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  • Writer's pictureJessie Cheng

brb i’m off solving world hunger so i don’t feel like a useless lump of skin

Learning how to enjoy the ordinary in a culture where achievement is the top priority.

On May 22, 2023, I graduated from Boston College with a B.S. in Management. From a class size of 551, I was chosen as the Degree Representative for the business school, which meant walking up on stage and repeating in my head, “I am here because I earned it, not because I’m Asian,” while the President of the College put an academic hood over my head in a stadium of mostly White onlookers. I was also selected as the business school’s student commencement speaker, which meant walking into another stadium of mostly White onlookers and trying not to say “I am here because I earned it, not because I’m Asian” out loud. My speech was on embracing an abundance mindset, and that topic was chosen with intention. It was a message that I hoped my graduating class would be inspired by, and it’s one I aspire to live by more purposefully each day.

Left to right: yay to roses, me trying not to do something clumsy on camera, peace out Boston College

Right after graduation, my dad, my mom, my brother, and I went to Rhode Island for a short two-day trip. During dinner that night, as we slurped noodles and ate homemade steak at our hotel, my dad congratulated me again before saying, “You’ve reached an important milestone and finished college on a high note. Now, you can start thinking about what your next goal is and keep climbing up.” He turned to my brother and said something similar. “You two can start a business one day and pass out paychecks to others. Be the head, never the tail.” 

I’d heard many renditions of this spiel for as long as I can remember, though I’d honestly been tuning them out since I entered college. But hearing my dad repeat it again the same night of graduation felt like being handed a diploma that read, “Good job. Now, do even better.” 

After dinner, I spent some time in isolation when my brother entered the room. 

“Hey, listen up,” I said as my brother reluctantly put down his phone. I knew from the begrudging look on his face that he already knew what was coming. “I’m so annoyed right now," I started, "and I'm sick of these talks about always being the head and never the tail.” My brother was his high school’s valedictorian, and his college transcript isn’t filled primarily with As but A+s. This kid was brilliant enough as is, and I’d prefer he not absorb our dad’s message, too.

“I know, I know,” my brother said, and he asked if I was okay.

I nodded and grabbed a pillow to hug. “Just don’t take what Dad said to heart," I reminded him. "Your worth isn’t determined by your achievements.”

Props to my brother, because he’s been putting up with my mini speeches since he was born. He just said, “Yes, don’t worry. I know,” and I let him go back to his phone.

For some background, I started doing competitive public speaking when I was five years old. I doubt I even knew how to spell “February” then, yet I was on stage delivering speeches and being judged by a panel of unamused parents. I enjoyed the external validation that came in the form of plastic trophies and cheap certificates, but I never understood the appeal of public speaking until I started writing my own speeches. I dabbled in Original Oratory during high school, which made me realize I’d need to practice much more if I wanted to stand a chance against some of my competitors, who were absolutely stellar. Nonetheless, it was thrilling – getting to write about body image and the ills of diet culture – and nice to have a platform to deliver meaningful messages without interruption. 

"I'd like to personally thank the creator of bobby pins for anticipating this very day." - Jessie Cheng, 2023

All this is to say that delivering a commencement speech wasn’t something my parents found that out-of-the-world. Excellence is required of me, especially in areas I’ve been trained in since age five. Frankly, I wasn't nervous when delivering the speech. I was mostly just afraid that thousands of people would witness my graduation cap defeating the strength of twelve bobby pins. I probably would have cursed on camera – not the greatest look for a Jesuit Catholic institution. 

Friends, faculty, and family members hugged me after the ceremony and told me how great my speech was, but I was just relieved my cap didn't fall off and I could switch into Birks again. In my opinion, the delivery of my speech was subpar. As usual, I didn’t know how to celebrate an accomplishment but was instead, quick to nitpick myself: I could have slowed down and enunciated more, and I could have paused more between words and laid off the coffee.

I know my parents are proud of me, and that they would have been even if I weren’t the commencement speaker. But I have no doubts that if another student were selected, I would have been told that I should be up there instead and do a better job. It’s mind-blowing to me how extraordinary accomplishments just feel like normal, expected milestones to reach. Achievements feel so hard to enjoy, and I think it’s because I’ve been wired to believe I must always be working towards something more impressive so I don’t become lazy, apathetic, or the worst - “ordinary.” 

My dad is easily the most intelligent and hardworking person I know. Since I was young, he modeled a strong work ethic and hungry desire to always stand out among his peers. It’s what allowed him to become the first in his family to learn how to read and receive higher education. While his example influenced my own ambitious attitude, I also adopted my dad’s survival mentality. I had no idea how to truly enjoy the results of my hard work. When I released my debut novel at age nineteen, I remember clicking “publish” and then drowning in a wave of emptiness. I had dedicated almost two years to writing a book I loved, and I felt nothing but... nothing. 

Sept 2021 - taken by my college roommate!

Already, I was beginning to wonder what my next “big thing” should be. I thought about graduating early, since being a fresh graduate at twenty would help me feel a bit better about myself. I even tried writing a screenplay, until I realized that if I wanted to be a good screenwriter, I needed to actually watch TV shows and movies, not just The Hunger Games for the seventh time in a row. There was one night when I called my high school best friend and expressed how I felt like I needed to transfer to another college, because “no one else here is ambitious enough and they all live so much in the present.” Right, because the issue was definitely other people. Now, I’m sure that my cry was one of frustration towards myself and confusion towards those who actually knew how to cherish the present.

My friends weren’t blind to my workaholism either. On one of my birthdays, a roommate got me adorable stickers with phrases such as “I am more than my productivity” and “Did my best.” I still have these stickers on my journals and laptop, and they always make me smile when I see them. This is something I want to integrate more into my life: celebrating small wins and normalizing rotting on the couch for a day and not thinking my future will crumble because of it. 

I don’t want to focus the entire rest of my life on climbing up, because that mindset makes contentment so difficult and makes achievement the top priority. I want to climb out, because that shifts the focus onto growth and deriving contentment from the learning process. I want to read thought-provoking books, and I want to make new friends who accept me and motivate me to improve at the same time. I want to diversify the kinds of work I do in my career, I want to learn more about my faith, and I want to learn the guitar and not do it with the goal of putting out an album or becoming a worship leader at church but simply for the joy of learning it itself. 

To put it blandly, I just want to live with curiosity. And if that doesn’t manifest in some ground-breaking project, whatever. The sky will still be blue and croissants will still taste amazing.

One quality my dad has modeled beautifully is a fearlessness towards trying new things and embracing change. He himself went from being a chemistry teacher to a software engineer before becoming a full-time church elder and a PhD student in seminary school. My dad navigates these changes with so much joy and purpose, and that is one thing I am grateful he continues to demonstrate: a drive fueled primarily by internal motivations rather than by the need to impress others.

Workaholism allowed my parents to move to the States so my brother and I could enjoy the privileges here, and I am forever thankful for that. I’m sure my dad knows I’m capable of branching out, but he also wants success so badly for me that the message has always been to outcompete my peers, to stand out and to always be the leader, never the follower. To do something unconventional for my age. To believe that an abundance mindset will make me stagnant. To be the one who passes out the paycheck one day, not the one who spends her entire life waiting for another one. To keep climbing up, because that’s less risky than jumping onto a new ladder and starting at the bottom again. 

It’s just a lot at times, Dad. I love you so much, and I thank you and Mom for working so hard. I doubt I’ll ever be on Forbes 30 under 30 or sleep on stacks of cash, and that's more than okay.

One thing I do want to express is that a want for achievement, success, and discipline isn’t necessarily a vice so long as we can control it and not the other way around. To this day, I still believe that my desire for achievement greatly facilitated my eating disorder recovery. While motivation and a desire to give up the eating disorder aren’t necessary for recovery, they certainly make it easier, and I was determined. I did my assignments, I never missed a session, and I set goals with my therapist and told her “I will achieve them” and learn how to eat properly again. Working with a therapist also helped me accept and love my ambition. There were sessions where I’d be clawing at my hair, talking about how burdensome my ambitious personality felt. My therapist told me that ambition wasn’t the bad guy; it was actually a helper until it became the only thing that got me going. 

This was insightful, along with the fact that success is relative and looks different for everyone. For a few, it might be finding a cure for disease or building the next piece of technology. For adults, it might be navigating complex family dynamics or maintaining strong friendships. For children, it might be getting an extra sticker on a homework assignment or learning new monkey bar tricks. 

And for some, it’s simply getting by another day, which doesn’t always feel simple at all. 

It’s been several months since I graduated college, and I still have a few more weeks* before I begin working. Currently, my average day looks like rotting on the floor, reading, writing, FaceTiming friends, having the audacity to buy myself $7 coffee, and dancing in my room at 2am in the morning. I will say like many others, the first few months of post-grad life were marked by anxiety. I felt like I was screwed for the rest of my life because I didn’t already land a full-time job by the end of last August.

Left to right: me enjoying Costco croissants, matcha latte with my high school best friend, late night drives with my childhood friend

But I think God knew I needed this time to just be at home and focus on resting. I finally began learning how to live more in the present, and it feels so good I can’t believe I got through college without combusting. I’ve been able to enjoy slow mornings, play Chinese chess with my grandma, and stare at the wall without feeling like a useless lump of skin. This season of life will be hard to get again once I do start working, and I recognize how privileged I am to be able to enjoy it fully. 

I’ve been unlearning the belief that I must always be impressive, and I’m still unlearning it. In fact, I think I’ll spend my entire life trying to unlearn my fear of being “ordinary” and not achieving “enough.” One way I’ve been working towards that is through writing, which is something I love so dearly. I can express my thoughts and emotions, and as the reader, you can either read the stuff I write or never glance at it, and that’s fine. There are no longer rubrics, plastic trophies, cheap certificates, or a panel of unamused parents. I do try to make my writing as engaging as possible, of course, but I could really care less about how many people are impressed by it when my main love has always just been to share meaningful stories. 

*This essay was written in January 2024. 

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