Harvard Material

In China, it’s widely believed that if you go to one of those schools, your future is all set. But I never believe a word of it.

I was raised to believe that there was such a thing called “Harvard Material.” (Aka. Tsinghua/Beida Material for its Chinese counterpart.)

Kids who are labeled as such breeze through their school years who are more often than not early readers.

From my own and my beloved parents’ recollection, I was none of those above.

I sucked at math – as a Chinese. I watched TV throughout the summer/winter vacations and dashed for the last few days to finish my vacation homework. 

I hated myself. I vowed that this was the last time, that I would never repeat the same mistake ever again. And if I did, I was no better than a dog. 

Spoiler alert: I did for many, many years. 

Then things changed. I changed. I suddenly felt the stake was much higher than I had imagined. My working class folks would never give me the kind of leg up or back door or financial cushion that some parents were able to provide their kids. 

I began grinding. But I didn’t end up in any of these schools that need you to be their material first. I went to an average school. But my hope didn’t end. 

In China, it’s widely believed that if you go to one of those schools, your future is all set. But I never believe a word of it.

By now, I’m confident that most of those former material students are now stuck in lame jobs, their dreams buried in moss.

But then, there are folks who are real Harvard Material. Like Barack Obama, as I’ve just learned through Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. 

Before he was in the Senate, Barack read some six or seven books at the same time, reads two to three newspapers from cover to cover, while keeps a senior teaching position at University of Chicago plus getting an advance to finish a book about his unique background, while raising a family with Michelle. 

I was dumbfounded by the extend of things he was able to get done. I was no less impressed with Michelle. A mother of two young daughters, she held a full time job while rallying for her husband when he decided to run for president… Of course it was a joint effort. But just how they were able to function at their best under pressure is truly something worthy of study. 

I, on the other hand, start to feel the weight of the pressure when I have a number to things to tackle while my mum takes care of my laundry and my dad is the best chef anyone can ask for. 

This evening on time, I sent another student director the first draft of the short script she briefed me two days ago.  The reason I took the gig was because I really liked the simplicity of the story and I didn’t want her to entrust anybody else to write it. But it meant that when I took on the assignment, I would very likely have to delay the shipping date of my podcast. 

By early this morning, I stopped kidding myself that I could actually do both at the same time without composing both. But tomorrow, I will ship the podcast. I envy people like Obama who are not only gifted, but grind day in and day out. When they do succeed, people and the mass media conclude that they are in fact Harvard Material as if that was the basis of every success under the sun.

I beg to differ. To show the world, again, that there’re other decent materials like yours truly, who can and will get there, even though she didn’t go down the obvious path, even though she can’t process information like an Intel chip. 

If I can be anything, I want to be another example of the people who are too late to be Harvard Material, who don’t fit into the pattern of the Success Matrix, who is both woman and Asian… who has a hope, and an undying dream to be something more than her reality through storytelling.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Leap of faith

Even when I fall, I know they will catch me.

I had insomnia last night. It’s been this way for a few weeks now. I would force myself to bed around or a little before midnight and tossed and turned till probably past one-thirty or like yesterday two-thirty. 

I plugged in my iPhone and kept listening to Michelle Obama’s new book Becoming. By now, Michelle had left her high-pay law firm job and became an assistant at the Chicago City Hall. Her salary got cut from 120K to 60K. 

Michelle described in detail how she realized her two Ivy League degrees (Princeton B.A. and Harvard Law J.D.) didn’t bring her happiness or fulfillment. And worst of all, she realized that she didn’t even want to be a lawyer to begin with.

She was faced with an age-old economy challenge: sunk cost.

  • Do I keep on staying to pay off my staggering student loan and maximizing the ROI of these expensive degrees and the years of hard-work?
  • Or do I stop the bleed right now and pivot even it means I may suffer financially and lose face in front of my friends and relatives?

 

I faced an eerily similar challenge four years ago. I was the youngest department head leading my own team at a prestigious ad agency. I remember walking past its building as a fresh college graduate fantasizing what it would be like to work there… Three year later, my dream came true fast and furious. I was earning good yuan, helping my family with the mortgage, helping myself with a wardrobe of designer clothes, never giving a thought about dining at fancy restaurants because now I had my own expense account… Most of all, I enjoy the look of my peers when I told them about the firm I worked for and the title I held there. In short, I understand why men buy Porsche. This job was my Porsche.

And yet, slowly, I felt hollow and shallow… I was dying inside.

The inciting event for Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson) to change was the sudden deaths of her father of 52 years old and her college roommate Suzanne of 26 years old; plus her ideal boyfriend Barack Obama’s constant questions about her being, her status quo. 

Though much less traumatic, my hinge moment was the call from my firm asking me to visit Sichuan two months after the earthquake. Apart from giving out relief goods, I saw kids using fly and maggot -infested ditches and holes the way we use toilet. My heart broke when I saw they couldn’t take naps lying down because their little beds were in crumbles.

I then flew back to my perfect cosmopolitan life in Shanghai with a mission. I launched a fundraise to buy safe table, chairs and mats for these kids. I was asking for 200,000 RMB, roughly 36,000 USD. The campaign took two months of my free time. But I did it.

I celebrated by calling my dad after the meeting. “Dad, guess what. You are wrong.”

“Tell me more.”

“The kids will have safe equipment within a month.”

He was proud and elated, but he simply replied, “Good.”

I then added, “Dad, I just realized that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”

“Now don’t get cocky.”

But he knew what I meant.

When I quit my ad agency job to apply for film school, he and mum didn’t stand in the way. 

When I decided to come back to Shanghai to prepare for my artist visa, they welcomed me back with open arms. 

I don’t recall they ever say “We told you so” or “Have you considered something less risky?”

My parents saw something in me when I pulled off my first stunt. That is, getting hired by Wimbledon Tennis and finding a friend of a friend who let me stay at their place in Southfields, London for free, and snagged an interview by Shanghai Sports Channel when I was merely an exchange student to Liverpool John Moores University as a junior in college.

You see, everyone has moments of truth and dare. But more often than not, it became moments of shame and chicken-out. But honestly, how would you know if you never give yourself a chance?

Now, here is another new realization: four years ago after I submitted my application to UCLA Film School, I then asked myself just how realistic and practical this pivot was.

I became so scared that I developed stomach cramps. My fear grew even more severe when I landed LA. Facing a group of already-professional writers, I cringed at my writing, at my stories, at myself. I turned into my own enemy. It was a single-looping tune of “You will never ever belong. Period.”

And yet, right now, less than two months after I got back in Shanghai, I’m already stacking my writer portfolio. If I count the hatched and soon-to-be hatched eggs in my basket, I have four short film credits, two feature credits, several honors as visiting professor and lecture. And counting. 

I add “And counting” because I know Snowball Effect conceptually and practically. Once your stuff is out there, you will get more momentum. More momentum means more opportunity.  Sure, I’ve had and still have people doubt my worth and my value. But unlike my Old Self, I now focus on the lovely people who gave me their leap of faith when I was at the point of ‘0 to 1.’

And since I had let my ambition cloud my judgement and common sense before, I know that this time, I need to listen to my heart to produce good work, which will turn into good karma. 

And because of the lovely people whom I handpick to surround and buttress me, I can keep having my faith, for the next big leap… 

Even when I fall, I know they will catch me. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ