A Beautiful Struggle
I grew up in Forest Hills, New York – a good middle-class neighborhood in Queens.
As a single child raised by two loving parents, I had a very good childhood.
In school, I was usually excellent and at the top of my class – ranging from back in elementary all the way to high school (at Stuyvesant High in Manhattan).
Outside of school, I was a talented piano player – learning from kindergarten, rapidly improving my skills, and eventually achieving Level 8 in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (or ABRSM for short). Trust me, it’s a big deal.
And partly, because of this blend of educational achievement and extracurricular talent, I developed a very strong sense of confidence in myself.
In high school, I worked hard towards getting into a top college, and my hard work paid off when I was accepted into the Cornell University School of Engineering!
I still remember the utter joy and sense of excitement I felt, after ripping open the acceptance letter to learn that I had indeed gotten into an Ivy League institution. Eat that haters!
I felt a little bit cocky - almost as if like I had “made it” in life. And although this sense of blasé, carefree attitude made me happy for a while, I wasn’t aware nor well-prepared for the challenges that I would face over those next 4 years at Cornell.
After years of being excellent academically, I was no longer at the top of the class, nor even considered average at Cornell. I had trouble mastering many of the ‘standard courses’ within my engineering major – stuff like stochastic processes, six sigma, and financial derivatives. Quite standard.
It boggled my mind. And I fell behind the curve and felt inferior intellectually.
Part of the reasons for my struggles was indeed because of the demanding curriculum that the Cornell Engineering School had in place. But, the other part was perhaps due to my own flawed work ethic.
The most humbling moment during those 4 years at college was failing Psychology 101 (of all things) - one of the simplest courses in school. And not because of my lack of skill, but because of my lack of effort and for taking everything for granted.
It was the first time I failed at anything academically, so it felt like a cold slap in the face. I eventually did graduate, but after I graduated in 2006, my confidence was torn.
I was confused and unsure of what to do with my life. And because of this, I started to become very nervous and scared to speak in front of large groups of people. Sometimes, I would feel my heart racing rapidly, with cold beads of sweat flowing down my face - while engaging in the simplest of conversations with friends.
It was disheartening and discouraging, because I was struggling so mightily in something that used to come so naturally to me. And I realized that I needed help.
So one day, when I was reading a self-help book called Never Eat Alone at Barnes & Nobles (back when it was still a thing), I came across the organization called Toastmasters – and read that it was a good place to improve your public speaking and communication skills within a supportive environment.
That next week, I attended my local club (True Potential) as a guest, was impressed, went to a couple more meetings, and eventually signed on as a member. I could not have made a better decision, nor could I have met a more supportive group of people.
From that point on, I made it a case to attend every possible meeting I could go to, despite the fear and discomfort that I knew I would encounter.
During the speaking opportunities I volunteered for at those meetings, sometimes I would falter, perspire, and just blank out. But, I accepted it and I wanted to speak more, in order to tackle this anxiety head on.
Every struggle at Toastmasters became a beautiful struggle, and after 3 years of persistent work, I eventually earned the CC (Competent Communicator) award in 2009 – an accomplishment that I was very proud of.
Nowadays, I can confidently say with some degree of certainty that my communication skills have improved, and I owe much of that to Toastmasters. The organization has taught me that life can be a struggle at times. But, it is a beautiful struggle. And one that we should welcome with open arms.