“Are you ready?”
“Tell me when you are, okay?”
“How about now? Are you ready?”
“Well, it’s already done.”
This was the exchange between nine-year-old me, lying on the operating table, and my surgeon. I had an emergency appendectomy. And as you could probably tell, I drifted into unconsciousness after that “okay.” I still remember all the nurses chuckling at my stunned reaction to the completion of something I swore I was not ready for.
It’s one of those amusing memories I sometimes think back on as an adult. But as I was in my introspective and goal-setting mode leading to the new year, I started to see it in a new light.
Being mentally ready and physically ready might be two different things. Get out of your own way, and you’ll see you’re more than ready and way more capable of achieving your goal than you could ever imagine. We can’t numb the fear like anesthesia does the pain, of course, but we can learn to dance with it and surrender.
With that, I wish you a glorious 2022 ahead. May your new year be filled with moments where you pleasantly surprise yourself.
This was the message I posted on LinkedIn at the beginning of this year. And here we are, taking stock of the past 12 months and getting ready to usher in 2023.
First of all, I'm proud to report that I've achieved all of the three professional goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year: presenting at the 63rd Annual Conference of the American Translators Association, passing the ATA certification exam for Chinese-to-English translation, and making networking a habit. (I joined a six-month ATA Mastermind group and regularly attended professional events hosted by ATA's Chinese Language Division and Audiovisual Division, as well as my local ATA chapter, National Capital Area Translators Association.)
While I like to believe that I'm getting incrementally better every year, I do want to point out that there was nothing drastic about 2022 that suddenly made me capable of achieving these things. I have been a decent public speaker since my school years and have been sitting on my presentation ideas for quite a while. I could've had the confidence to pursue Chinese-to-English professionally a bit earlier. And all these events I finally became a part of have been in existence for years. The only big difference is that I made a conscious decision to stop believing I wasn't ready and start taking action because I finally realized comfort and growth can never coexist.
Here are three mindset shifts that did me a ton of good this year.
Accepting discomfort and fear
Like it was for many people, the pandemic stripped away many daily distractions and forced me to sit with myself and observe my life more closely. It was a dark night of the soul kind of moment for me as I came to the difficult realization that my world was shrinking. And I understood why when I chanced upon The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. The very first paragraph blew me away: "Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it." His point is not one of pessimism. It's about normalizing challenges as a part of life—they are not a bug but a feature; they are how we grow and live an enriching life as a person.
He goes on to say that the "tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness." This insight was what I needed to unravel my anxieties around mistakes, failures, and problems. I was under the misconception that everything must go right, or else it's just…wrong. I literally trapped myself in the cocoon of my comfort zone, which, trust me, was not at all comfortable to be in. When we are not growing, we are stuck and will eventually shrivel. That's just the law of the universe.
That LinkedIn post was my declaration of truce—not war—with discomfort and fear. I've learned that they are a natural response to new and unfamiliar endeavors, which means coexistence is the only option. As Elizabeth Gilbert pronounced to Fear in her phenomenal book Big Magic, "You're allowed to have a seat, and you're allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote." Getting my veto power back and charging ahead made all the difference.
Becoming an "imperfectionist"
Another pivotal a-ha moment I had was when reading Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani, in which she highlighted this "perfect or bust" mentality that perfectionist high-achievers tend to have. That was the first time I realized perfectionism can be a toxic trait and that there's a difference between pursuing perfection and excellence.
You see, the source of perfectionism is fear and insecurity. There's a lot of guilt and shame tied to the possibility of getting busted for making mistakes, which is only human! We might spend too much time trying to get everything "just right," or we might avoid taking on new challenges altogether because we're afraid of making mistakes or not being good enough. And you guessed it, that's how I got stuck.
Since then, I've been working on not being too precious about things. Of course, this doesn't mean I stopped dotting my i's and crossing my t's. I'm still giving my best effort to everything I do, but I've learned to catch myself when agony starts to rise and I'm being unproductively obsessive. More importantly, I've noticed that when thinking about doing something, my reaction now leans more towards "it doesn't hurt to try" rather than "it probably won't work." This is such a big deal! I knew I'd become a different person when I finally decided to break into interpreting, a professional goal that intrigued me for years but remained ever so far away as my perfectionism held me back. It's been freeing to be a beginner again and put myself in the mindset of practicing and improving.
Focusing on showing up
Speaking of practicing and improving, "process over result" has become my new mantra. Instead of spending energy on judging the results and feeling discouraged when nothing is showing, I now simply trust results will appear if I just doggedly follow the process. Hugely inspired by James Clear's much deserved charts-topping bestseller Atomic Habits (can you tell I'm a self-improvement junkie by now?), I put my systems first: I do my Spanish lesson on Duolingo every day; I alternate in English and Chinese reading and vocabulary building every day; and I write my monthly blog post and newsletter.
It's the same way with networking. I focus on signing up for events and clicking on the Zoom link when it's time. When I used to be hyper-focused on results, I would get discouraged easily. If I went to an event but didn't make any meaningful connections, I'd think of it as a waste of time and stopped going altogether. Now I just see myself as someone who loves to meet new people and connect with colleagues. If there's an event, I'm there. I show up and extend my hand and say hi. The momentum will handle the rest.
Do I still get nervous? Do I still get tempted to not go? Yes and yes. But I've learned that it's particularly by showing up and continuing to make an effort, even when motivation is low, that I get to demonstrate to myself that I can keep promises. And little by little, I am expanding my professional network and have received so much collegial support.
These mindset shifts helped me break out of my comfort zone, try new things, and make positive changes in my life and career. To me, having a healthy mindset is essential for taking the necessary action. I hope this post has reminded you to see challenges as opportunities for growth, stay focused and resilient, and build productive habits. Here's to another year of self-support, self-trust, and self-compassion.