As my family and I had breakfast together over one recent weekend, at one point in our conversations, I asked my 11-year-old son, mentioning the two characters in our family’s favorite television series, The Little House, which we’d been watching again for the past few months as part of our weekend rituals, “So who do you think I am like more, Mary or Laura?” Contrary to the answer I longed for, which was “Laura”, he said, “None of them, mom. You are like yourself.” I continued, “Then how am I like?” Taking another big bite at the bread, he made a firm statement, “You have some models, but you are good at being yourself.”
He continued to enjoy the toast, no longer bothered by mom asking any further questions. What he said did keep my mind busy for quite a while. I love Laura Ingalls Wilder dearly, so dearly that I even dropped my tears when reading a book about her life and work and that I wanted to see her and talk to her. She was a beautiful soul, kind-hearted but also courageous and could stand up for what was right. She modelled for us about what a woman could best become even in an era when options for women were so limited. I also have a number of women I admire and of course among them is Michelle Obama, for her intelligence, strength, charisma, and cause. But when I forced myself to think deeply, I didn’t want to become any of my models. They inspired me with their certain traits, but the person I aspired to evolve into was my future self and my best possible version. Even though that sounded foggy.
A few years ago, if I had been asked to list down 100 accomplishments I’d achieved in my life, I could have easily filled the blank page with quite a good number, from being the youngest scholar of a prestigious degree at one of the top public policy schools, to being Asia’s first female participant in a leadership program at a Fortune 500 technology company, and to being the youngest among the leaders who were my peers at work. An achiever, I was. Successful, not really.
Being abandoned by my father and raised by my hardworking grandmother and mom in developing Vietnam as a child, there was a silent but deep cry for love in me. I grew up to the sound of goal chasing in order to prove to my dad that I was worthy of love. To me, achieving equaled love, and this meant the more achievements I accumulated, the more love I would gain. I constantly looked for external validation the biggest of which was from my dad and everyone from my paternal families who loved to get my mom unloved by forcing her to sign the divorce papers. Being the top student in class was also a way for me to show my love to my grandmother and my mom who never stopped making ends meet for me and my younger sister. I didn’t want to let them down. That sound of striving echoed through my adulthood and working life, till one day it hit me that even the hardest I tried and the most I could achieve, I was not considered worthy due to the few strikes I had – a woman, a mom, a mom of young kids, and yellow skin – in the mind of a white male boss who was also a childless and divorced man. I had a break down and was intensely hurt. Again.
It took me one year to search for who I was, and it’s been a few years since I started a new journey. Now at 38, I feel deeply loved and never clearer of my own makings. I can feel and touch the life purpose endowed to me that had been a calling since I was a high school student. I confidently know what I am naturally great at and what I truly want for my life and the people I dearly love. Since I stepped into this zone, the possibilities have been infinite. I had the chance to use my talents and live my purpose every day. I may not tap onto all of my unique gifts on a single day but I exercise them and their different dimensions in every corner of my work and life, from raising my kids to nurturing the relationship with my husband, to inspiring, empowering and mentoring women, in whom I see the most beloved women in my life, to courageously and meaningfully flourish. The more I engage with my zone, the more I see who I can become and will become. The further I go on this adventure, the clearer and more exciting the rest of my life look like.
An achiever, I still am, but I no longer achieve to gain love. I achieve to give lots of love to the world. I forgave people who made me feel I was not worthy of love. The scar of my wound is still there but I have learnt to override the pain that once in a while resurfaces and shadows how I respond to my surrounding, even including my beloved family. There are also little sparks in my zone that are waiting for me to further uncover, with each forward step I make and with each new life story I help create.
Now at 37, I am not Laura Ingalls, I am not Michelle Obama, and I am not the many women of great admiration, but I have unearthed my own version, I have discovered my unique voice, and I have found my special place in this very big and wide world.
“So do you make as much as what you get paid at corporate?” a friend who works for a giant technology company that offers significant employee stock plans asked me the other day when we had a virtual catch up. “I am very much on track to get there. And I am happy!” I told him. We stopped at that, and maybe it was just me who heard the 2nd half of my response. There are plans and dreams I’d been holding so close to my heart and nurturing that those on the other side would never understand, that the societal success formula would never find fit, and that money can never measure.
Looking out the river glittering under the rare bright sunlight of winter and sipping the glass of home-made juice, I felt the millions of neurons in my brain, triggered by my son’s statement, were firing up, trying to talk to each other in efforts to send me some seemingly important message. Like the Eureka effect, it finally arrived and presented itself boldly, “Isn’t that the biggest success anyone could ask for in her life?”