How Everything Got Exponentially Better Once I Stopped Trying So Hard

woman leaning on gray garage door
Wei Jie / Unsplash

At age 11 I fully believed that becoming perfect would grant me love and happiness. I remember tightly clasping my hands in prayer so that a higher being would make me beautiful one day. After all, doesn’t the world bow down to intelligent, capable, and physically attractive people?

Therefore, I pushed. I made top grades and learned the violin as well. Teachers and parents loved my work ethic. To make sure I had the physical aspect down, I joined school sports and ran on a treadmill to lose weight. After jogging, I would grab my belly fat and think to myself, “Oh, good. I haven’t gotten any fatter.”

Later on, I graduated from a fantastic university with zero student loans and professors who believed in the prospects of my bright future. Things were looking swell on the outside, but very few people knew that I was shrinking away from friends and family, crying in my room every day, and doubting the worth of everything I had ever accomplished.

I actually got very good at my external life. I was a productive student who said the right things, nodded and agreed with others in the appropriate times. I exercised to keep my weight down and became a vegetarian. I tried my hardest to live up to the golden standards my traditional Asian parents had set for me since childhood. I studied, finished, accomplished, and achieved.

I moved to Taiwan after graduation to join a language program. I wanted to improve my Mandarin skills, but what I really wanted was a chance to achieve in a way that aligned with my happiness.

In the two years abroad I lived alone with plenty of time to think, cry, feel, and ponder. I began to understand how great I was doing, and yet how little the world cared and–shortly after–how little I cared.

This is part of a letter written to an eight-year-old by Laura Riding that resonated greatly with me, and still does:

“There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.

[…]

People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.”

After reading this, my cheeks were wet as my heart throbbed with tears. I realized I had filled my life with egregious amounts of doing, but most of it did not come from a place of inner wisdom or direction.

In fact, I had come to know very little about myself.

I thought, if doing did not lead to the happiness I so desperately wanted, what should I do?

Ironically enough, the answer was present at every stage of my journey. It was nestled in the silence of my stress-induced breakdowns. It filled the hesitant pauses when I couldn’t bring myself to overcome my fear of failure or judgment to do what I really wanted. It was rooted in the inertia of every doing because every doing wasn’t me. I had only convinced myself that it was.

How does one determine doing from being? That is like asking how one breathes. What’s beautiful is that that happiness never left you. You only had to settle your heart and your desperate ego long enough to see that every breath you take flows out from the root of the universe. You are the seed and flower of everything.

Being doesn’t require work. It is immersing yourself in the present moment. Children don’t ask how they should play or how they should draw a flower. They just draw.

And if the present moment is all we ever really have, isn’t that really living? I would say then that our greatest happiness is the decision to feel joy in this very moment.

My constant doings were shots at a painted target on the wall that society labeled “success,” but that was a dartboard painted arbitrarily on a wall in a house nestled in a forest. If I had realized just how small that game was, I could have put down the dart and wandered into the trees.

Maybe not to find answers, but just to see what I could find. TC mark

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