Dear Jumbo: On achievement and fulfillment

-Saturday afternoon, 55 days to graduation, Whole Foods, San Francisco-

“What’s the difference between achievement and fulfillment?” My mind wondered. As I closed my eyes and prepared to enter a nice nap, I found myself naturally reflecting on the journey so far.

Many of us remember that feeling of wanting something so badly. For me, it was the dream of going to an American college, which came true thanks to Tufts. Back in Vietnam, my mother always taught me to be content, but I wasn’t content with being content. My youthful restlessness and unwillingness to settle down made me come to the United States, and here they were fueled even more in a ‘doing and achieving’ culture. If you ever have that nagging sense of “Am I not enough?,” you’ve been in my shoes. I’ve done reasonably well in school. I’ve gotten some awards and prizes here and there but rarely found achievements to be that satisfying.

*If achievement is getting what you want, then fulfillment is wanting what you get.* Control shifts from the external (trying to influence what happens) to the internal (shaping our responses to the situation).

A teacher once gave me a piece of advice before college: *learn* to love the place and your work. It is not an easy lesson. If it is, we would see much restlessness in our generation. Learning to want something is a long, often inexplicable process. A big part of growing up to me is integrating these two orientations. Achievement without fulfillment is like eating loads of food on a leaky stomach; fulfillment without achievement is like eating the same dish again and again. It is fine, but variety is the spice of life. We need both.

I might have slept for 10 minutes. I woke up … and my backpack was gone. I stood still in disbelief for a moment. The security guard said that the homeless man who sat next to me, someone whom I smiled at and almost talked to, took it. I lost, in increasing order of pain, a jacket, passport, e-reader, a book signed by a heroine and a dear notebook with many cherished thoughts.

I heard my inner voice: “You were too careless again …” but I’ve learned not to blame myself. Instead, I let myself grieve for the loss. I sat there, took a few deep breaths and acknowledged: “At least I didn’t lose much valuables.” Positive thinking, accept it, let it go, no big deal, right? Then I could not help but think about achievement and fulfillment again.

“Fulfillment is wanting what you get.”

Life happens. We cannot control what happens, but we can learn to respond in a way that fulfills.

How could I want this situation? It is tempting to think too much about ourselves, especially when we are faced with loss. I tried to shift my focus on the homeless man: What if it could be a gift for him?

I hope he can wear my jacket. It was very light and warm, the only piece of clothing I ever bought in the United States.

I hope he reads the books in the e-reader. These books have enriched my life and hopefully will enrich his too.

I hope he resonates with my notebook. Cherished thoughts need a good companion.

Thanks for reading, and please share with me your thoughts at bit.ly/dearJumbo.


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