The imposter

I am currently in Wellington as I write this, having just spent the day at a workshop that I helped to organise. The professor who spearheaded this colloquium, and for whom I have spent the past two years working for, invited me to join them for dinner. Despite the opportunity to meet leading academics, practitioners and policy makers in the field – and to enjoy a rather extravagant three course meal (I know, because I picked the menu) – my instinctive reaction was reluctance.

I don’t want to go to the dinner because I feel like I don’t belong at the dinner table.

It sounds a bit ridiculous when I say it out loud (especially when there’s the word “dinner” in front of “table”), but this feeling of not belonging is an old friend (enemy). When I graduated from high school, I confessed to my boyfriend that I had “peaked”. I thought that I was never going to enjoy the level of success that I experienced at school, because once the goldfish bowl that I was swimming in turns into a pond… the whole world would see that I wasn’t really ever that good. Or, worse yet, that I was never actually good enough.

I was an impostor; a fraud. Things happened “to” me because I “got lucky” or because people helped me. I worked hard, but my success never felt truly deserved.

The impostor syndrome is well documented, and is particularly noted in women and minority groups.

The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

I felt the impostor syndrome recently after receiving the Rhodes Scholarship and being subject to praise left, right and centre. The way that I react (poorly) to compliments and praise has made me understand the difference between being humble on the one hand, and being overly self-deprecating on the other. The fine line between confidence (which is OK) and arrogance (which is bad, and especially terrible if you are female) often causes me to swing too far towards downplaying my achievements and abilities and to forget that you can be both humble and confident at the same time.

My professor once told me that if I picture where I think I’ll be in 2 – 3 years time, then I probably have an accurate picture of where I actually am right now. It’s hard to overcome the gut feeling of hesitation (and perhaps it’ll stay with me for the rest of my life) but having filters like that (taking the opportunities now that I would take in 2 – 3 years, or even 4 – 5 years time) has really helped.

Time to sign off now and to put it all into practice!

Light at the end of the tunnel

The unpredictable nature of life is what makes it so thrilling yet so terrifying at the same time. Lightning can and does strike twice, and you can only hope that it brings a stroke of luck rather than one of misfortune.  Last month, a friend who lost her mother earlier in the year had to also witness her father passing away. The gravity of that trauma was and still is beyond comprehension. The darkness in the idea – or fear – of losing someone else in my life was paralysing.

I used to think that life owed me a few “good” years to make up for the bad years that have gone by, but I suppose life never promised to be fair. In fact, if we think about fairness, I’ve had it pretty good. Given the circumstances, things could have turned out a lot worse than they did. The most important thing was that despite everything that had happened, I was able to keep pushing ahead with my life and my aspirations. And in terms of future goals and careers, I can’t imagine myself being in a better position than I am now in choosing my next steps.

Last week, I had the privilege of receiving a significant award for service and leadership to the community. It feels strange receiving the recognition, when I know that so many others contribute a lot more to the wider community, but the award did give me the opportunity to reflect back on the last five years of my life and the people, moments and circumstances that have really shaped the person that I am now.

Perhaps the most significant lesson from the past five years was about resilience and perseverance. I know that life can be hard, exhausting, and often rather meaningless, but there will always be things that keep you going. For me, this was always the excitement of possibility – never knowing what tomorrow brings – and a thirst to understand more about the world; to experience the joy of discovering or experiencing something new.

I have also learned, the hard way, that the human body is fragile (so make sure you take care of it); and more fragile than the body is the human condition. I believe that everyone goes through some kind of struggle, whatever form that it may take, and so we should first and foremost be kind to ourselves but also kind to others. Always be generous with our smiles, our words, and our time.

Most importantly, I have come to realise that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Some tunnels are longer than others, and sometimes our tunnels are made longer by misfortune or bad mistakes. Tunnels will vary in shape and size, but what is certain is that we will encounter many of them over a lifetime. Yet it is with these tunnels that we come to see what is most essential to our lives. It is through consistently putting one foot in front of the other that we come to understand what is meaningful. In other words, I have discovered that when it is truly dark enough, you can see the stars.

Solitude

One of the more positive aspects of the past few months has been the solitude. As someone who loves the excitement of always having something to do or someone to see, finding myself in the company of my own thoughts has been surprisingly liberating.

It has been just over three months since my mother passed away, and although the recovery has been slow and the grief constant, the world continues to spin at it’s incredible pace. The life around you continues on, with or without your participation. At some point, you have to make peace with the past and cut yourself loose from your psychological anchors.

Of the many lessons that death has taught me, the most enduring (and perhaps most tautological) has been this: that life goes on until it doesn’t. I went to a spoken word poetry event last night (the Rising Voices Poetry Slam in Auckland) and remember vividly a young girl who, carrying a genetic defect that cuts her life expectancy well short of her peers, spoke about what it means to her to live. Most of us think about life in terms of time, but how should we measure a life when time is not on your side?

I have also come to realise that loss is much more common than we think. Some losses scar; others pass us by unnoticed. I have a theory that opportunity always comes hand-in-hand with loss. The gain of something new, such as a new job or an opportunity to do something that you’ve never done before, comes with it the loss of what is familiar, comfortable and secure. Loss isn’t always a negative thing – the idea of swapping what is known for the unknown can be exhilarating. But the loss is always there and something that we should acknowledge; too often we get blind-sighted by the shiny and the new that we forget what we are letting go.

And the final thought I had this week is about giving. I never really thought I had anything valuable to give until I realised that it is often the accumulation of many small things – a smile, a story and an unexpected experience that  we share with someone else – that can lead to something of remarkable impact. I’ve found myself, rather accidentally, as a support to people I never realised I was helping. The belief that we have something to give both anchors us and also sets us free.

[A beautiful example of spoken word. My favourite line: “… there is nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shore line, no matter how many times it is sent away.”]

We’re reeling through the midnight streets

Of the many things that strikes me about Lorde, the most impressive is how creative and expressive she is. For a 16-year-old, she sings and writes with a conviction that makes me feel rather bland.

One of the biggest determinants of success, in any endeavour, is an unwavering belief and confidence in what you’re doing. As a good mentor once said to me (when I was having a particularly flat day): how can you expect other people to believe in you when you don’t even belief in yourself?

The reality was that I probably didn’t believe in myself, and confidence is not something that comes naturally to me. I grew up with parents who believed in keeping your head down and working hard. Standing out by thinking differently was not something that was encouraged (although they didn’t necessarily discourage it), and I suspect that a Chinese upbringing entrenches a different kind of “tall poppy syndrome”, one that shoots down being different.

If my aspirations were only limited to certain pursuits, this philosophy probably would have worked out rather well. Unfortunately, I was a teenager who, after 10 years of classical training, wanted to play jazz. The thought of having to improvise and come up with something of my own, something that didn’t exist until I had thought to play it, was terrifying. I was a thinker, a planner; spontaneity was something I actively avoided. It took me a long time to start becoming comfortable with the idea of self-expression, which seemed (much to my envy) to come so naturally to so many others.

My brain was hard-wired with a view of the world where everything could be categorised as “right” and “wrong”, and my inner censure was fierce and unforgiving. Being different meant being vulnerable, and being vulnerable was something very, very far away from my comfort zone. Writing (honestly and about personal experiences) is also something that pushes me beyond what feels comfortable, and my inner-perfectionist hurts whenever I click the “Publish” button – something that I resolved to do within an hour of starting every new blog post.

Having confidence in creative endeavours is different to, but closely related to another kind of confidence, which is the one that I associate with our professional aspirations. I’ve been following the US Open recently, and one of the most addictive parts of tennis is the way the confidence of a player can completely dictate the momentum of the game. Tennis is, at it’s highest levels, a mental game, and it is those that are mentally tough (and who dare to take risks) who dominate.

[Although I’m still a Federer fan, you have to respect how incredibly kick-ass Djokovic is to save two match points in that fashion (and to later also win the match!)]

The last few weeks have been a bit of a struggle regaining momentum and getting myself back on track with the dreams and aspirations that I once pursued. There have been many personal hurdles that have made me doubt whether those dreams and aspirations are still worth pursuing.

Why risk a hard landing when you can choose to never take your feet off the ground?

Unfortunately for me, I was born with a rather stubborn and risk-seeking heart that is constantly at odds with my risk-averse mind. Will I ever build the mental resilience that is necessary to buffer the inevitable blows and falls? Who knows. But the fire still burns, and I will continue to marvel at the courage of others in the meantime.

Life has no limitations, except the ones you make

I came across two TED talks this morning that really embodied for me this idea that the biggest limitations that we face are the ones that we impose on ourselves. Although most TED talks contain an insightful story, these two in particular really capture something about the human spirit.

The first talk was a performance by pianist Derek Paravicini, with commentary by his long-standing music teacher Adam Ockelford. Derek has an incredibly intuitive understanding of music, despite growing up blind and with severe autism. This talk really struck me because it touched on the ability of individuals to express themselves through creating music and also the pivotal role that the people – the parents, caregivers and teachers – play in nurturing talent and potential.

As someone who once aspired to be a professional pianist and composer, and who has taught a number of students with learning disabilities (including autism), it is very inspiring to see human potential come to life in his performances.

The second talk is by a woman, Eleanor Longden, who describes her struggles with schizophrenia and journey through the psychiatric system while she was in her late teens and early 20s. What I really took from her talk was the need to have a humane approach to mental illness and to see her experience “not as an abstract symptom of illness to be endured, but as complex, significant, and meaningful experience to be explored.”

A serious post: Why inequality matters

Few could deny that inequality is a pressing issue for New Zealand society. The statistics paint a dark and troubling picture, but it is seeing other young people live a life of “constrained” choices that really brings the message home.

As a teenager from a modest background, it was the belief in equality of opportunity that made “trying hard” worth it. I grew up naively believing that a person’s ability to succeed in life was primarily determined by skill and effort. Later, I came to realise just how much a person’s journey is dictated by things that have little to do with the individual.

This year, New Zealand was ranked as the 7th best country for a baby to be born. The “Where To Be Born in 2013” list, made by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), seeks to measure the ability of a country to provide “opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead”.

Although falling behind countries such as Switzerland (1st) and our neighbour Australia (2nd), things look promising.

Yet New Zealand has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world and severe rates of income disparity. A significant proportion of New Zealanders (approximately 500,000 people on one conservative estimate) live in conditions of “poverty”, as defined by the Ministry of Social Development.

We like to think that we live in an egalitarian society, but we often ignore the significant cracks that exist in our communities.

I have always wanted to raise my children, when I eventually have them, in Auckland. This was something that was never questioned in my mind. But what I took for granted when reaching that decision is the fact that my children will have parents who are well educated and who will (hopefully) have the disposable income to afford a comfortable lifestyle, overseas holidays and plenty of extra-curricular activities to go alongside an education at a “good” school.

Warren Buffett apparently once said that he “won the ovarian lottery”: it was to winning the lottery of life, of being born in the right country at the right time and in the right situation, that he attributed much of his success.

Of course, Mr Buffett also worked hard . But not everyone who works hard is able to climb society’s rungs. People are trapped by their starting points and there are difficulties with social mobility. My experiences tell me that it’s not determination and grit that families living in hardship lack; it’s opportunity.

A society of equal opportunity is something that we aspire to, and we cannot ignore the fact that the ability of a person to succeed in life is affected by a multiplicity of both individual and social differences.

Issues of poverty and inequality are just some of the pressing challenges that New Zealand faces, as we consider what identity and values we wish to hold as a community. As a 22-year-old, I want to not only see New Zealand flourish in the global arena, but to pursue those economic goals in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner.

Most importantly, I want to be assured that should a child draw the short straw in the lottery of life, that they will nonetheless be supported by society to reach their full potential.

Three defining experiences of my university education

Yesterday marked the start of what will (hopefully) be my last semester as an undergraduate student. Four and a half years of university has led to many wonderful friendships, a better understanding of what makes me tick (and what definitely doesn’t), and many steep learning curves and experiences outside of the classroom.

It was actually seven years ago that I first walked onto campus as an overly eager 15-year-old. I was taking a psychology paper at the time (along with three other high school friends as part of a young scholars programme run by the university) and I remember distinctly thinking that this place – the university – would hold all the solutions to my unanswered questions. I would come out the other end with knowledge about myself, about the world, and be completely set for the rest of my life. University would be like an incubator (or perhaps a cocoon) where all the different fragments of who I was and what I wanted to be would magically click into place.

Although university has certainly filled my mind with a lot knowledge (some of it useful, others – not so much), some of my best learning experiences has actually come from outside the university system itself. Every person takes out of their university experience something unique and different; when I think back on the most formative experiences or defining moments of the last four and a half years, three things that come to mind:

The value of a mentor or a good teacher: Having a good mentor or a supportive teacher has been something that has significantly shaped my journey and made possible so many opportunities and experiences that I otherwise would have missed. I must admit that I was never a very engaged student in class – I was quite happy being left alone to do my own thing and to learn on my own terms – and so it was often by accident that I would come to know people that would later become invaluable mentors. I suspect that like most relationships, these best ones grow organically, and the privilege of having someone ‘root’ for you (often when you’re not even rooting for yourself) and who will spend those extra hours with you to help you plan out how to achieve your goals is really – truly – invaluable.

The ability to try new things (and to be really bad at things): One of the best things about being a student is the ability to say “I don’t know”. People understand that you are still getting to grips with who you are and what you’d like to do, and it’s acceptable for you to say that you really have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your life. The uncertainty (and the freedom that can come with that uncertainty) allows you to be a bit adventurous and to take on the more unconventional opportunities that come your way. It allows you to say “why not” instead of having to justify your decisions, and it means that you can try new, weird and wonderful things. And if you fail, that’s just part of the experience; no one will hold it against you.

The luxury of creating your own space: The flexibility of being able to control your time and what you do with your day is probably one of the best things about university life (and one of the reasons why I’m reluctant to leave!). It also means that when things are getting tough and you are being snowed under,  you can take a break. Full steam ahead is not the optimal mode for everyone (and it certainly wasn’t for me) and I have missed big chunks of my semester in order to do other things that were important to me. The diversity of people at university also means that you are guaranteed to find someone who shares a (bizarre) interest of yours or a certain ideology about the world. The ability to create your own spaces – of time, of friendships and of shared interests – is awesome.

4.5 years down, 0.5 to go.

Memoir

I sometimes think about compiling the soundtrack to an imaginary movie about my life.

alice-in-wonderland_2-1800

A collection of songs is usually quite easy to piece together, because music naturally carries meanings and feelings that we can (almost instantly) identify. I heard a ‘roadtrip’ song the other day on the radio that suddenly perked up an otherwise cold and gloomy winter’s day. Among the more unusual types of songs that I have include a ‘badass’ song  that I occasionally pull out when I’ve done something badass-worthy (although I have to confess that my threshold for badass-ness is not very high!), and a ‘silly dance’ song for when I’m feeling like, well, a silly dance.

Narrating your life story, however, is a completely different experience. It requires you to not only describe the feelings of the more significant moments of your life, but to then explain that moment and it’s significance in the context of your entire life. Finding a golden trail that connects all the dots.

It’s a bit like how I imagine the constellations might have been first discovered: some person, thousands of years ago, looked up at the vast sky and decided that he would group certain stars together in order to tell a particular story. Without these stories, the night sky – although beautiful – would be rather meaningless.

The-Coma-Galaxy-Cluster-also-known-as-Abell-1656-is-more-than-300-million-light-years-away-and-is-named-for-its-parent-constellation-Coma-Berenices.-It-appears-to-participate-in-the-dark-flow. (1)

It is the stories – the answers to ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’, and most importantly, ‘why’ – that remain with us and endure.

The last few weeks have been a (rather painful) journey of uncovering the narrative of my life, through a process of drafting and redrafting personal statements for the Rhodes Scholarship application. It’s a surprisingly difficult task – putting together pieces of your life as if they were a part of a grander jigsaw puzzle – in an attempt to paint an authentic yet coherent picture of my life to date. It involves digging deep to answer difficult questions like: Who is Alice? What is Alice about? What is Alice’s big hairy audacious goal?

Being forced to articulate who you are is definitely a special experience. It means that you can’t hide behind titles and relationships (“Hi, I’m Alice, and I’m a student at/friends with/employee of [insert name here]”) and it requires doing the opposite of what is natural in storytelling, which is to start with an idea rather than to end up with one.

The most difficult aspect of the narrative is defining what makes you unique and set apart. There is no truly unique life event – we each pass through experiences of joy and loss – and no unique achievements (unless you’re an Olympian astrophysicist ninja!). But somewhere in the process of weaving together the fabric of our biographies is an extraordinary story is waiting to be born.

No pressure.

Loss

On Monday 3 June, in the early hours of the morning, my mother passed away after a two-year battle with oesophageal cancer.

Lily Guo

 

It’s difficult to express what it feels like to have lost a mother. I grew up in a single parent family, and to have lost that parent in my life is like losing both the sky above my head and also the ground below my feet.

The past few months have been extremely difficult. Just as you begin to catch your breath, another hurdle rises to be faced. Some of these hurdles come from the illness itself – the helplessness of seeing a loved one in constant and often intolerable pain; the uncertainty of how and when the inevitable end will come; the frustration of watching a fiercely strong woman deterioriate and to lose all of her strength. Other challenges are more pragmatic – the struggle of family finances; the need to look after a younger sister; and all of the things that must be given up in order to make living work.

I’ve been struggling for quite some time to come to terms with all these different experiences. There are some types of mental and physical exhaustion that just hits you like a shock wave. Nothing really prepares you for it. But life requires us to push on, and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Organising the funeral service was extremely difficult – and by far the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do – but necessity called for it to be done. I am so glad to have been able to give her a farewell that she deserved.

It’s difficult to look on the bright side when the wounds are still so raw. I suppose I can take comfort in appreciating the fact that life will (and does) go on. And, as a 22-year-old with dreams and aspirations, to also know that there are no things that cannot be overcome.

Adversity… is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.

Thank you for being good to me

I was watching King Lear over the weekend and, being the tragedy that it is, found myself very frustrated at the concept of being trapped in a spiral of bad decisions and misfortune. It seems like Newton’s First Law of Motion applies to life as it does to objects – that once we start heading in a certain direction, it’s extremely difficult to break away from that trajectory.

Life is good when life is good, and life gets pretty bad when life is bad. It all sounds rather tautological, but it’s true that one good thing – a lucky break – will often set off a chain of new opportunities and success. Similarly, an unlucky situation can bring down even the best of us.

One of the things that I remember from reading Outliers is the idea that success builds on success. Once you have one thing, you often have it all. On the other hand, those that don’t have everything will often have very little, if not nothing.

A friend told me recently that he was quite pleased he knew me during my “less successful” days. I wasn’t sure how to take that comment at the time (my first reaction was defensive: “I’m not successful!”; my second reaction was worry: “Have I changed? Am I a bad person?”) but it made me think back to all the times where things were not so good. Without all the people who put up with me during the bad times and gave me something when I had nothing, I wouldn’t be even close to where I am today.

It’s easy to lose yourself when things are going well. It’s easy to become so preoccupied with your own pedestal of success that you forget what life was like when you didn’t feel so indestructible all the time.

So here is my ode to the soldiers in my life, the people who stick around when I am frustrating, ungrateful and stubborn. The people who make the little things count, and whose kindness is inversely proportionate to my ability to return the favour.

We need these people who still find something to love about us when we are repugnant human beings, and the people who steer us out of our steep and downward spirals so that we get another chance to recast our sails. Even the strongest of us need that somebody to give us another chance at a new day.