Where I Learn to Deal with Failure (or I just copy and paste choice parts of a really nice email from a former professor)

By Hojung Lee

August 23, 2022

Beginning each morning by writing a to-do list, I feel immense satisfaction whenever I cross things off. It signals that I finished this, that I made something of my day. This compulsion for constant productivity, I am sure it stems from the way I was raised. Famously coined by legal scholar and writer Amy Chua, the term “tiger mom” refers to a parental figure with an incredibly authoritative child-rearing style—in other words, my parents. Like many other Korean parents, my mother and father were tiger parents for sure. Never accepting anything less than the best (my best was not enough, for I had to be the best out of everyone else as well), I strived to live up to their expectations.

I hold a memory from my early childhood, perhaps in the first or second grade, sitting around in a semicircle with the other school children. Having just read us a story, the teacher scribbled some questions onto the whiteboard with her thick black Expo marker. My mother happened to be in the classroom that day, along with the other parents. Her presence made my hands quite clammy, and each breath I took was so frustratingly unrefreshing. While the other kids excitedly raised their hands to answer our teacher’s questions, I sat idly by.

Under my mother’s watchful eye, I imagined the possible scenarios that could play out. If I answered a question correctly, I could earn a smile perhaps. But I also imagined what could happen if I said the wrong thing, and my mouth remained shut. I kept waiting for a question I could comfortably answer. I’ll just wait for the next one. No, not this one. The next. The one after this. The thing is, for every single question, I correctly predicted the answer before the teacher chimed in. My silence wasn’t a result of ignorance; I just hadn’t trusted in myself enough to speak up.

At the end of the school day, my mother and I walked to the car. As I watched her slim fingers turn the key in the ignition, a thick silence grew between us. Looking straight ahead, barely audible over the rumbling of the engine, my mother asked me, “Why didn’t you answer any of the questions?” But umma, I knew all the right answers, I wanted to say. Yet I was rendered mute by stinging nerves, and once again, I said nothing at all.

According to the Implicit Theory of Intelligence (Dweck & Leggett 1988), people hold one of two mindsets—growth or fixed. Following this theory, those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence can grow over time, while those with a fixed mindset believe there is a natural limit to their abilities. What I find interesting is this theory’s implications on failure. Seeing it as an opportunity to grow, those with growth mindsets react positively to failure. In comparison, people with fixed mindsets will apparently fall into the depths of despair.

To shape a growth mindset in a child, the theory stresses the importance of praising effort and not the outcome. For me, growing up in a Korean household, the outcome was all that mattered. In that classroom, in front of the whiteboard, in front of my teacher, and especially in front of my mother—what did it matter if I knew the correct answers if other people had no idea I knew them?

Fortunately, or perhaps, unfortunately, out of sheer willpower (or spite) I did meet these expectations for the majority of my childhood and teenage years. Several afternoons and evenings of my life were devoted to after-school tutoring sessions to ensure I would perform slightly better than my peers. I felt compelled to attend a high school I was not zoned for, with a bus stop at 5:15 am, to participate in their “academically rigorous” International Baccalaureate program (which is complete bull, by the way. If any high schoolers are reading this, just take AP.) I even joined the mathletes, although anything above basic algebra easily brings me to tears. I wanted all these special certificates, diplomas, and various badges of honor to my name to prove that my efforts meant something.

My tiger parents taught me that when successful, I could reap intense satisfaction. Because they reacted so well to my achievements, I ended up placing so much of my self-worth in academic validation. However, my parents skipped the lessons on how to deal with failure. Instead of an opportunity to grow, a failure was simply a failure, nothing more. It was something to brush aside and hide away, in the hopes that a greater accomplishment could mask it. As a result, achieving something felt really, really good. But failure led to equally high, possibly higher, levels of distress.

Because I based my entire identity on being the “smart one,” I had no idea what to do with myself when this label was seemingly taken away from me. Since the end of my school career, I have failed many, many times over. I failed to get a high-paying job at a consulting firm like many of my friends, I failed to get into graduate school my first time applying, and I failed to reach any of the milestones I arbitrarily decided were necessary to feel like an actual adult. Truthfully, I felt—still feel—incredibly behind. My younger self imagined I would have accomplished much more by my mid-twenties. I think I am very good at giving the appearance of being okay, but in reality, I am frantically flailing underneath the water’s calm surface.

I think the toughest lesson life taught me is that putting your best effort into something will not guarantee success. X does not ensure Y, because there are a million factors Z completely out of my control. This lesson highlights the problem with tying up self-worth in something external because I had no idea what to do once this external validation disappeared. As a postgraduate, to squeeze a few years into one short sentence—I was rather nihilistic for a while. I became so tired of trying anything at all because I was so tired of failing.

I love being Korean American. Sincerely, I do. Nonetheless, as I psychoanalyze myself, I am made increasingly aware of how certain aspects of my cultural background have, perhaps, in terms of mental health, screwed me over. It is so easy to be a victim, stay a victim, and relish in feeling bad for myself. But then what?

Not trusting myself to find the answer to my question, I reached out to many others to figure out what to do next. There was one message in particular that stuck out to me. According to my old statistics professor, Dan Player, “It’s an endless treadmill [to chase after success]. It’s really remarkable to talk to people who have achieved amazing things. Some of them are still chasing the proof that they’re successful because no matter what they do, someone else has done something better… I’m telling you, you can’t win at that “proving yourself” game.”

To “succeed” in life, I have to let go of this notion of success entirely. I have to let go of this obsession to prove to other people that I have value. I am learning and growing and (hopefully) becoming a better person, and it does not matter if other people cannot see it. All that matters is that I see it. As Dan says, I am Hojung, a “filmmaker/artist/author/scholar/general fascinating human being,” and I am fine just the way I already am.

My life has been full of so many disappointments, yes, but it is also a record full of acts of kindness, moments of grace, and dreams for myself. It is full of warm kisses, hugs full of longing, the laughter of friends, and eyes that met to share a brief moment of connection. This is my life, a life that is worth living simply because it is mine. My self-worth is something I give to myself, so it cannot be taken away, even if I never achieve something momentous or do not leave behind a huge impact on this earth once my time has passed. It is enough that for a moment, I was here. I existed. This is my Korean American story.

Extra Reading:
(1) Chua, A. (2011). Battle Hymn of the tiger mother. Penguin Books.
(2) Dweck, S. C., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273

About the Author

Hojung Lee has spent the past year compiling a record of her life in her personal memoir, Tigerrabbit. A collection of personal essays, she shares many stories—from dropping out of high school to become a KPOP star, dating a member of a small European country’s royal family, to analyzing Neo-Confucianism to try and figure out why she struggled to get along with her immigrant parents—that tie to overall themes of racism, discrimination, and minority rights. As a whole, Tigerrabbit is dedicated to Asian American advocacy. The book is available on Amazon now. You can also find her films, which explore the Korean American consciousness, on YouTube.

Follow Hojung: https://www.instagram.com/hojungwrites/