“Earth laughs in flowers,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson — the earth is guffawing uncontrollably around town and I can’t stop taking photos of the blooms during my daily walks. I find the pink varieties particularly arresting, but I’ll always pause to capture an image of white flowers too. I’ve also been wandering down memory lane and contemplating, as I’m wont to do when I celebrate a birthday. The actual celebration was quiet and understated with my favorite people, just the way I like it. I don’t enjoy big parties and I prefer not to be the center of attention.
I’m solidly in the middle-age zone, though I feel younger than when I was in my teens, more playful. Part of it may have to do with having a child, and part of it might be because I had to grow up so quickly with immigrant parents who needed a lot of language assistance and now that I no longer carry that weight of responsibility, maybe I’m making up for lost youth? Mostly, as I grow older, I don’t care about how I should act as much. A few weeks ago, I was at a cafe as usual, and got up to get a cup of water. Something felt odd, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. As I adjusted my skirt to sit back down, I realized that part of the skirt hem was tucked into the waist of my tights — an unsightly view to be sure of my exposed derriere for the people sitting behind me as I poured myself water. Note to self: double-check after going to the bathroom. Oddly, I wasn’t all that embarrassed and even chortled to myself. The tights were opaque, but I’m now well aware that no one pays any attention to me. When I was younger, I would have packed my bags and immediately rushed out of there, completely mortified. Aging is a liberating thing.
A while back, I mentioned my genius brother, and for a very long time, I cared greatly about how I should act and noticed how — for all of my life, really — I’ve been surrounded by insanely high achievers and elite performers. My high school friends went to Good Schools. A disproportionate number attended Ivy leagues, and at every turn, I seem to loiter into groups that appear to have an unstated pre-requisite of extreme accomplishment and pedigrees.
I played the overachiever game for many years. I’m Asian after all, and that’s what we’re programmed to do. The problem with the overachiever game is that the competition is ulcerously fierce and the need to disguise any effort to achieve is even fiercer. The Mt. Olympus climb to attain God-like, societally defined success is taxing enough, yet you’re supposed to get there without breaking a sweat. The internet has, of course, magnified this age old problem to the umpteenth degree. I’m making my stoic Japanese ancestors weep in their graves and am terrible at hiding my efforts, and it was only through undignified and blatantly obvious sweat, blood and tears that I’ve garnered whatever I was able to. It’s funny, when I had the book presentation at K’s school, she later came up to me and said, “Mama, you were so sweaty! You turned bright red and tried to hide behind your book every time you wiped your forehead.” Case in point. I’m no smooth operator and I found 100 kids to be nerve-wracking.
I cockily thought that with all my lifestyle changes and life lessons borne out of severe illness, I left all of that overachiever nonsense behind me, blowing on my nails in a symbolic gesture of “whateverrrrr,” as K would say in a tween-y, bored voice. Not so. No, not at all.
I’ve been experiencing mixed emotions with the Little Kunoichi launch and can sense my old dual neuroses of overachievement and sabotaging tendencies furiously straining to come out, like a two-headed dog ready to tear everything in sight to pieces. On the one hand, I want my books to do well. Really well. Slight problem: I hate promoting. Just hate it. But spurred by my inner straight-A-student and a compelling need to make a living, my business un-savvy brain has been trying to come up with ways to market it, imploring bookstores around the city to carry copies, asking people to leave Amazon reviews, reaching out to online media and other publications, attempting to get martial arts studios interested (quite a few fails on all counts). These things are incredibly hard for me. At the same time, I paradoxically get scared that my hackneyed promotions might pay off and that the book might actually exceed expectations. I’ve heard this latter fear called the upper limit problem. I Googled “Fear of success.” Then I felt so presumptuous and silly, I quickly closed the browser.
The unfortunate side effect of constant comparison with a genius brother is that I assumed that I wasn’t as smart or talented or [insert desirable quality here] as my sibling, so my default is to always assume I’m lesser in every situation. In recent years, however, in my introspective, psychobabble way, I’ve been suspecting that it wouldn’t have mattered if my brother hadn’t been Einsteinian. I would probably still find a way to create false upper limits by comparing myself to someone else. Some people get motivated by upward comparison, and I, too, become motivated, but I also convince myself that I could never reach such exalted heights. Yet it doesn’t stop me from trying, all the while feeling like it’s a fruitless attempt. Confusing? Why, yes.
The solution is, of course, to stop with the comparison and to not think of the end result at all and enjoy the journey as all the platitudes assure me. And then there’s the whole business of defining success. I was actually doing great on this enjoy-the-journey front and ambling toward my own definition of success until the book launched. When this amorphous and previously unlikely concept of becoming a published author/illustrator turned into reality, words like “New York Times Bestseller” and “Caldecott” started whispering in my ear, teasing me and seducing me with the status boost they would give me. The overachiever in me pants with delight. This is embarrassing to admit, but I stood in front of the Bestseller shelf at Barnes & Noble the other day and considered moving the copies of Little Kunoichi next to Dragons Love Tacos, just to see how it would look. To pretend, you know? What’s interesting is that I would never move it to the #1 slot — maybe somewhere around #8 or #9. What does that mean? That I’m deluded, surely, but also that I can’t imagine myself at the top for even a purely hypothetical exercise. I’ll allow myself to dream of hitting the bestseller list, but I won’t allow myself to dream too big. That’s just way too scary. My saboteur will then come up with five trillion highly logical reasons I will be humiliated for even voicing this dream. It’s an upper limit problem that is also a spectacularly first world problem.
It’s difficult to talk about this with people, and I’m having a bear of a time figuring out this deluge of conflicting, jumbled emotions. I’m happy, yet terrified. I’m humbled, yet yearning for validation. I’m buoyed by confidence, yet painfully vulnerable. As we used to say when K was a toddler, I’m having big feelings. I think I need to go eat chocolate. A hedgehog-shaped chocolate, to be specific.
What about you? Do you ever find yourself creating arbitrary upper limits, thinking “I can’t possibly do that“?