"Outstanding, Success, Excellence" - when I was asked to share my definition of these words, I began to reflect upon how my definition has evolved since being named as one of Hong Kong’s most “outstanding” students in 1985.
When I was awarded this distinctive title more than 25 years ago, I truly believed that I deserved it. At that moment, I had no doubt of my future success and excellence in my academic life.
However, as I experience more in life, my belief in myself gradually grew weaker. Meeting and interacting with diverse people such as gifted musicians, graduates from top universities, highearning investment bankers and lawyers, young and rich entrepreneurs, I just began to doubt whether I can still consider myself outstanding. I keep asking myself - have I achieved anything as great as they have.
On the other hand, when I still see people petitioning on the streets to regain what they have lost with the collapse of Leman Brothers, I wonder why the “successful and outstanding” bankers and government officials are not capable to foresee or solve such problems. So I ask myself what is the true definition of these words to us living in this materialistic society where most of the people judge others by how much they earn or how influential they are.
Why hasn’t the word outstanding been awarded to more common roles in our society like our mothers and grandmothers who raised us without the aid of domestic helpers? In the 60s and 70s, most of the families could not afford to have domestic helpers yet they usually have much bigger family that we do nowadays. At that time, it was not uncommon to see women taking up all domestic chores by themselves - carrying a child on her back, holding another in one arm and carrying loads of groceries in another arm while bargaining with the sellers for a better price. Without abundant financial resources, they had to plan carefully to make sure that they can provide the “best” to their families. Indeed, I think my mom was one of them. I can still recall how she planned carefully to meet all ends because my dad was the only bread earner to support a family of 8. So, can’t the definition of outstanding be extended to encompass the women who raised us? The ones who have selflessly contributed to society and their families are the ones who are truly great in my eyes.
Recently, a long time friend and an ex-colleague told me that she’s going to quit her job to stay home to take care of her new born son. She is not any high flying professionals or from a rich family. Indeed, she has worked her way from a junior assistant to become a senior administration manager in a very reputable bank. I have worked with this friend and I really respect her passion in life. She is always ready to take up new challenges that may be beyond her level of seniority in the company. She will always try her best in every situation despite all the obstacles. Above all, despite her success in her career, she knows what is more important to her in her life and is ready to give up her career to pursue for it. To me, this friend of mine is a modern version of an outstanding woman. Although she doesn’t need to sweat and push around in wet markets like the women in the 60s and 70s, she has always tried to excel at any point of time in her life, more importantly, knows what is most important in her life. Of course, you may say it is not that easy to achieve what one pursues or treasures in real life. That is very true because a lot of times things just do not turn out the way it is no matter how hard you try. I truly experienced this during my second pregnancy. When I was in my second trimester with my second child, my doctor advised me to take some time off before my maternity leave. Thinking that I was superwoman and could achieve more than any working mom, I didn’t listen to her. At that time, my team was working on a project and I wanted to try to contribute as much as possible before the baby was due. Things did not turn out the way I thought. In the 32th week of my pregnancy, I woke up one morning finding signs for early delivery. Luckily, things turned out fine but I was told not to work at all until the baby was born. Therefore, instead of trying to do more to excel myself, I was cut off from the project much earlier than I expected. If I had followed the advice of my doctor then, I might have been able to work much longer before going on my maternity leave. From then, I fully realized that there are times and circumstances in one’s life that one can never control, no matter how good you are or how much confidence you have.
During these past 25 years, I may have all sorts of doubts in myself and others. Being asked to write this essay has helped shape my new understanding of what it means to be “outstanding”. Of course, we should be happy for this achievement. However, being awarded outstanding is only the beginning of an episode in life. We should not let the arrogance of achieving some kind of excellence to fool ourselves. Rather, it is more important that we keep up the spirit of attaining eminence no matter what position or role in life we are in, whether it is a CEO of a multi-billion company or a much humbler position. Above all, it is important we always live up to our dreams in life – something that drives us to live on even in our most difficult time. For me, at this moment, it is my family and the sense of achievement that drives me to work hard every day, be it in the office or at home. Along with cycle of life, I am constantly evolving and growing. If asked to define excellence 25 years later, I may again view it differently.