There are some questions that just boggle your mind the first time you think about them. Slowly, they take up space on the back burner of your brain and you wonder about them in the shower, in your free time, and any other free time you have. Those questions, however, rarely ever stay just one question. They snowball and become larger. “What ifs” and “who’s its” fly around your brain until you feel like you’ve exhausted all the permutations and combinations.
The Videos that Spurred My Philosophical Journey
I remember my 7th grade social studies teacher, a track coach, made it a point to show us speeches given by other coaches to motivate us along with teaching us history. Ever since, I became hooked on motivational videos where a celebrity’s speech or talk is overlaid with dramatic music. As the tension in the speech rises so does the sound of the music. Usually, the person, someone like Denzel Washington or Jack Ma or really anyone famous, would describe the turning point of their lives, the adversity they faced that changed their mindset forever. In those precious few seconds the music usually cuts out completely.
The combination of the passionate words and the clear absence of sound usually sent tingles up my spine. No matter how many videos I watched the message was always the same: you are the only thing keeping you from success or failure. The heaviest emphasis was always placed on you. They would say “The only thing keeping you from starting your path to success is you,” or “the only thing blocking out success is you.”
The whole message was that my future was entirely dependent on me. Every decision that I would make would determine my future and my success. Is the message true? Yes. The decisions I make or don’t make do affect my future and I do have the power to control my life; this is true for anyone. However, something always bothered me about these messages; something rubbed me the wrong way.
Challenger: The Paradox Was Born
Which brings me to my second case: systemic oppression. Around the same time I started questioning the validity of these videos I started learning more about politics and social justice. My history teacher encouraged us to re-examine every historical event we learned and scrutinize current events in the same way.
What actually happened during the Boston Massacre? How representative is the Constitution really? Is the American Dream still alive? Can every American say confidently that they have equal opportunities?
And it was this last question that launched me into a saga of examining how theory and reality were different, how promises and truth were different, and how laws and interpretations of those laws were different. On paper every American is equal. We all have the right to vote, freedom of speech, etc.
But the truth is that not all of us are equal. This becomes especially clear with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement; we are not equal. With the Me Too movement; we are not equal. With the aftermath of 9/11 where so many South Asians, especially those belonging to the Muslim and Sikh communities, were brutally attacked or killed; we are not equal. The systemic inequalities that exist based on a person’s race, gender, sexuality, religion, or any part of their identities polarize people in terms of opportunities, now more than ever before. Although we would like to think that life is a race that anyone can win if only they tried hard enough this ideology may not be true.
People of Color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. and people with identities that intersect between these communities are all painfully aware of how they, in fact, cannot do everything they want to do and how maybe their future isn’t entirely controlled by them but outside factors. Forces of hate, intolerance, and oppression strike these vulnerable communities at almost any chance they get. Simply believing in their success doesn’t translate to success.
So, this begs the question: how can both messages be true? How can a person’s future be completely on their shoulders while systemic inequalities exist? Wouldn’t acknowledging one as the truth invalidate the other?
Thus, the Motivation Paradox was born. The push and pull between motivational self-help messages and systematic issues bothered me so much that on some nights I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to buy into the rhetoric of the motivational videos and feel the adrenaline and power rushing through my veins. I wanted to thoroughly believe that anything I wanted to do could be mine and nothing could stop me. And most of all, I wanted to believe that the life I envisioned for myself could be under my control — that I had power to make it happen. But at the same time, I was starting to become aware of how my life wouldn’t be that simple. As a Person of Color, a woman, and an immigrant it was clear to me that the deck was stacked against me. It was possible that most of my career might go towards breaking a glass ceiling and that the chances of sitting at a top executive position was looking very slim.
However, I continued to be ambitious and chase after my goals but that didn’t mean my mind rested. I become consumed by this concept. My mind was at war with itself. Where would this leave people of marginalized communities? How could the world exist with such stark contradictions?
My Quest for Answers
It was in these questions that I found an answer. The world was born out of chaos and no matter how much order we put into it, there will always be fragments of chaos threatening to disrupt our existence. It’s the law of the universe. The beauty and the puzzle of the world is somehow both of these polar opposite messages can coexist. They might always be at war with each other but they both take up space in this world; with their individual merits and flaws. The world exists with both chaos and peace, both hate and love, and endless other warring forces which means the world can exist with both motivational iron will and systemic challenges. Naturally, this is not the answer I wanted; it leans far into the world of abstractness and philosophy, but it still quenched my thirst for understanding — a little bit.
As I began to grow up and life became busier the question moved from my mind to the back burner and eventually disappeared completely, leaving no traces that it was ever there. But this peace was not long lasting. As I continued working in social justice initiatives and advocacy it was not long before this paradox returned to my mind and I was dissatisfied with the explanation I gave myself. There had to be another answer, right? It had to be something deeper, right? Co-existence can’t be the only explanation!
The Journey to Understanding
This is why I thought back to those videos with Denzel Washington and Jack Ma and noticed something. The people in the videos were Denzel Washington and Jack Ma, by all accounts of the world they shouldn’t be the ones giving me those talks. Take, for example, Jack Ma, a man who took 3 years to pass the entrance exam to attend university, learned English by becoming a tour guide, and was rejected from Harvard 10 times. Yet, he went on to found Alibaba Group one of the most influential and successful e-commerce platforms that we have ever seen.
But Jack Ma isn’t an isolated case. Serena Williams, a Black woman, along with her sister Venus Williams, is often considered the best tennis player in the world. Barack Obama is not only the first Black president of the United States but arguably the most educated as well. Sundar Pichai, an Indian immigrant, climbed the ladder to become the CEO of one of the most influential companies: Google. All of these people are a direct violation of the paradox.
None of them should exist nor should they have those achievements tagged to their name. They all faced oppression and hardships within the system because of some part of their identities, their race, gender, immigration status, etc. violated the boxed in definition of who can be successful. But they rose beyond those boxes. They have faced their battles with adversity and had to break their fair share of glass ceilings but they progressed through their life with an iron will and the courage to believe in themselves.
That’s the funny thing about the world; it’s never simple. Nor is it stagnant. So in this complex world, what is the answer to the paradox? Unlike in the world, this one is quite simple. As long as you view it as a paradox there will never be an answer, you will always be caught in a war within your mind. But, there must be some kind of explanation, right? There is, but it isn’t much of an explanation either. Due to the nature of a paradox you can’t ever answer it or solve it but I believe you can mitigate it with one simple principle.
Believe in these motivational messages and accept that you are the only thing in control of your success because it is a true statement. You do have control over your life. You will face adversity, you will face challenges, and you will fall down multiple times but at the end of the day you have a choice to make. Will you stay down or fight to rise beyond the glass ceilings to prove the system wrong? If you choose to rise, always remember one thing. As you rise, make sure others rise with you. Otherwise, only you have broken the paradox and beat the system.
When we rise alone we naturally face adversity and have to fight hard battles. But by the time we taste our success and look down the glass ceiling we thought we shattered has rebuilt itself. The view is clearer from the top, isn’t it? You look around you and you are the first of your kind to make it to the top, but you are alone. You look down and you see your people, whoever they may be, fighting the same battles you did and having to shatter the ceiling again, and again, and again. Which means, the only way we win is by having the unyielding courage to believe in ourselves, fight for success no matter how hard it is, and pull others up with us.
My Message to You
You do have the power to change your life but when has one person ever been stronger than two? Surround yourself with people who believe in you, who push you, and who trust you. But at the same time believe in others, push others, and trust others. We cannot solve the paradox but we can mitigate it. When we rise together, the number of hardships others need to face to “make it” thin out because we didn’t leave behind a rebuilding glass ceiling but a path; a path to the top.