Working hard was simply survival.. / by Marlous Teh


I started writing this blog post as a way of reflecting on the many nuggets of wisdom I'd taken away from Arianna Huffington's Supersoul session, including finding her mentioned four pillars of life (wellbeing, wisdom, wonder, giving) which I found to be very similar to my personal framework for life harmony (learning, vision, curiosity, community). But I found myself reflecting more on the concept of work ethic and where mine came from.

The first time I heard about Arianna Huffington was probably on the Oprah show where she talked about her incident at work where she collapsed from exhaustion onto the table, waking in a pool of blood and having to go into hospital whereafter her life drastically changed. What goes through your mind as you imagine this happening in your environment? 

I think that moment I saw the video and how Arianna spoke about her tragic incident but magic awakening, I saw my family's multiple generations of rice-field-workers's and restaurant owners's work ethic reflected in that same kind of thinking before she collapsed, including my own.

From when I was young, there wasn't a thing more important than work, making money, which meant sacrifices.

Fun time? Family time? Other than school time, hm not really. I think I was lucky to just get an hour with Mum making a speedy trip to the shops to get stuff (often for the restaurant) to then head back to get ready for the restaurant rush. Dad was always in the kitchen from day to night and there was no questioning about his presence.

When I was nine, Mum and I were out to the shops again and as we were walking back to the restaurant, I upsettingly asked why we couldn't stay out longer. (You could say I was throwing a little tantrum.) It was 4pm then, which meant just an hour or so before rush hour, and we were in the middle of the streets in the city centre.

Mum stopped walking and looked at me very upset and almost conflicted.. I can still remember how I felt and I could see the pain in her eyes. I knew it was not an option and from that day, I didn't go there anymore.

I'd accepted to put the task/work/business over our family time and had the expectation that others would do the same. I followed Mum closely in my training and therefore also in this work ethic and mentality, and we were like a dream team working together.

I think the luxury I grew up with is that at least I knew and tasted that there could be a different life. At least I knew what real family time looked like, what a family vacation was, what play time was. I couldn't see my mum asking for those things when she was ploughing away at the rice fields back in the days merely to have the family put food on the table..

"Working hard is a status thing", according to Arianna's talk and I agree we've very much adopted the 'busy-ness as a life style' applicable to our generation. However, for my family, the belief was that working hard was simply survival.

Having my great grandparents and family being born in a country where scarcity was the norm, and not abundance, does that to you. Having a family that were the first generation to be doing something different in a foreign country, meant that we needed to work harder to "get there". It meant we had to work so hard that we sometimes "didn't have time" to eat or drink throughout the day. We also had to scout out the biggest savings on supplies (without sacrificing quality and value) because to make money we had to know how to save money.

I volunteered to scout all the supermarket deals every week and reported back to Mum what we could get cheaper, when and where. For some reason, I loved contributing in this way.

Even though I accepted that this was my life growing up, I still questioned and compared.. Why didn't we get the family time or dinner time with desserts together like normal kids, rather than the pre-rush-hour chow down of our foods in the restaurant. Why didn't I get the help with my homework like my friends in school? Why didn't I get to spend Christmas together lighting candles and signing cheesy Christmas songs whilst we stuffed ourselves with way too much food? Well, because we were always working. (I also later found out that this was a classic case of the grass is greener...)

Upon reflection, I really feel that all those things and many more, including being the first generation to be a University graduate, have been my privilege and the origin of my appreciation for resourcefulness and opportunities. And I wouldn't want any of it to be different.

What I find beautiful now is that with the years, letting go, and the ability to have an adult conversation with my family, I can say, I'd love to spend more quality time with you because it's important to me, rather than throw a tantrum and say "I want this now!".

I think the other side of the equation of working hard is that we look a the results we are trying to produce. The simple > If, then... < And how the belief is that hard work equals the (deserving) result. Whilst I want to reserve the self worth conversation in another post, I always want to make stuff happen and so I do stuff. I'm one to often say "you get what you put in". But the truth is that my biggest awareness to date has been to constantly realise that my efforts don't always equal my desired or deserving result. Sometimes I invest so much time and effort into something that I truly believe is to be valuable and important, often to find myself be disappointed. Sometimes shizzle just hits the fan and things don't work out... Whether this is a battle between my ego and faith in life.. I think this ties in well with what Arianna shares as the lesson that has taken her the longest to learn...

"I don’t make everything happen. Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen. I do my 100% and the rest I leave to faith and go free. We cannot be attached to the result, cause is not up to us. As long as we do our part, we have done it." - Arianna Huffington

I've found this to be more true for me too. It doesn't mean that I'm going to give up sooner just because I know things aren't in my control. But it means that I'm trying to be more conscious.

The more I try to be present and choose to ride the waves and paths that life throws at me, the more trust I put in the dance. And that's scary sometimes. (AKA Freaking not-being-able-to-sleep terrifying sometimes)

As we're talking dance, it reminds me how much life actually is like dancing. When I started doing salsa dancing and ballroom dancing, I was always one to try and "control" (where normally the man leads the dance), with the result it always feeling clumsy and not natural or flowing. As I got better with letting it go free, I started loving dancing so much because I truly experienced the flow and the dance.

As I experience more of life (and its dancing!), I'm also appreciating more that mistakes and so-called failures are part of that dance that sometimes make it a fun learning experience.

Happy dancing.

Can you relate to my reflections? Have you ever thought of your family's work ethic and how that's influenced your life? What were your grass is greener moments when you were younger? How's that working for you now? Please drop me a note :)