, they help students elevate knowledge into wisdom, inspiration, and innovation. As a soon to be alum of my college, I must say I feel a sense of comfort that Professor Bahr will remain here to cultivate the next generation of informed and influential writers.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I’ve noticed that resilient people have an insane amount of adaptability to them. Resilience in Chinese translates to “tánlì,” which literally means “elasticity.” During the darkest points of my life, my primary motivator was to resist the common saying “it gets better.” I told myself it might never get better. Neither I nor anyone else can control the future; however, I control myself. Therefore, I must make sure that I become stronger, so I will be okay regardless of whether it gets better or not.

For me, resilience is about learning from the challenges you’ve faced and applying those challenges to new situations in order to thrive. My dad, who’s one of my role models, would always tell me “if you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right.”

Resilience isn’t about having no fears; Resilience is about pushing past your fears and sometimes even running towards them.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

When I think of resilience, I think of my parents. They’ve been hustlers together from the beginning and are embodiments of resilience. Their ability to not only stick by each other when they were in a financially destitute situation, but to pull themselves out of it in order to give us a better life is so admirable.

My mother even taught herself Japanese and left China to pursue her masters at Tokyo University, and worked in a factory along the way to support herself. After graduating and working multiple jobs in Tokyo, she eventually returned to China and began launching small businesses with my dad.

Even within my lifetime I witnessed my parents growing together, working together, and staying resilient time after time. They’ve given me everything I have today, including the opportunity and freedom to pursue my passions — something they never had as young adults in financially difficult situations. They’ve instilled within me resilience, ambition, and a hunger to improve myself and the world even just by being around them.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

Since I’m a writer I think it’s only fitting that I share my writing story! I was in a bilingual kindergarten, but since my parents don’t speak English, it was a huge change when I transferred to an International school with English as the primary language. I remember going to the library the first time and the librarian asking me to spell my name. I couldn’t. Everyone laughed and called me “stupid,” which was an insult that stuck.

Even as a first grader I felt humiliated, more so by the fact that I was the “new kid,” and now the new “stupid” kid. People jumped on the bandwagon: I was bullied in elementary school for being “stupid” as a result of my inability to speak English as well as the other kids, then bullied in middle school for being “crazy” enough to think I could ever be a writer, then bullied in high school for being “crazy” because of my mental illnesses. It’s a lot for sure, but throughout it all I had the unshakable gut feeling that writing was my purpose, so that’s what I followed.

Eventually, by going to the library every day after school and reading almost every book I could find, I taught myself English. Goosebumps by R.L.Stine was my favorite series. Then, I graduated to Stephen King novels, then to poetry. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was confident in my calling as a writer, which only made people think I was emore out of my mind. I was bullied so badly for my writing that even when I felt comfortable sharing it, I made an anonymous Instagram account (@hwpoetry) and posted poems under the pseudonym (h.w.). Funny enough, that same Instagram account is now @heidiwongofficial.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

My synesthesia is something I’m pretty open about now, and I usually talk about it in a lighthearted way, but my relationship with it wasn’t always so positive. For the first fifteen years of my life, I thought everyone could see colors in words and numbers, and feel colors associated with emotions. It wasn’t until I learned about synesthesia in a psychology class at my summer camp that I raised my hand and said, “wait, you guys don’t all have this?”

Every synesthete experiences their synesthesia differently, but for me, 45+55=100 makes absolutely no logical sense in my brain because the colors don’t line up. 25 and 52 are the same because the color for each number is the same, and those colors don’t have an order in my head. I’ve caught myself many times flipping to the wrong page in class when the professor writes down a page number on the blackboard! However, I’ve never experienced reading as black ink on a white page. Every word has a color, and when I’m reading, I feel like I’m surrounded by colors. The colors aren’t physically there, but I feel them. It’s the same with people — each person has their own color, and sometimes it can change depending on how I feel around them.

I thought everyone experienced the world like I did because I had never known otherwise, so naturally I got a lot of strange looks and “she’s crazy” comments I couldn’t find a reason for. (As a child everyone would attribute my “I don’t like them because they’re green!” type of comments to my overactive imagination, so I never thought twice.) My attempts to understand what could possibly be “wrong with me” compounded with my mental illnesses created a dark and confusing time.

My years of being consumed by my mental illnesses were also a huge setback, perhaps more than anything else. A part of me still wants to apologize to anyone who knew me then, especially the trusted adults who tried to help despite my constant stubbornness, because it must be so difficult to watch a child go through something like that. After recovering, I began channeling my synesthesia into poetry and painting instead of trying to suppress it. Incidentally, that was also the time I got my first tattoo — the word “resilience” down my left forearm. I thought that was fitting for this interview!

Now I feel much more at peace and have even started to appreciate how my brain functions differently than others’. If anything, overcoming that part of my life and thriving despite it allowed me to gain the confidence I have today. I taught myself to love who I am — dress how I want, pursue what I love, actively combat my fears — even if it makes others uncomfortable. Going against a culture that perpetuates self-hatred and self-deprecation was a constant cycle of reconditioning myself, but in the end it’s so worth it.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

There is one memory I have that I still look back on. When I was in art school, we had a short period of time to submit our pieces for nationals after the theme was revealed. Our class only met on weekends, so this meant a lot of time outside of class to finish our projects and an insane amount of work in class as well. I remember walking in one day and seeing this girl sitting in the corner with a giant piece of Canson paper and a cast around her arm.

Even the instructor tried to convince her to withdraw for the year — she could just compete next year. But she just sat there silently for the next six hours drawing nonstop. I don’t even remember her coming outside for breaks, but maybe that’s just how I remember it. She was much older than I was at the time, so I assume she was getting ready to apply to the China Academy of Art, which made the results of this competition infinitely more important for her future.

We later learned that she had some type of sports injury. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can’t imagine the pain she had to push through. I don’t even remember her name, but I’ll never forget seeing her in the corner holding her pencil with a cast around her arm. When I’m close to giving up or when I feel like my dreams are too unrealistic, I think of her.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Using your losses as the greatest motivator towards success. I didn’t win the first time I competed in the National Art and Calligraphy Competition of China (what I now shorten to “nationals.”) Not even close, but eight year old me sure did give herself a hard time for it. I think I got the equivalent of a “notable mention” award. I was so livid and disappointed in myself that I made my parents frame the award so I could look at it every day as motivation. This might sound aggressive, but it worked. A few years later I finally got the hang of things. By the time I quit art school to pursue expressionist painting and poetry, I had seven awards framed, including my most treasured — the notable mention that brought on the next six wins.
  2. Learning that when you win, you gain what you originally envisioned, but when you lose, you gain a lesson. Expecting, embracing, and appreciating the value of your “losses.” By “expecting your losses” I definitely don’t mean expecting to lose when you’re pursuing something. I mean expecting that losses are inevitable and a necessary stepping stone towards success.
  3. Adapting an “if this fails, I will fix it” attitude. I do this a lot when I’m painting, but it applies in a larger picture as well. I think a lot of artists can relate to the fear of messing up your work if you don’t do something perfectly — painting a stroke wrong, your underpainting being out of proportion, doubting your abilities, whatever it might be. I sometimes wonder how many great ideas have been squashed by the fear of failure. I like to tell myself whenever I have an idea — the kind you feel deep down can work but just sounds insane when you say it out loud — to try it first, and if it fails, I will fix it. Most of my confidence comes from believing in my ability to fix things. Giving myself the freedom to try has resulted in some of my best work.
  4. Learning to value your own company and “necessary loneliness.” There might be days you’re sitting alone in the library with twenty books in your lap, or tightly clutching a pencil in the corner of an arts studio pushing through the pain. Maybe you’re the only person who understands your pain. There are days, experiences, hurt, betrayal that must happen to you. It must happen to you because one day you will look back and see them not as roadblocks, but as catalysts.
  5. Building your “tánlì,” no matter the circumstance.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

There are so many! Of course, there are all my favorite writers that would take forever to name, but I’ve always wanted to meet Lady Gaga and Mark Zuckerberg. I feel like they’re so different from each other yet represent the two parts of personality perfectly — the loud fashion loving artist and the innovative entrepreneur I’m trying to cultivate in myself too. We also all went to the same summer camp at different times, so I feel like I’ve been idolizing them since I was a teenager!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Instagram is @heidiwongofficial and my twitter is @hwpoetry.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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