Saturday, May 09, 2009
The Lesson of Happiness
Ben was my Ph.D. advisor in Boston. I have forgotten all of what he had taught me about evolution and molecular biology. One thing I do remember clearly was what he had said to me once at his house party, back in 1994.
His family had just moved into a beautiful colonial house in Cambridge and invited everyone working in his lab over for a party. While all the adults chatted over free flowing white wine, his preschool twin girls chased each other around, scattering pearls of laughter in every room.
“They are so cute,” I said to Ben. “Which one is smarter?”
Ben immediately pulled me aside and whispered: “We shouldn’t say anything putting either down. They are both great in their own ways.”
I remember being very embarrassed by my cultural faux pas. To us Chinese, to be put down, by parents and by our peers, is a natural part of growing up. In high school, my grades were never good enough for my parents. When I was number 2 in my class, they pointed to number 1. When I reached number 1, they pointed to some genius who had just won the Maths Olympiad.
But Americans tend to believe in the power of encouragement and positive outlook on life. Thus one often hears enthusiastic “super,” “awesome,” “fantastic,” and “good job!” To us Chinese, how could that kind of seemingly superficial praise really encourage hard work and achievement?
Ben seemed a prime counter example to that Chinese prejudice. In his teenage years, he dropped out of school and worked in hospital, construction and boat building. Then he went to a community college for his associate degree. It was there, at the age of 23, that he discovered his passion for science. He studied hard, received top grades and transferred to Berkeley. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he studied at Harvard for his Ph.D. and later did post-doc work at the prestigious Mass General Hospital.
As a balding tenure-track professor, he still sported a child-like grin in the lab. He spent most of his time in his small office, among piles and piles of littered paper, reading, thinking and every once in a while, jumping out into the lab area and proclaiming another breakthrough in his thinking. Sometimes I wondered whether he could have come this far if his American family had not supported his early wandering, or if he had been raised in China, being constantly put down and laughed at as a vagabond.
However, Ben’s positive attitude did not get him to the top. He chose an exciting yet extremely risky research topic. After six years, he did not find any major breakthrough and thus did not get his tenure.
I left graduate school before he did. Ben did not try to convince me to stay. Unlike the other professors in our department, he had never frowned upon my taking French lessons or auditing psychology classes. He must have sensed that in some way I was following his footstep.
I wandered—worked in biotech company, moved around the US, went into business, moved back to China to take up filmmaking ... Every time I made a change, my Chinese friends tended to put me down, while my American friends cheer me on. Some days I felt lost and worthless, and others ecstatic at being able to do what I loved.
Now many years later, I am back in business, older, calmer and happier. A week ago, I searched online to find Ben’s whereabouts. Apparently he had started a biotech company that appeared somewhat successful.
Still, what a pity that Ben did not become an academic star with all his intelligence and hard work? I thought.
Then I remembered his child-like grin. I knew regardless of how other felt about his path, he had been enjoying what he did all along.
It was then that I realized what Ben had taught me is not that encouragement and positive attitude beget success; rather, they allow us to try things appealing to our hearts, which, ultimately, make us happy.