When I was in grade 8, I learned a lesson that froze my life in its tracks: hard work is not always enough. I had always banked on the assumption that as long as I persevered, I could get anywhere. The world was still so just to me at the time; there were soulmates and there was karma. Good things happened to good people who tried. The winner will always be the one who deserved it most. As it turned out, the reality of success was more often chance and/or connections than anything else. And despite this, everyone’s still got to work their hardest anyway. So what on earth keeps people going if they don’t find meaning in their work? When the top of the hill is forever out of reach for so many, we’ve only got the climb. It was then that my definition of richness changed.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” my father would quote this continuously through my teen years, “you are not alive to serve yourself; you are alive to contribute to your society.”
But what is society but a group of people? And what becomes of society when the rates of mental illness increase dramatically with every passing year? They say you cannot love others until you learn to love yourself. Likewise, you cannot serve others’ happiness until you serve your own. If passion yields productivity and love, wouldn’t the best way to serve society be in optimizing what you do best? By putting a value on everything — be it monetary or grade-wise — and grooming children for a career instead of for education, we are actually decreasing their abilities as well as their happiness, because as consistent studies have shown, intrinsically motivated behaviours actually decrease with the expectation of extrinsic reinforcement.
Even as a kid, I loved to write. I wrote reports and stories in my spare time starting in grade two. But as I moved up the grades — especially when I moved back to Vietnam in grade three — a lot of my pieces didn’t fit into what the curriculum expected. I got Cs. I had my writing read aloud as an example of what not to do. My parents started making me write them an essay a week, edited to perfection. Practice, practice, practice. It did not take very long for my writing to worsen because I stopped trying and caring. I accepted it as my worse subject. I dreaded all the practices and exercises forced upon me and I stopped altogether for many years.
When I moved back to Canada in grade six, my teacher had this ongoing assignment where we would turn in a piece of free writing, any form of writing (narrative, myth, poem, article, etc.), in at the end of every month. I got no less than A+ on every paper in the entire year, and won the Young Author’s award by June. Similarly, after I chose violin as my instrument in grade three, my parents forced private lessons and daily hourly practices on me for years with minimal improvement. But when I started playing in the school orchestra in grade seven, I fell in love with the instrument for the first time, auditioned for city-wide symphonies, and practiced hours every day for years.
In a classic psychology study by Mark Lepper and colleagues, children were given colouring markers to draw with. Then, the experimenters granted them prizes and “good player awards,” and the kids weren’t nearly as motivated or interested anymore. We work best when we are intrinsically motivated; extrinsic motivations like money or grades do not produce nearly the same success. So do what you love because you love it. That’s where you’ll succeed in happiness, personal fulfillment, and lastly, in making money because you’ll be doing it superbly. Practice and hard work will only get you so far. Passion is what carries any ability to the top.