When I was growing up in Seoul, Korea back in the 1960s and through the mid-1970s, my parents sent me to Sacred Heart, an all-girls private catholic elementary school that then extended through middle school and high school. It was the most elite school for girls in Korea at the time. However, the real reason my parents sent me there was because my father wanted me to avoid taking the middle school and high school entrance exams. At that time in Korea, most prestigious schools required the students to take an entrance exam to get in at both the middle and high school levels, and the pressure to get into good schools was extremely high on both the students and their families. Even more pressure was put on for the college entrance exams which were many times more competitive than the already competitive middle and high school entrance exams. Sacred Heart was different. The students got in by lottery and “private interviews” and once they got in, the idea was to move up through the grades until high school graduation without any entrance testing. This lack of in-between entrance exams was what attracted my father to this school.
As I recall, getting into one of the top universities seemed like the whole purpose of the lower grade education at that time in Korea: a diploma from certain top-ranking universities was one of the key success ingredients in a Korean’s life. Which university a person graduated from determined how desirable he or she was as a potential employee, and accordingly it also determined the kind of jobs, level of income, and ultimately their desirability as a potential bride or groom because of their resultant social status. No wonder the competition started as early as the elementary school years! My childhood memories are mostly made up of many hours of homework and studying for frequent exams of math, science, language and social studies. All 50 students in my grade knew their academic rank (and everyone else’s) from the grade lists publicly posted on our classroom wall. Talk about stress!
My cousin Myung-Hwa graduated from high school when I was in 5th grade. Myung-Hwa was a straight-A student all her life, but she failed the entrance exam to get into the most prestigious university in Korea where her parents expected her to attend. She repeated retook the entrance exam for three consecutive years, but she didn’t make it. The public humiliation was too much for her to cope with, and it resulted in a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. So, it was ingrained in me early on that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to work very hard, do well in school, and pass the entrance exam to get into a top university. In elementary school, I already knew which university my parents expected me to attend when I graduated from Sacred Heart, and I did whatever workload my teachers imposed on me so that I could learn everything. I also prayed throughout my elementary school years so that I would not fail the university entrance exam. Myung-Hwa’s story was a specter that haunted me. I recall drinking coffee even during my 4th, 5th and 6th grade years to help me stay up late at night to study for exams. Sometimes I napped early in the evening, so that I could pull an all-nighter. I have a theory regarding the cause of my vertically challenged body: the caffeine consumption and lack of sleep at night during elementary school stunted my growth.
Yes, the pressure was horrid. I didn’t like the competition or the public ranking system. But the silver-lining in this pressure-cooker experience I had as a child was experiencing the satisfaction of a job well done. The reward wasn’t really the good grade or the top ranking I achieved. The true reward was the confidence I gained in my own potential and capability for excellence. The true measurement that I learned to rely on was my own internal yardstick: Have I done my best? If I had done my best, then no matter what my grade was, I was satisfied that I’d done what I could under the circumstances. On the other hand, if I hadn’t done my best, then no matter how much praise I received for getting good grades, I wasn’t happy with myself.
So my work ethics were formed early on in my elementary school years to:
- find reward and fulfillment for meeting my own internal standard and expectation for excellence; and
- put my best effort in everything in front of me.
In hindsight, these habits were a coping mechanism that I developed as a child to prepare myself for the eventual college entrance exam I dreaded even as an elementary school student. I must have thought that so long as I did my best, and found peace in knowing that I’d done everything I could to achieve the best outcome under the circumstances, then I could let go of trying to control the outcome and accept the result of my effort whatever the result turned out to be. Amusingly, I never found out whether this strategy would have worked for me because I left Korea with my family four years before the dreaded college entrance exam.
While it might have served as a kind of “security blanket,” this way of coping didn’t make my school experience any easier. On the contrary, it meant that I always had to work hard to do my best in everything I did, and often I deemed I did my best only if I was totally exhausted and drained at the end of whatever I was trying to accomplish. To feel safe in my efforts, I had to be completely empty and feel that there was no more left to give. Prioritization didn’t enter the picture at that time in my life. I poured all my efforts in everything, regardless of the magnitude of the consequence, because I felt a sense of safety and security in working hard. If I worked hard, then I’d done everything I could, so at least in my mind, I was “inoculated” from any external judgment in the form of a grade, an exam score, and many decades later, even a performance rating by my employer.
It’s interesting that I’ve carried these habits for most of my life. These habits have definitely shaped me to become a model student while in school and later a model employee: I worked hard for good quality work, plus I was self-motivated to value excellence so I didn’t need much external recognition or reward to produce that good quality work. These habits served my employers well. I have always been the coveted “self-starter.” However, these habits were not sufficient to sustain my long-term growth and success in a meaningful way. The key missing ingredient in this way of working was my true self. The question which never occurred to me to ask for all those years was this: “What do I want?”
Better late than never! It took me almost four decades to learn that the purpose in life isn’t being a model student or a model employee, or even a model daughter, mother, or wife. The purpose in life, I’ve learned, is being the best “me” I can be so that I can fully experience life in its full spectrum. To be the best Jung I can be, I need to ask myself: “What do I want?” as early and often as I can throughout every day, week, month and year of my life.
Since MyCrownShift, my conversations with Charles during our walks and impromptu brainstorm sessions, and the public writing about our experiment in this blog have helped me immensely with getting into the practice of asking myself: “What do I want?” These conversations and writings help me and Charles to gain clarity in our work and lives as we examine them with curiosity and open minds, and to be honest and truthful with ourselves, with each other, and with the world, as we embrace transparency, authenticity and vulnerability in sharing our journey wholeheartedly with our friends, families, and tribe. Catching myself before slipping into my old habits allows me to honor my wants and weave my inner-scape and outer expression in a holistic way. It is such a blessing for me to practice this new way of life.