Redefining success

Sayang. A Filipino word that means “what a waste”.

A word people use to describe leftover food thrown away. Or a gift certificate that one forgot to use that just recently expired. Or water dripping from a leaking faucet.

Never would I have thought that the word sayang would be used together with my name, as in “Sayang si Sherilyn.” The narrative of such a judgement more or less takes this form:

Didn’t she graduate valedictorian of her high school class? And didn’t she graduate summa cum laude – the only summa cum laude – from a prestigious university? And doesn’t she also have a Master of Arts degree too? What’s she doing now? Just a full time mother and housewife? Tsk tsk.

Horrors! Have I devolved into a wife (a turn of phrase I distinctly remember from one of my graduate school readings)? And not just a wife but a housewife, evidently a more subordinate variety of an already inferior social order. I try to think about what I consider my latest biggest achievement – I made my own French Baguette from scratch. Well not scratch scratch as I bought the flour, yeast and salt from the store. Which brings me to my next goal which is to make my own French Baguette from wheat that I grew and milled myself, wild yeast that I cultivated from potatoes, and salt that I gathered from the sea. Not! Who does that? My next goal is to fill the kitchen with the scent of fresh danish because… because who doesn’t like danish? My God! I have devolved into a wife!

My husband asked whether I feel like a failure. It is difficult for me to answer – ever since I can remember, I have adopted a specific frame of success, one that is defined by academic excellence that should have naturally paved the way for profitability and productivity. My life choices however did not lead me to the 6-digit monthly salary that people who share the same frame of success expect. And yet I never imagined that the life I currently lead would be accompanied by carefreeness, exhilaration and an almost furtive feeling that I’m cheating because how can anyone without much to show for it feel so content?

It is a ruthlessly intensely competitive world out there and nowhere is this more evident than in parenting circles. I cannot keep track of how many times I’ve been asked whether my daughter goes to school already (she doesn’t, which is followed by, “Won’t she get left behind?”), how many languages my kids speak (my daughter speaks mostly English with a Visayan accent, i.e. “du-nats” for doughnuts, but her made up songs sound mostly Japanese with a sprinkling of Mandarin and Hokkien), whether I will enroll them in ballet, piano, and art lessons, and on and on and on. Children of all ages now face so much pressure to achieve at increasingly impossible standards, in order to have an edge over the others and build that all-important resume that’s supposed to guarantee that much coveted high-paying job.



And yet, how many times have you heard people read off resumes at funerals? Some people with really impressive resumes are people I wouldn’t want to hang out and have coffee with. Really. I think about those who have touched my life and the lives of many others — they are a far cry from Tiger parent Amy Chua’s notion of brilliant overachieving. They are quiet in their kindness, generosity, and supportiveness.

Every now and then, my husband introduces me to others gushing about my intelligence and how I graduated summa cum laude. I know he means well and is proud of me but somehow, it annoys me because graduating summa cum laude more than ten years ago doesn’t say much about who I am. It simply tells you that at one point in my life, I performed pretty well in exams that measured how well I understood (and often memorized) the professor’s lectures. Academic achievement doesn’t translate to real life skills, not always. “The most important thing we ever learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school,” wrote Haruki Murakami, and he’s spot on.

So what do I want my kids to learn? Just some things at the top of my head.

  • Diskarte (or resourcefulness). My dad is diskarte personified. So is my husband, so my kids have great role models here.
  • Grit. Great TED Talk here by Angela Lee Duckworth on grit.
  • Delaying gratification.
  • Focus and endurance needed to pursue their dreams.
  • Ability to talk to all kinds of people.
  • Curiosity.
  • Love reading. Hopefully I’m able to do that by reading to the kids several times in a day.
  • Enjoy learning and to do it at their own pace and approach.
  • How to follow directions
  • When not to listen to authorities (Thanks Jack, I got this from a conversation we had!)
  • Being contented with what they have

How I will teach or nurture these would probably be another blog post, or book. Meanwhile, I will know that my kids are successful when they are able to live a life that’s meaningful to them and their individual skills, talents, and desires. With my daughter’s fascination with big trucks, it just might be being a truck driver. And I know that I will be the proudest mom of a truck driver if that’s the case.

2 responses to “Redefining success

  1. This post speaks to me on such a deep level that I just had to leave a comment.

    I myself have been “the good student”, “the study-hard-achiever” for the majority of my life. And I am happy with what I have achieved; the struggle to get my degree and PhD was real and it filled me with a deep sense of accomplishment to know that my hard work had paid of.
    But it also burdened me in a way I never anticipated. The moment I became a dentist, I was supposed to join my colleagues in this new world of prestige, financial success and a fabricated mindset of superiority.

    The fact that I did not come from a family of doctors and dentists had already been excessively ridiculed during my time at university. But when I chose to put my career on hold to live with my Japanese partner in the countryside, I was met with disbelief, shock and even disgust.

    How could I chose to quit this life of social and financial prestige? To live a “housewife’s boring life”, with a partner that could neither boast with a PhD, nor a huge pay-check? I was “throwing away” my career, my well-paid job, basically all of my achievements for a simple housewife’s life with a guy that, in the dental community’s opinion, could not measure up to me and was “a failure”.

    I did struggle a lot to find my own peace with my life choices versus what society, and especially the dental community, was expecting from me. And I have to say, first and foremost, that I deeply disagree with their opinion that being a housewife is some sort of pitiful task that is reserved for those who fail to establish a “proper” career for themselves.

    My mum chose to be a housewife when she had my brother and me, and I never saw her as some sort of “inferior woman” who had the misfortune to stay at home and care for her children instead of venturing into the world to pursue her career. She chose to care for and raise her children and make a home for them and her husband. And my father never belittled my mother’s job as a housewife in any way; he proudly talked about how my mum manages to keep our house and family life running whilst being a full time mother of two at the same time. He was her biggest fan and supporter and I think this shaped my perception of housewives and stay-at-home mothers tremendously.

    As I mentioned, I am happy and maybe even a bit proud of my achievements. I worked hard for them and they are a representation of my determination and dedication. However, I do not want to be defined by my academic success. Yes, I did well and studied hard but what does that say about me as a human being? My partner did not achieve as much academically as I did, but that doesn’t make him any less of a person.

    People associate intelligence with academic success and achievements, but I came to understand that there are various forms of intelligence, of which many of them cannot be linked to studying from books. My partner has an incredible ability to read and understand people and their emotions, a quality that I simply cannot measure up to. And I admire him for this skill so much!

    I might be failure in the eyes of society; I definitely am in the eyes of many dental colleagues. But I have never felt more content than now, living in a small apartment in the countryside, being able to see and cherish the little things in life and actually experience and appreciate the life I have, rather than chasing a life I thought I was supposed to have in the eyes of society.

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