Growing up in Asia, it felt like my life was a constant state of competition. When I was young, that “competition” centered around things like my academic performance, family background, whether I was popular or not, if I carried an expensive school bag, and more. As an adult, it became more about bigger picture things like career prestige, financial capability, and having a successful spouse. Even as the definition of “success” changed as I got older, one thing stayed consistent: It felt like people were always trying to prove how successful they were by how “hard” they worked.
One evening a few years ago, I was having dinner with friends in Singapore and listened as they went back and forth over this topic. One friend asked the other why she carried gym clothes with her to work, and when the other replied that she goes to the gym every morning before work, the first friend was aghast. She said, “Wow, you must have a really easy job. I’ve been working until 11 p.m. every night, and I hardly have enough time to sleep.” My gym-going friend snapped back with the following explanation: “Well, my job is actually really stressful. I’m doing the job of two people. I don’t even have time to eat lunch. I have to go to the gym or I'll go insane.”
The conversation didn’t end there. They continued with a long debate over who had a more difficult job while I sat there, speechless. It was around this time that I started to think about my own definition of hard work. I had always been ambitious, focused, and driven to succeed. I knew I wanted to start my own company and even had an idea that I was extremely passionate about -- a beauty brand for women of Asian descent. I knew that creating this brand would take a lot of “hard work,” but I didn’t want to become the type of person that spent a whole dinner debating whether or not my job was “harder” than someone else’s.
When I first began my journey as the founder of Orcé Cosmetics, my start-up coach connected me with the founder of an Asian skin care brand that had a lot of success at top retailers in the United States before ultimately being sold to a larger company. As a young and clueless newbie who was thirsty for guidance, I was beyond thrilled when this person offered to mentor me. And when we finally set a date to meet in person, I knew that it was a huge opportunity.
As we sat down over lunch, I had a million questions running around in my head. But the first words he said to me completely caught me off guard: “Wow! You look too sane and relaxed to be a start-up owner. You must either hide it really well, or you just have a lot of money to burn.” By that time, we had exchanged enough emails for me to understand that he worked from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. So, I understood immediately that he was actually implying I wasn’t working hard enough.
Becoming unhealthy and unhappy due to stress from work seems to be a badge of honor for many.
After that experience, I have to admit I had a bit of a setback. I questioned myself and wondered if he had a point. I wondered if I had what it takes to experience the level of success that he’d reached. But, as someone who developed anxiety and depression during my school years in Singapore due to the constant pressure to prove that I was actually “working hard,” I knew there had to be a better way. I kept coming back to a feeling I knew deep down: While becoming unhealthy and unhappy due to stress from work seems to be a badge of honor for many, it’s not a sustainable, fulfilling or “successful” way to live.
Work-life balance was a concept totally foreign to me until I moved to Los Angeles to attend Pepperdine University. Everything changed when I was introduced to meditation, yoga, and self-care. I found that, when I finally allowed myself to take time to care for my mental health without feeling shame, I started experiencing joy in learning and achieving goals.
I make sure to take care of my physical and mental health, because my company’s longevity depends on my longevity.
And once I transformed my relationship with “achieving” from being one of dread and obligation into one of intrigue and enthusiasm, I discovered my passion for diversity marketing in beauty. With my newfound passion, I was no longer struggling to “keep up” with everyone else — for the first time, I had a goal to work towards and this opened me up to a purpose-driven life. I dare to be so bold as to say that without cultivating the habit of setting aside time to take care of my mental health, Orcé Cosmetics would not exist today.
There’s a saying in Chinese culture that I come back to pretty much every day as I build my brand: 休息是為了走更長遠的路. This translates to "rest so you can walk even further." As for what I said to the man who was shaming me for not looking like I work hard enough: “It looks like we have very different working styles. I make sure to take care of my physical and mental health, because my company’s longevity depends on my longevity.”
The next time you are shamed (or experience shame) for taking time to tend to yourself, just know that you are most likely happier and more productive than those who don’t allow themselves to do so. Slow and steady wins the race!
Yu-Chen Shih is the founder of Orcé Cosmetics, a beauty brand created to meet the modern needs of global Asian women.
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