A year of inner strength

February 3, 2022 | 04:00 pm PT
Truong Nguyen Thanh Professor
To me, life is like a river, never running straight. If it's blocked at one point, the water will simply flow from another.

I also know that for many people 2021 passed in turmoil, with everything either stopping or significantly slowing down and out of their control.

Life has taught me many times that in danger there is opportunity.

In 2006 I decided to start a business using my two patents. There was an investor willing to put up $500,000 on the condition I gave up my professor's job at the university and worked for the company.

At the time my child was still young and so I thought the proposition was too risky and turned down the offer. However, the investor had already spent money on a detailed market analysis. Using this, I decided to invest my own money in the startup.

The 2009 economic crisis in the U.S. led to a global recession. My startup succeeded in creating products but couldn't find customers. This failure was mostly due to the recession and my own problems.

I lost my house worth over $300,000 and was heavily in debt. My car was severely damaged, but I had to abandon it rather than get it repaired. A car in the U.S. is like a motorbike in Vietnam but I didn't have even that. After earlier living in a large house and driving my own car, I now had to rent accommodation and travel by bus. Creditors were calling me constantly and saying very unpleasant things.

I am extremely successful on the academic side, but fell flat on my face in my first attempt at starting a business. It felt as if someone had thrown my honor, my "ego" down the toilet and flushed it.

Many times I would feel depressed, and put on a backpack and spend the whole day walking around in the forest. But then I suddenly realized at one moment that tomorrow the sun would still rise, I would wake up and live life to the fullest, and learn all that I can so that I could do better the next time. And there would definitely be a next time.

In this life, lots of things are not in our control.

One day you arrive at the company only to learn you have lost your job while being your family's breadwinner. One day some incident occurs and the reputation, the career that you have worked so hard to build disappear. One day your partner tells you that you two can't live together forever, and moves out immediately. One day your entire family tests positive for Covid-19. One day a natural disaster strikes, and your house and all your possessions are swept away.

There are lots of things in life you can't control such as whether tomorrow will be rainy or sunny. Even if we have money, power and more we can't control this world. So what can we do?

When helping disaster victims, sociologists have found that adversity creates two groups of people who are separated by their mentality rather than their education level or social standing.

The victim mentality is that of people that think of themselves as victims. They focus on the things they have lost, live passively, feel nostalgic for the past, do not try to help themselves, and instead wait for someone else to come and help them. They believe that trying is futile. And you can probably guess the result of that: Some people who used to be wealthy become homeless, some become mentally ill, and some choose to give up.

The survivor mentality is that of people who consider themselves lucky. Though sad about their losses, they look to the future with the mindset of preparing for the worst but acting for the best. They view things positively, and are ready to rebuild everything from scratch.

These two mentalities can be considered negative and positive. A person's mentality is their operating system, shaped from when they are born and as they grow up. This operating system lies in their subconscious and is very difficult to change. So how can people with the victim mentality change their mindset and overcome the loss?

Psychologists and sociologists believe that it lies in inner strength and hope.

Hope is a strong mental and emotional state that comes with the belief that their circumstances will improve, and they will immediately make practical plans and take actions to realize that belief.

Hope is different from delusion, which involves unrealistic thoughts such as "god given," and false hope, which is believing in things with a very low probability such as winning the lottery.

Hope has clear, realistic goals as well as a roadmap to achieve them. But hope comes from the heart rather than the head, and so we cannot use reason to tell someone to "have hope". Instead, we have to help them be motivated from within.

Last Christmas my son Takara came home to visit and so I prioritized spending time with him before he had to go back to school. One of the topics we discussed was inner strength.

The motivation for a person to take action is divided into two types: external force which comes from external factors, and inner strength which comes from within the person.

External forces come in two forms: negative such as punishment, scolding, beating, threats, disciplining, and cutting the salary or positive such as rewarding, gifting, praising, and increasing the salary or giving a promotion.

Inner strength also has two aspects: negative emotions such as fear and anxiety and positive emotions such as hope.

We often create motivations for our children or employees using external forces, both positive and negative. It could be things like "If you pass the exams you will get a trip," "If you get poor grades then don't even dream of asking us for money" and employees that meet the target would get a month's salary as Lunar New Year bonus while those that fail to meet the target would have their bonuses reduced by 50 percent.

Takara said it was thanks to me training his inner strength since he was in high school that he could overcome the challenges of university. The challenges at Stanford are indeed extremely great. Takara had a mechanical engineering degree in robotics, but decided to pursue a master's degree in artificial intelligence in a very difficult program despite not having solid knowledge of technology. There were times he said he was exhausted.

At his most difficult moments I would tell him things like "You should rethink why and for what reason you decided to study AI at Stanford despite knowing it's very difficult", "Do you remember that time when you cycled straight from the foot of Hai Van Pass to the top without a break? What were you thinking in your head then?" to help him regain motivation.

In the end he managed to overcome it and is now finishing the program.

Takara said it is inner strength that people need to develop instead of relying on external forces since external forces are not always readily available, and asked how one develops inner strength.

I pondered for a moment and replied that those who want to develop their inner strength must have the ability to talk to themselves in a conscious and positive way.

Everyone has the ability to "self-talk" but it is often negative. When they are failing they tell themselves "you truly can't do anything properly," and when looking at the mirror they ask "why am I so fat?" or say "you're ugly and so it's no wonder nobody loves you."

These thoughts are often the results of judgmental comments made by relatives when they are young, creating a frame of reference in their conscious or subconscious mind.

But to develop inner strength one must have the ability to replace such negative self-talk with positive talk such as "Failure is an opportunity to learn so that I can do better next time."

So, have you ever lost hope? Do you pay attention to what you usually think about yourself?

I wish you a new year full of inner strength!

*Truong Nguyen Thanh is a chemistry professor and an education consultant. The opinions expressed are his own.

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