On Working Hard…and Accepting Defeat

I think that we as humans now are finding it harder and harder to accept disappointment and defeat. Just look at all of the trophies and awards and praises people get for doing the bare minimum. I think we are living in a culture of wanting the easiest, quickest solution, even if it’s not the best or long-lasting. We want that instant gratification and accepting defeat is simply not part of the terms — people simply don’t care about the rules anymore, look how we’re handling COVID-19 in athletics. But I wanted to talk about the other side of the coin as well — how working hard may not always get you what you wanted, and why it’s important to be able to accept defeat BUT not let it keep you down.

My dad is the hardest worker I know. He grinds. He is also smart, efficient, clever, and strongly believes in…his beliefs (some might say stubborn). He came to the United States with very little money and now, has been able to send his 3 daughters to college. I know most of my friends had to take out student loans to attend school, so I don’t take this lightly — but he set these goals to find success as a hard worker, a husband, father, etc. Sometimes I think about how hard it is to be so far away from my family — but he’s gone over 25 years (my age) being across an ocean (and 12 hours behind) from his family. Just thinking about that makes me tear up because it wasn’t just hard work, but it was a lot of sacrifice. And not once has he complained to me.

My mom is also a very hard worker, though in a little bit of a different way. She always told me that she never enjoyed working with computers, it was just a means to make money. She had always wanted to pursue her interests of flower arranging/art and use it as part of…some kind of a business. Now that she’s “retired” from work essentially, she works really hard keeping the garden at home nice. And it’s not a small feat — she does all the landscaping for the house, partially out of not wanting to pay someone else, but also part of pursuing her interests. She also actually teaches flower arranging courses and is very, very good at it. Lastly, through most of my childhood, my dad cooked. But at one point he had to start going on week-long business trips every other week (only for a year or so), so she had to learn how to cook. And now she’s a massive expert at making all these delicious Chinese baked goods. The way my mom works hard might be different from my dad, but it is just as excellent and requires hard work too. She finds these “little passions” (in that some might consider them to be little) and researches things and experiments, and just DOES the things in order to get better at them.

I do know that I’ve inherited a lot of things from my parents. My dad’s nose, my mom’s huge head (mine is huge too, ok, it’s fine to say this) — but also my mom’s sensitive/emotional nature, as well as my dad’s ability to talk people’s ears off (he is the self-proclaimed expert on cars, fitness and food with his friends, and I think they get a kick out of listening to him even if it’s the same stuff over and over, just like me!). But I also got a little bit of my dad’s ability to work until something is done, and my mom’s curiosity that leads to aggressive passion about a topic. As well as my dad’s humor, so I’ve been told, which personally feels like a huge compliment.

So because of this, growing up, I thought that working hard would always get you to your destination. I mean, it’s true most of the time — but sometimes it is just not enough. And that’s actually okay sometimes. If I had gotten into grad school the first time around, I honestly would not have nearly appreciated it as much. I also wouldn’t have gone through the life-changing internship that taught me about accepting myself and all my mistakes. Looking back now, I just realized it wasn’t my time, I hadn’t thought out my future goals properly, and it was a blessing in disguise.

We often don’t achieve our goals or reach our destinations even if we think we put the work in — truthfully, I didn’t always do my best in undergrad — I often chose a more efficient route of doing homework (which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s also not always the best idea) and could say for sure I could have done better. I won’t talk about how it changed in grad school, but I will say there is yet another piece to this grand idea — is our hard work actually hard work? Is it our maximum effort? Does it have to be efficient? A lot of questions to explore that I can’t yet seem to wrap my head around. So for now, let’s just define it as working to get sh** done. I’ve realized that there are other factors at play when it comes to not achieving something — we may have worked our asses off within our capabilities, but it may not have been enough to satisfy someone else’s expectations.

And that is the way life works. But it seems we aren’t taught that. What I learned from my parents’ experiences as immigrants is that working hard, whatever that looks like, is ABSOLUTELY essential to achieving your goals. And I think a lot of my friends went through similar experiences where we believed that was all it took. We didn’t really catch a glimpse of failures and disappointments because our parents hid them from us. Perhaps in my desire to achieve perfection, I felt as if every rejection was a personal affront to myself and my values — as if I was a ruined person after just one rejection. A rejection told me I was broken and it must have meant that I wasn’t good enough for anything else.

What a detrimental way to look at life. Now here’s the thing, it is important to take ownership of our actions…or our inaction, if applicable. I was told once that “there is always going to be someone better than you” — not to discourage me, but to encourage me to get my best self out there no matter what. So if for some reason we don’t achieve a goal we set out for, then we need to look at ourselves first — did I do everything I could have? Then look at the big picture — did I do everything that they expected/required, did I exceed any of their expectations — was there a piece I was missing? And we may not always find answers, but before we jump the gun and blame others for your disappointment or defeat, we have to look at ourselves in order to move towards acceptance. If we’re always blaming others, we’re not going to learn what we need to do to improve.

Truth be told, I do feel like I got a good dose of what it meant to fail/be disappointed — I wasn’t put in much of a bubble as some of my friends, but not once as a kid or teen, did I get the full picture of the importance of accepting defeat…of admitting that it happened, of reminding myself that it doesn’t mean I suck as a human, of learning from it, moving on, and using it to encourage growth instead of discourage curiosity and exploration. I think accepting defeat has a few parts to it — first, “admitting it is the first step”, of course. But we also have to investigate our own efforts and then ultimately, maybe just realize that it wasn’t good enough. Which should hopefully spur us towards becoming “good enough”, even if we have to find other goals.

If we accept defeat, then we can move on and pursue growth freely without worrying about the past or what led to the defeat (aside from wanting to improve). Let me be clear, “accepting defeat” here does not mean that we sit there and let the defeat ruin us and our persevering spirits, but that we admit and accept that it happened. The instant we realize the defeat has already occurred and there’s not much more to do — we can direct our time and effort towards other avenues of growth and success. It’s not an easy feat, but it is an extremely important lesson to learn: how to accept defeat, even if you worked VERY hard, but use it to fuel our desire for growth and improvement.

Athletic trainer, coffee lover, looking for a hobby I don’t have time for. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.

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