My fingers dance across worn ivory keys, practicing a melody they’ve followed countless times before. As my eyes scan a sheet covered in various ledger notes and musical symbols, I slowly but surely make my way to the end of the page. The song I’m playing is unbelievably beautiful, abounding in both artistic nuance and emotion. To the untrained ear, I’m doing the piece justice, but I know better. As the song progresses, my mind fixates on each slightly botched rhythm, every barely flubbed articulation. The rendition comes to a close, and my finger slips. The result is a discordant note that echoes across the room, a musical phrase left unfinished, and a despondent piano player.
Mediocrity is unacceptable. This is a motto I have subconsciously striven to obey for all of my life, and not just in playing the piano. Furthermore, it is not some individual circumstance, but rather, a collective phenomenon among many Asian Americans. Asian youth face undeniable pressure to always put their best foot forward—pressure from their families and their peers, but also from themselves. When perfection is the standard, you’re always going to fall short.
In Asian culture, there is a ubiquitous subscription to the belief that success equates to happiness. We place more value on attaining this success than any other demographic. Many of us are second-generation, meaning we were born in America to immigrant parents. Our parents have had to work hard all their lives to make ends meet in this land of opportunity. They know more than anyone the importance of hard work and commitment, and as a consequence, they’ve instilled in us these same values. However, these qualities often come with negative tendencies. A strong work ethic is very much a good trait, but if one isn’t careful, this same dedication can quickly pave the way towards normalizing hustle culture. In very much the same way, unceasing commitment and the desire to always improve seems wonderful at the surface level, but can very easily lead to the trap of perfectionism.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be your best self, with wanting to become better each passing day. However, if you can no longer find joy in pursuits that were once fun, if you can’t engage in a task for the first time without wanting to be on a professional level, if you’re hesitant to try something new because the thought of being subpar terrifies you, your perfectionist tendencies are no longer beneficial. Instead, your perfectionism is hindering your ability to grow.
Those of us with this perfectionist mentality often associate our mistakes with our own value as people. We tie our identities to our accomplishments, our self-worth to our success. We play it safe, purposefully confining ourselves our own self-imposed boxes filled with the things we know we’re good at. We’re afraid to try new things, for fear of not measuring up to unsurpassable expectations. And when we inevitably fall short in this endless pursuit of perfection, we beat ourselves up for it, not even giving ourselves a fighting chance.
I was five years of age when my parents bought a piano, a polished Kawai with a mahogany finish. Long have I forgotten the process of learning an entirely new instrument, let alone an entirely new language. While it didn’t take long for me to develop a considerable degree of skill, I am no modern-day Mozart. In all honesty, I am far from it: even after over a decade of piano-playing experience, I will never reach the level of the six-year-old prodigy who played at Carnegie Hall. I used to be ashamed of what I believed was my lack of ability. At piano recitals, I would listen to the other children performing and feel terrible about my own skills. Their piano-playing abilities seemed utterly flawless—effortless dynamics, not a note out of place. It hurt to know that while I was good, I would never be one of the greats.
“You’re the most successful person I know.”
“Why can’t I be more like you?”
“You’re literally perfect.”
For my whole life, I have been put on an ever-growing pedestal, given the role of the child parents want and the student everyone aspires to be. I’m lucky to have been supported in all my academic, athletic, and creative pursuits, and I’m incredibly grateful that people believe in me. It feels like the whole world is cheering me on, waiting with bated breath to see where I will one day end up. However, knowing everyone is watching exacerbates the pressure I already impose upon myself to attain the unattainable, to be this perfect person. I have always been told that I will succeed at anything I put my mind to, but what does it even mean to be successful? When will I finally be satisfied with myself? Will I ever be fulfilled?
I often feel like I do not deserve the recognition I have been given, because I could be so much more. I’m unable to play a piece without hyper-fixating on everything I did wrong. I’m unable to sing a song without focusing on the things I don’t like about my voice. Things I love to do seem pointless if I’m not the best. I’m hesitant to try new things and take risks, because I don’t want to disappoint myself. I’m so exhausted of running on a path that doesn’t end, trying to pursue this ideal that doesn’t exist. Many of us are the same way. We grew up believing that the only path to find happiness is through being the best at everything we do—that being anything else means failure on our behalf.
I challenge you to try something you’ve never had the courage to start, or take some time to indulge in an activity that makes you happy. You don’t have to be good at something in order to derive joy from it. Sing, even if your voice is average. Write poetry and stories, even if your work isn’t good enough to be published. Cook and bake, even if you can only follow basic recipes. Make art, even if you’re not the next Van Gogh. The mistakes you make at the beginning mark the start of your journey as you inevitably improve in your abilities. You don’t have to be the most successful, or the most funny, or even the most kind in order to matter.
My accomplishments are a huge part of who I am. They haven’t come easily; they’re the result of ceaseless dedication and unparalleled determination. However, I’m so much more than a perfect score on a standardized test or a flawless rendition of a song. I’m so much more than straight A’s or a nationally-recognized accolade. My value as a person is not measured by my successes. I am far from perfect, but that doesn’t matter. Yes, I’m running on an ever-winding path, and there’s no end in sight. Sometimes, that’s terrifying. But slowly but surely, I’m learning to enjoy where the journey takes me. No matter where I will end up in life, I will love myself every step of the way—and you should do the same.