Am I Gaining the Whole World but Losing My Loved Ones, My Soul, and My Character?

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Meet Heidi Chen:

Heidi Chen is an international student from Singapore. She graduated from the University of California, Riverside, and became the first full-time hire at Free Logic Media LLC as a Digital Strategist.

Heidi Chen’s Failure Story: 

Success always comes at a cost.

What do you define as success? How much are you willing to pay? And who’s paying it? 

There was a point in my life when I achieved all the success metrics I set for myself. Yet, I did not feel successful. The process cost me more than I could handle – and involved others more than they could handle. 

Behind those smiles, I felt like a failure. 

Growing up, there were not many instances where I felt like I failed. The reason was simple: failure was not an option for me. 

I’ve always had a “can-do” attitude, and I firmly believed that success comes to those who are hard-working, disciplined, and persistent.

This mindset was like a double-edged sword. At best, I seemed courageous for chasing after my goals; but at worst, I seemed like a coward who avoided any situation in which I’d look like a failure. 

In 1st grade of elementary school (Primary 1 in Singaporean/British terms), I received an F for almost every subject I took. Frankly, that did not really bother me. I was young, ignorant, and blissful. I could not understand my parents’ worried looks as they read my report card. 

Not long later, I found myself attending tuition centers for weekly English classes and completing workbook after workbook for all the different subjects I was taking. My mom, though not well versed in English, spent hours each day going through my homework questions with me. Our hard work eventually paid off; at the end of my 2nd grade, I went home with a report card that indicated all ‘A’s and a #5 ranking in class.  In the streaming system, we had back then, that report card was my ticket into the “top” (EM1) class. 

Since then, I made a commitment to maintaining my academic standing. I wanted to make my parents proud, to repay them for the money, time, and effort they poured into my education. 

Over the next decade, each report card I brought home, each scholarship I received, each award ceremony I attended added to my two driving factors: pride and fear. I loved the feeling of “success,” and I feared anything less. 

Ministry of Education scholarship award ceremony photo

Heading into high school, I wanted to be among the best in many aspects, especially academics. The pressure to do well was manageable until Junior and Senior years of high school (Junior College in Singapore) when we started preparing for the GCE Advanced Levels examination a.k.a. A-Levels, an annual national examination that was pivotal in determining our university entry and professional opportunities. Since A-Levels was non-cumulative (and few students tend to retake it), the pressure to excel in our one attempt was substantial. “Pain is temporary, GPA is forever” became our mantra. 

As if that academic pressure was not sufficient, I inflicted even more pressure on myself, by striving for “perfection” in other aspects, including sociability, my hobbies, appearance, etc. 

Since my main goal in senior year of high school was to crush A-Levels, getting into my first relationship (let’s call my partner back then “W”) that year took me by surprise. With extreme expectations and an excessive number of insecurities already on my plate, I started developing an irrational fear that the relationship would negatively impact my A-Levels. I was so fearful, yet too prideful to admit it. 

I did everything I could to hide my authentic — broken — self. Blogging, drawing, and writing poems became my avenues of expression, through which I can share my thoughts in an ambiguous manner. I was so focused on what I defined as “success” that I failed to realize the depression, anxiety, and various eating disorders that were gradually creeping in. I still recall that moment when W caught a glimpse of one of my drawings. He grabbed my shoulder and asked, “do you know this is what people with depression do?” 

Unfortunately, neither of us knew about the weight of the issue. We let it slide, and I continued to focus on studying for A-Levels. 

Was the grind worth it? Most people would say so, as I walked up the stage to collect my A-Levels report card with a full score, and as I received my double major scholarship at a university ranked 11th globally. 

I got what I wanted, but I lost what I needed. 

I got academic achievements, I got many friends, and I got my desired weight, etc., but I lost relationships; I lost the ability to fall asleep; I lost a lot of hair; I lost my period; I lost my patience… and I lost myself. 

In my pursuit of “success,” I lost myself. Despite my surface-level achievements, for almost the first time I felt like an utter failure. I failed to be a kind partner. I failed to be a kind daughter. And I failed to be a kind person to myself. 

In search of “a new life,” I decided to pursue college in America, >9000 miles away from home. I wanted to go far away from my past achievements, health struggles, etc. — all the good and the bad that made me seem like a success yet feel like a failure.

Heidi taking Selfie with parents at the Singapore airport

In my new life, I’ve been going against all my past metrics of success: I graduated from a non-target school, I am not working in a large corporation, I am engaged at the age of 23. 

No doubt there have been people advising me against these choices, but I believe that “the meaning of everything in your life has precisely the meaning you give it (quote by Marc & Angel).” Every choice I make, whether good or bad, can help me become a better person on the inside.

How it led to where I am at today: 

One of the biggest lessons I learned from failure is to carefully and independently define success. In the past, I defined it as “being at the top” or “being likeable.” 

Big mistake. 

Reason #1: “Being at the top” is a finite mindset (a concept from The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek). When my focus is on “winning”, I am limiting myself to a fixed set of metrics. When I achieve a “victory,” I have to look for the next “competition” or I risk feeling aimless and dissatisfied. Happiness should come from progress and advancing a cause bigger than myself, not from winning and advancing a cause that is myself. 

Reason #2: “Being likeable” is probably one of the worst yardsticks I have ever used to determine success. First, I cannot make everybody happy; there are always going to be naysayers. Second, having an external metric means that success and failure are 100% defined by the actions of others instead of myself (a concept from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson). My self-worth was based on things I cannot control. 

The more I reflected upon my past definitions of success, the more I’ve come to see my mom as a role model. She gave up her career as a doctor when she migrated to Singapore with my dad. When her friends ask her why she would ever give up such a prestigious career to become a housewife, she’d say this, 

“Making that choice was by far from easy. I fought decades of self-doubt, insecurity, and even resentment because I felt like I sacrificed my passion, hard work, and even pride. But looking at my children — where they’ve come and who they’ve grown up to be — I have no regrets. Society defines success as having a lucrative, prestigious job, but I see it as nurturing my children to be kind, diligent, and happy.  If I am to go back in time, I would still do the same.” 

Just like my mom, my definition of success has been challenged time and again over the past couple of years. In my Junior year of college, there was a point in time — due to unforeseen circumstances — when I found myself left with only $12.81 in my bank account.

“I lost everything,” I sobbed to Daniel, my boyfriend (now fiancé). 

You still have God and me” was all he said.

Success to me is to love and to be loved; to support others and to be supported; to be healthy not just for the sake of yourself but also for the sake of your loved ones. We all have this grandiose idea of success, but sometimes even the small blessings in life can feel like moments of success.

With my strong work ethic and ambitious attitude, I have to ask myself from time to time, 

“Am I gaining the whole world but losing my loved ones, my soul, and my character?” 

Advice on failure:

  1. Value your physical, mental, and relational health on top of financial health. A piece of advice that a Big 4 retiree once gave me was, “It is easy to be a workaholic, but not easy to be a good friend (or child, partner, parent, etc.).” 
  2. Fear can be a devil or an angel. You decide which role it plays.  
  3. Don’t let pride get in your way. Be willing to admit mistakes, be authentic, and be willing to ask for help. 
  4. Practice an infinite mindset. Winning is temporary, but the advancement is not. Our lives are finite, but the cause we advance can be infinite.  
  5. What is your definition of success? How do you measure it? Success is different for everybody, so whatever you decide on, make sure you are in control.
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