By the time she called me, my friend was desperate. As an avid gardener who loved to cultivate delicate, expensive blooms, she usually had no problem keeping her plants healthy and vibrant — but for some reason, she couldn’t keep her favorite flower from withering away. She had tried giving it more sunshine, food, and water, but to no avail. It was dying, and she didn’t know how to save it. I asked her to bring the plant for a visit. Once she arrived, I examined its discolored, undersized leaves and drooping stems. I heard her gasp as I began the slow process of stripping the earth away from its roots. “Is it really that sick?” she asked. “Sometimes,” I said, my fingers still gently working the too-soft, dark roots free, “the problem can’t be helped from the surface.” The expensive plant was suffering from an infection in its roots. To fix it, I had to expose the problem to the air and remove the diseased parts before we could re-pot the plant and let it grow. You can probably guess where I’m going to go with this. In some ways, we are all like that plant. Often, the fears and insecurities that prevent us from flourishing have roots that we can’t see on the surface of our lives. And yet, all of us have beliefs about ourselves that trace back to nearly forgotten rejections, some of them so long past that we’re no longer aware how much a part they still play in our lives today. We might not sing because a childhood choir teacher told us we weren’t very good; we might not let ourselves try at something, because a family member told us we would look foolish in the attempt. Everyone has endured hurtful criticism at one time or another, whether or not your childhood was a happy one. Regardless of your past, these negative ideas about ourselves are as damaging as that toxic bacteria, eating away at our confidence and willingness to reach beyond our comfort zone. Self-doubt can be crippling; it can prevent us from pursuing a dream, pushing for a promotion, or speaking up when it counts. I’ve felt this kind of limiting belief firsthand. Growing up in a rural Korean village in the 1950s, I was always derided for being born a girl. My gender was considered a curse on my family, especially because I had no interest in becoming a homemaker. My true love was martial arts; a pursuit allowed only to men. I was constantly derided for my passions and told that I would fail; I was rejected, abused, and put down on a near-constant basis. My experience is extreme, but it is in no way an isolated occurrence. Every person faces the challenge of other peoples’ expectations in their life; from childhood, other people always provide directions for who we should be and how we should act. Sadly, sometimes these instructions have little to do with who we really are. In fact, many people provide advice as a way to control or gain power, addressing some lack in their own life. Yet, even knowing this, how often do we allow those around us to tell us who we are, and what we can expect from ourselves? How many times in a day do you defer to some belief about yourself, given to you by someone else from long ago? You don’t need to allow others to define you. Despite the oppressive nature of my village, I managed to become the first female grandmaster in Korea and establish my own studio. You can clean that rot off of your psychological roots and bloom into the person you were always meant to be — but the process will take effort. Here are the six truths you will need to accept as you heal your roots and reconnect with your true self. You Are Unique There is no one else in the world who is exactly like you. Don’t let another person’s opinions affect your self-image or motivations, because their perspective is incomplete. You may have good advisors, but at the end of the day, you are the one who knows yourself best. You get to decide who you want to be. No one else can tell you who you are. You Have More Strength Than You Know In life or death situations, you can accomplish anything. How many stories have you heard of desperate mothers lifting cars off of their trapped children, or of people pushing the odds of human survival? We are all linked into a universal life force — one that allows us to overcome our perceived physical and mental limitations. Most people aren’t aware of their connection to this underlying force. However, given training and focus, anyone can access it. Don’t confuse feeling weak with being weak. You may have doubts, indeed, fear plays a part in any healthy person’s thoughts! But you don’t have to surrender to that fear, today. You can acknowledge its presence, and then move past, ultimately leaving it behind. Your Thoughts Determine Your Reality If you allow negative thoughts to dictate your self-image, you will always be bound by the limitations others impose upon you. Take a more deliberate approach to mental filtering; recognize intrusive, negative thoughts when they come and respond with positive affirmations. Say, “No, I can accomplish what I intend to do. If others can reach their goals, I too can make my dreams happen.” Language is a powerful tool: in politics, in religion, in advertising, and in our daily lives. Don’t let your language about yourself limit your progress. Change the way you think and talk about yourself. It’s not always easy, but I guarantee the practice of positive thinking and speaking will yield a difference in what you are able to manifest. You Embody Creative Energy We all have creative energy; however, when we give up on creating, we pour that energy into a mold of helplessness, reinforcing our belief in our own inaction. Break the cycle; find the motivation you need to create something — a hobby, a friendship, a career — that brings you true fulfillment. You Already Have the Power to Make Your Dreams a Reality Without determination, any good intentions will stall, lacking the energy necessary to make it a reality. Remember, procrastination is just another symptom of self-doubt. Even five minutes of action a day towards your goals can move you away from paralysis and into success. Set a timer if you have to, and begin. The good news? Getting started is the hardest part. The more you do, the less likely it is that you’ll sink back into your comfortable, unfulfilling patterns. Take one step today. Two steps tomorrow. You Need to Find What Brings You Joy Do you know what makes you happy? I’m not talking about what makes your family happy, or earns you a paycheck, or the expectations you have set for yourself. No — I’m asking if you know what brings a smile to your face and makes you feel alive. What “thing” brings you joy? Don’t allow doubt to poison your psychological “roots.” Don’t let the careless words of others from the past define your present, or your future. Make that “thing” be the primary driver for everything you do, and the top priority for how you structure your day. No matter who you are, no matter what hardships you face, you alone have the power to determine how you will respond to the challenges you encounter, and by what values you will live. Your path is your own. Every successful person you will meet knows this to be true, and yet I am always so sad to meet so many people who don’t believe this, still. The truth is that you are free to take action, starting right now, in this moment, towards making what is important to you a reality. Let’s get started!
The minutes ticked on as I sat outside of the principal’s office, waiting for someone to ask me why I was there. I was prepared for the question; I had, in fact, placed a bookmark into my worn Korean-English dictionary and marked the page where I’d written my answer in careful letters. Hello, my name is Tae Yun Kim. I want to teach your students martial arts. But no one had asked. Every afternoon for the last several weeks, I had taken a seat and waited for an invitation to speak, to no avail. At just over twenty, I was tiny and thin — at a glance, I almost looked like one of the students walking through the schools’ halls. But aside from a few odd glances, no one spoke to me. Yet, day in and out, I returned with my dictionary in hand, preparing for the day that someone would invite me inside. It took a month. Finally, a curious administrator asked me what I was doing, and I finally had a chance to explain. The principal was skeptical, at first. He told me that the school couldn’t pay me, that they didn’t want students to hurt themselves, that there was no martial arts course in place. “That’s okay,” I told him, “I’ll volunteer, and martial arts will teach your students discipline.” After some time, he agreed. Persistence, I’ve learned, is often the key to success. After the first few days of waiting, some might have given up or assumed the answer was no — but because I committed myself, I was able to achieve both acceptance and opportunities beyond measure. Having the chance to teach brought me joy, because all I wanted to do was share my skills in martial arts. Back then, I was barely into my twenties and had just made the journey from my village in rural Korea to Vermont. Teaching was my dream — and I had struggled for years to study martial arts, facing abuse in a profoundly repressive patriarchal culture. I’d become Korea’s very first female grandmaster but was rejected as a teacher because of my gender. I wanted to teach, as I had been taught, and help others break free of their fears and circumstances — I just needed the chance. That day, in that office, was my chance. It’s been decades since that day, but I still remember it. Since then, I’ve moved on to establish my own school, hundreds of miles away. I’ve taught thousands of students, built a tech company, and risen far above where my elders thought I would — all because of persistence. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years. If You Don’t Ask, You Guarantee Rejection Many people abide by unnecessarily strict rules, so boxed in by their fears of seeming impolite or overly forward that they wall themselves off from opportunities. Another person might have been intimidated or embarrassed by the idea of sitting outside of a principal’s office for a month — but taking a risk on that embarrassment helped me make an enormous step forward in my career. I don’t regret it, and I wouldn’t even if the answer was a firm rejection. You are only ever guaranteed to fail if you refuse to try in the first place. The worst that someone can say when you pursue an opportunity is “no” — and even then, you may be able to make connections or find information that will help you achieve your goals another way. Don’t let fear keep you from pursuing your dreams. Rejection Isn’t Always Permanent — Or Even Negative. When I landed in Vermont, I had just $300 to my name and was living in a trailer park. There, it didn’t matter what I’d given to become a martial arts Grandmaster, or even that I was one. My only career option was to clean toilets for money. Some might have seen those circumstances as a low point, or become discouraged. I’ll be honest — there were times that it was terrible. Some nights, I had little but bone broth to eat. But I viewed each hard night as a stepping stone for something greater. I was being paid to scrub toilets, which constituted a significant step up from doing it for free for family members. It was honorable work, and I knew that it would give me the financial platform I needed to move onto my next success. Persistence doesn’t always mean reaching for your furthest goal after a few days — or even months — of effort. Instead, it means being thankful for small steps and maintaining a determined spirit against adversity. Harsh Words Should Motivate, Not Deter, You It wasn’t always easy being a Korean woman in 1960s America. Back in my village, I had been reviled for being female and uninterested in gender norms. In America, I was rejected for the color of my skin, my broken English, my poverty, and my gender. It was hard; I was constantly demeaned, faced slurs, and even risked physical abuse. When I finally scraped together the money to rent studio space for a martial arts school, arsonists burned it to the ground. Each setback was demoralizing and frustrating; however, I knew that I had to reset my perspective. So, after someone demeaned me or my dreams, I would respond — “Okay, I see you. You motivate me. I will prove you wrong.” And I did. There are always going to be people who step on your dreams. You’ll hear it from your competitors, enemies, friends, family. Even well-meant advice can be hurtful. You can be put down, made to think that you won’t accomplish anything — but you need to bear through it. Let criticism inform and motivate your efforts, not crush them. Persistence is key.