truth is, you should be free to do what you like
on knowing challenges are a constant, living your truth, and talking to friends
Welcome to the second issue of Slice of Life — a newsletter about life lessons in anime (and films). If a friend referred you here (or if you’re simply browsing), you can subscribe below so you don’t miss out.
Blue Period is a coming-of-age manga by Yamaguchi Tsubasa (now adapted into an anime recently) about a high school boy’s journey into the world of art. He was aimless until he was inspired and enamoured by his senior's artwork.
Chapter 29 takes place some time after Yaguchi Yatora had been accepted into Geidai — the most prestigious art school in Japan. He got admitted on his first attempt when it would normally take several. Chapter 29 has a few little golden nuggets I wanted to reflect on.
challenges are a constant in life
Imagine accomplishing a big goal. You’re also an underdog due to a late start in the race. Before acquiring the needed knowledge and skills, you went through trial and error, blood, sweat and tears, day and night, and debating with your imposter syndrome. But you realised your goal was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Imagine then instructed to throw away everything you learned so far. What would that make you? Has everything you’ve worked for means nothing now?
Yatora’s sole goal was to get into art school — prep for Geidai, go to cram school for Geidai, draw and paint for Geidai entrance exams, everything is for Geidai. When he realiased he hadn’t thought through his ambitions for art school as well as his peers, he was consumed with guilt. He even messed up his very first assignment when he studied in his own pace. To rub salt to his already wounded pride, the professors informed the class to throw away and forget all they had learned in cram school.
His professors might have come with good intentions in order to broaden their range of expression and style, but it still hurt. To “forget everything” made it appear as if the previous work and practice had only been planned and calculated for the exams alone. Now, they are no longer necessary. It’s the agony of losing everything you know and be forced to start over, almost from the bottom. It’s especially hard when the things you must forget are the only things you know.
What does it mean to be stripped naked, bare and vulnerable in the presence of excellent artists at art school? Does it make him a complete fraud? What was the point of art school if he had to start all over? What was the point of painting anymore?
He questioned if someone like him deserved to be in art school, to begin with. He had almost lost his reason to draw and paint.
On goals and expectations
I hated studying in school. More accurately, I hated the results-oriented approach to teaching and the lack of attention given to the needs of the students. Most teachers didn’t care, so neither did I. I wasn’t particularly good at studying either. I took the easy route and memorised things instead of thoroughly understanding them. So I struggled, but I got it done. All I needed to do was study and earn a degree so I can leave my studying woes behind and enter the “real’ working world. Past me was in for a surprise when she thought it would get easier.
One of my very first managers told me I wasn’t cut out for digital marketing and that I should look for another job. I was more shocked than upset because I had expected her to at least share words of encouragement and advice, but she didn’t. Imagine your manager telling you, a new recruit (< 1 work experience) that they suck and have no way of improving so you should just quit (I’m paraphrasing here). Naturally, I questioned my self-worth and suspected she might be right, because she would know better after working in the industry for years. However she left for another job before my probation ended, while I stayed with the company for the next 2 years. Spite can be a good motivator too.
My next job had a steep learning curve, because it was my first product management job while I was also learning to manage an intimidating stakeholder. I had to learn to work with a completely remote team in my second product job, especially during the pandemic, while dealing with a long-distance relationship. My most recent job took my imposter syndrome to newer and greater heights, while my self-worth was beaten to a pulp.
We’ll always struggle at every stage of our life. Most of my challenges came about because of my own expectations as I didn’t want to let anyone down. I wanted to project a certain image at work — I needed to be organised, capable, competent etc. My ego dictated what I should do or shouldn’t do at work to maintain this narrative I have for myself, even if it’s at the cost of my physical, mental, and emotional health. The worst was experiencing nausea and no appetite because the thought of work itself made me sick to my stomach.
When you’re caught up with your career goals, nothing else seems to matter. Even if you hit your targets at work, it didn’t feel like you did enough because whatever you do is never enough. You may come down from a brief high, only to be left unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and void of meaning. It’s not an exaggeration that some people develop mental health illnesses because of it. Even top athletes like Michael Phelps bear the weight of their own expectations to achieve greater goals. But it’s never enough.
“[You] work so hard for four years to get to that point, and then it’s like you’re…at the top of the mountain, you’re like what the hell am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go? Who am I?” — Michael Phelps
On self-worth and identity
I stopped writing formulaic posts even though they were easier, because I didn’t know how to express myself in the way I wanted to. Or rather, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to write “well” enough with my voice. When I abandoned that format, I was left bare. I thought I’d made some progress up the writing ladder, but now I’m back at the bottom. How do I write in my own voice now and do it well? I thought I was finally a “writer” like my favourite writers online, but the gap has widened once more. Should I stop writing at this point? Even when my writing goal is to learn and introspect, it still makes me feel small when there are other writers who can write better with bigger ambitions than I do.
In my product job, I’m being paid to be and act a certain role. There is a tangible monetary value to the work I do, so it may seem more natural to assume its importance because it’s necessary for every day transactions. So I must be a better product person to earn and validate my worth in the form of a salary. Here lies the mistake to tie that worth to your own self-worth.
It becomes more prominent when I spend too much time on one area. When I don’t actively explore and pursue my other interests, my identity and life start to revolve and be shaped around that one area of interest. In my case, that’s work.
It takes more than constant reassurance and reminders to grill it in our heads to separate our worth from the things we do. What might help is having other personal interests or hobbies, especially if they involve other groups or communities who can cheer and support you. Instead of putting all of your eggs into one basket or placing all your bets into one thing, it may be more beneficial to diversify and demonstrate that you’re not bound by one identity. And that you’re so much more than just a label.
“I started feeling like a person…I guess I could love myself and like who I saw. I think for a long time I looked at myself as a swimmer and not a human, so being able to learn more about me, how I worked, why I work that way through treatment and through unpacking all the extra crap that I had inside of me.” — Michael Phelps
change is scary, but living a life not truthful to you might be scarier
Yatora met up with a friend (Kuwana Maki) who wasn’t accepted into Geidai, even though she was the best oil painter in cram school. He learned that Maki’s success in cram school was ultimately her failure in her entrance exams. She was afraid of change, afraid of expressing herself in different ways than what she was used to. Her painting in her entrance exam was a similar painting she worked on in cram school. Maki was afraid of breaking away from the norm, so she put all her efforts into what has been effective so far. The burden and pressure was also on her, because her parents were alumni of Geidai, including her elder sister who’s currently at Geidai. Despite learning the painful way that hard work and perseverance aren’t always rewarded, she relieved that she failed.
Maybe it was an opportunity to reflect what she really wanted without living under the shadow of her family.
When I did a 30-day writing challenge last year, I wrote with a formula and my posts did relatively well in terms of readership views. But these posts didn’t sit well with me, because they read like a template. Even if I put in the hard work and persevere down this path in the long term, I might come to resent myself for taking the easy way out. I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to showcase my work to the public because I couldn’t express myself in a way that I’d be proud of. It didn’t feel like me who personally wrote them. However I had thought if I changed my writing style, there was a possibility I might lose readers. In the end, I guess I was more afraid of losing my authenticity. I am writing to learn and seek authenticity, after all.
Up til recently, I’d been living my life according to people’s expectations. I still am to some extent, but I’m slowly getting better at following my intuition than before. For the most part, I believe the more truthful I am to myself, the more I get to enjoy life a little bit better. Through that, knowing what I like and dislike comes a bit more natural. I’m also less affected by the glamorous side of social media because I don’t feel that resentful at people living their best lives on social media. I think it’s also because I want to be more interesting in pursuing my own interests, instead of another copy pasta version of somebody else.
What if I’m doing something that my friend groups aren’t into? What if I’m too old/young/early/late for this? What if it’s not cool enough? What if it’s outside of what I normally like, and I get judged for it? Should I follow what’s popular to feel safer in my comfort zone, or pursue what interests me with the risk of judgement?
I’m sure everyone wants to be a bit honest with themselves, but it takes a little bit of courage to break out of the mould and the familiarity that we’re used to.
talking to friends help
When you’re caught up with your own struggles, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else is struggling too. When you’re only thinking about your own feelings, interests, and situation, you forget the world. You forget that you’re not the only person out there dealing with your own demons. I’m not invalidating anyone else’s feelings or situations, because the point is we’re not alone. When you talk or pour your feelings out to someone similar, you might find out that you both share a thing or two that can be helpful.
I love how by the end of the interaction, there was a sense of relief between the two characters. It was wholesome exchange when Yatora realised that he wasn’t the only one. Their issues aren’t resolved, but they gained a bit more clarity about themselves. Most of the time, it helps to talk to someone.
It’s easy to say “don’t worry about what other people think”, but that’s not exactly it. If it was that simple, everyone would be doing what they enjoy. Perhaps it boils down to being able to be okay with the unfamiliar, not knowing what lies beyond the horizon and embrace our curiosities.
There are many versions of how you can live the life you believe in. Or rather, it’s up to you to define the way you want it to be to live the life that’s closer to your truth.
“I love your art, y’know. It’s a bit odd to say, given the flow of the conversation, and I’m not saying that I want you to stay exactly as you are, but… how should I put it? Maybe that I want you to just enjoy it? That I want you to put yourself first and create art without forcing yourself? Well, I know it’s not as simple as that, but god, this is hard… At any rate, I’m trying to tell you that there are people who like your work.”
“You never know, I might make trash from here on though.”
“Hmm, but that’s fine too… I just like it anyway. I can’t exactly say “don’t worry about what other people think” but… the truth is you should be free to do as you like. Because when it comes down to it, your life is your own.”
— Yatora to Maki (Blue Period, chapter 29)
Maki decided to take up sculpting instead. Yatora hadn’t gotten things figured out, but he slowly accepted that being at a standstill is okay. He might make the same mistakes and take longer than everyone else, but that’s okay. He’d take care not to stifle himself, to take it one day at a time. After all his life (in art school) has only just begun.
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