When I was five years old, I got my first report card. Since it was just for kindergarten, the scale was pretty lax. I got a check or a check plus in every subject. My parents told me over and over again how proud they were. However, there was a brief note on the bottom of the card. Not yet knowing cursive, I had to rely on my parents to interpret the loopy words.
“Brian has some trouble cutting a straight line with scissors.”
And just like that, despite all the approval, I was aware that I was insufficient. The actual problem was just that my motor skills were still developing, but I didn’t understand that at five years old. And ever since, I have been conscious that I need to be better than what I am. As I have grown, the concepts have become more complex. I had to wash my hands, so that I didn’t get sick. I had to be nicer to my sister because it’s wrong to make people feel bad, and you won’t be respected unless you treat others with respect. I had to master equations so that I could do well in math classes in high school, so I could get into a good college, so I could get a good job, so I could contribute to society. I had to conduct myself beyond reproach so I could overcome people’s low expectations based on my skin color, so I could have opportunities others miss, so I could make the world a better place.
When I was half-heartedly trying to become a football player, the coaches would make us do these inane drills with rope ladders and medicine balls, and they would critique every little aspect of form. It was all Mr. Miyagi, wax on, wax off kind of things. “Muscles learn,” they would yell, “And if you start off doing things the wrong way, you’re going to have problems later on. It’s easier to learn a good habit than to break a bad habit.” Although I didn’t play football for very long, that advice stuck with me. Even if I didn’t like a subject or thought a class was boring, I tried to follow the process for doing things the right way. For the most part, I’ve succeeded, but there’s always that nagging fear that it won’t be good enough.
It got more confusing after finally earning my bachelor’s degree. The steps had been pretty clearly laid out all the way up to college, but ever since graduating, the process of discovering and improving my insufficiencies has been a lot more painful. Despite majoring in business, I somehow didn’t learn much about managing my personal finances, and I had some close calls early on. I keep seeking out relationships, and they keep failing. I try not to care, but after each break up, when the loneliness settles in, I wonder what’s wrong with me. My job at Agrimode, though it made money, was not good enough for my parents, especially my dad. Of course they love me no matter what, but I could see the disappointment in their eyes, and it made me feel again like a little kid in trouble for calling my sister a name. I’m supposed to be a functioning member of society by now, but mostly I’m just making things up as I go.
I know where the road I’m driving leads, but I don’t know what driving it every day will do to me. I had hopes—I had such hopes for my new job job—not just hopes for what I would get to do, but what it would mean. Working at a not-for-profit, I could continue my mom’s legacy, maybe even make up for some of what she gave up. By quitting my corporate job and making a difference for the underprivileged, I could redeem myself in the eyes of my father. And maybe by being happier with my career, I could be happier in the rest of my life, and maybe even in a relationship. I thought that changing jobs would change me. I thought that was the next step to becoming better, but I’m still me. I’m still insufficient. My new bosses at Build Tomorrow didn’t like my ideas. Rationally, I know it’s because they are stuck in their own way of doing things, but I can’t help feeling that somehow, I am not good enough. But what exactly is the deficiency? Am I lacking in creativity? Is it the quality of my work? Do I present myself poorly? I don’t know what I need to work on. And I worry that every day I will be building and reinforcing bad habits—that I am becoming worse, not better. And the ultimate end is certain. What will become of all this meaning I have constructed then?
“You have so much potential,” my parents told me over and over again as I was growing. Today, I can handle a pair of scissors just fine. I can cut straight lines, zig-zags, curves, whatever you need. It’s not all that simple. It hasn’t always been forward progress, but I have become better. I have become more. “We just want to see you become the best you are capable of being.” I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But my end hasn’t come yet either. I can still get closer before the dust settles on who I am and what I’ve done.