When we close our eyes and imagine success, what do we see?
Usually being the best out of the bunch, being praised, or in my case, winning the competition of E2’s marshmallow challenge with my team, in which all E2 employees divide ourselves into 5 different teams (mine is the team consists of three members who played this game before, but for the rest, this is their first time) to build towers out of marshmallow and dry noodle sticks. The team with the highest standing tower will win and be prized with leftover bags of marshmallows. Obviously, those bags are not the main incentive. The main motivator was the need to prove that our past experiences are somehow valid. Shallowly but understandably, it was decided that our success would be beating all the four other teams.
All of us usually have certain fixed perceptions of what success is supposed to be.
They oftentimes linked to external factors that are fall outside of our control. Our drive, fear, and desire are linked to them. Consequently, our notions blind our path to success. Many times what gets manifested is our effort to craft a “fixed” path so we can trick ourselves into thinking there is simply no room to fail. As a result, we do things the way we know best, which usually falls within our comfort zone. So in order to win, our team derived a formula to help us succeed by casually laying out our roles based on our competencies. It was fixed! One member glues the sticks together, another keeps the big picture in mind, and I took care of the miscellaneous.
“Man proposes but God disposes.”
So what does success really means if it should not something we chase after? The answer will vary from context to context, but perhaps one possible answer lies in conventional Vietnamese wisdom that echoes the importance of not being too controlling but instead, looks to what it could mean beyond our intellectual reach. While sometimes it is ideal to be able to see what our end might be, there is a humbleness in acknowledging that we can never know for sure, that our plans don’t always work out and that there are many things that we simply cannot control.
During the game, I remembered observing one of my members carefully wrap her fingers to hold the glue the noodle sticks together and felt bad. She came up with the idea and executed it throughout, and was doing a very good job. However, toward the end, she finally shared “oh my fingers are too big for this….” At that moment, I’ve realized that she was struggling the whole time due to her unfit physique for such a delicate task. Coupling with the realization is an urge to step in and help her finish the rest. I did not know for certain that I would be the best of the job simply by possessing leaner fingers, but I decided to step in to finish the task anyways.
In that moment, my original aim of winning held little meaning. What’s left is a simple desire to help my teammate with her struggle. I did what was in my control and made the most sense at the moment. In doing so, I’ve jeopardized the plan we’ve made, but intrinsically, it felt right.
But failures are inevitable, so what is the point?
Failure is precisely what we need to go through to achieve success. Oftentimes, failures are associated with disappointment and sadness. If we hold on to these post-feelings, we will cloud our vision of the opportunities failure presents. However, simpler said than done. One tip from my mentor that I found useful is “allow yourself to cry your ball out when failure comes so you can be sane again, to get back up and ask what’s next!” With time, as I take on this advice to not deny my emotions but just be a presence with them, it has become increasingly easier for me to detach myself. Consequently, I get calmer and am able to ask objective questions. In asking ourselves questions, we are actively deviating ourselves from our ego, able to see the situation with clarity and make a decision about what to do next, and ultimately, who we want to be.
After contemplating about the failures I’ve had in the past, which includes the two other times where I’ve failed on the same marshmallow challenge, I’ve realized that I was at fault partly, for being a better independent worker rather than a team player due of my perfectionist nature. While sometimes it is good, there are times when I’ve let those whom I work with down because I am too busy living in my own head and setting unrealistic expectations. Thankfully, with time and constructive feedback, I’ve come to terms that I need to let myself loose. So, instead of stubbornly accept an independent worker is who I am, I’ve made it my goal to become a good team player to my fellow interns and teachers at E2.
While I cannot concretely define what that means, the journey has forced me to change the way I think and behave drastically, for the better. I can’t say for sure when I leave E2, everyone will remember me for being a team player, but at least I’ve tried on my own term to change in small moments when I deliver help even when it is not called for, and that is good enough of a success for me. In essence, failure is an important milestone for us to redefine our direction. Only once we acknowledge our failures can we begin to understand the meanings they can hold for our success. Failure can be either hurtful or humbling, but you have to choose. And in consciously making a choice, you don’t let it define who you are.
With that, I’ll leave you with this poem by Antonio Machado:
Wanderer, the road is your
footsteps, nothing else;
wanderer, there is no path,
you lay down a path in walking
In walking, you lay down a path
and when turning around
you see the road you’ll
never step on again.
Wanderer, path there is none,
only tracks on the ocean foam.
I told myself to lay my own path, by re-defining failure and success on my own term, to let no one tell me where you can or cannot go, to remember that the power lies within myself and the moments I decide not to be my ego.