R’Perspective: How proactivity and humility determine what true success is

As graduation draws near and senioritis kicks in, I have realized that being proactive is perhaps the most important trait to gain from college. Sometimes this is phrased on job applications as “must be a self-starter” and paired with phrases like a “positive attitude” or  “desire to learn.” Hence, this trait far outreaches secondary factors like a high GPA or being in an honors program. Because American society operates as a meritocracy, people attribute success to things which are nominally impressive but unfortunately, superficial. This was especially evident through the noticeable disapproval that I received upon recently turning down a paid summer teaching gig in Japan in favor of working with KCET, a nonprofit broadcast network.

Out of a group of 10 friends, family and co-workers, only one or two individuals genuinely congratulated me and said it was the best decision for me in the long run. The majority seemed to think it was a bad idea, considering the way their faces distorted in confusion. Although they were able to restrain themselves from asking me why I threw away the chance for a paid trip to Japan to work with KCET, their facial expressions gave away their feelings of confusion and disapproval. Perhaps because nonprofits are usually thought of as less prestigious and glamorous ventures than teaching abroad, due to catering to the public’s welfare, people were less impressed by my landing a summer internship at KCET. To others it seemed that getting an internship at KCET inherently was “easier” and less worthwhile to obtain compared to the Japan summer teaching opportunity. This palpable feeling of puzzlement that I received only served to make me question what true success was.

Particularly, when people now ask me how I got to have seemingly prestigious opportunities, they seem disappointed when I attribute my success to being proactive. In fact, people seem to think it was crazy that I went through almost 15 interviews back in my freshman year in order to get the Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship — a paid, minorities-only summer internship with Los Angeles-based museums and visual arts organizations. Judging from their reactions, it was as if, somehow, it was underwhelming and unexciting to hear about my persistence in attending job interviews in spite of the far-fetched job requirements. Despite people knowing that effort and persistence are important factors judged in interviews, they kept asking how easy or how hard it was to acquire those opportunities.

Sometimes, I think that people expect me to weave a crazy and elaborate story, or reveal how privileged I am as explanations for how I got opportunities like these. In fact, my motivation to be proactive and the success that resulted from it are largely due to the hands-off approach that my mother took when raising my siblings and me. Despite my mom and I clashing in high school when I decided that I wanted to pursue the arts, she nonetheless encouraged me to “keep trying.” Her mantra of, “It never hurts to ask — the worst they could do is say no,” meant to me that humility, an important facet of proactivism, necessitated a certain degree of vulnerability, maturity and patience from an individual. In fact, my mother’s mantra reminded me to find a balance of proactivity, tenacity and risk-taking which many people lack otherwise — by not practicing humility.

Oftentimes, the people who keep trying to find an easy, traceable route to follow for success are the same ones who weren’t raised to risk being denied or faced with failure. This further reveals how people are trained to be afraid, indecisive and lazy without that motivation to “keep trying.” While the misunderstanding that a college degree can give job skills is a huge contributor, the main fault for this lazy attitude ultimately lies in what Marie Artim describes as “a generation (of college students) that has been ‘syllabused’ through their lives.” This is especially evident in how college group work oftentimes is difficult because everyone’s waiting for another person to take the initiative to be the de facto leader — instead of being proactive on their own. This proves that people in general do not understand what true success is because they do not understand that the elements of humility, proactivity and failure are necessary in order for an individual to be successful. Ultimately, I would have had a short-term success if I had chosen to stick with the summer teaching opportunity in Japan because it would have given me very little beneficial resume development in the long-run.

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