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Myth #4: I Know Hard Work

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Most young adults think they understand what hardwork means. The words hard and work conjure up physically demanding labor such as metal-smithing.

Young adults apply this model of hardwork to cognitively intense activities as well. So the underlying model of hardwork becomes the expending of great effort to achieve a challenging goal. Nothing wrong with this model.

But there is a more intense and perhaps more inspirational model of hardwork that is rooted in the Chinese expression "able to eat bitterness" which is pronounced "neng chi coo" (in Mandarin dialect) consisting of the three words below.

able eat bitterness

More than merely the expenditure of great effort, this model of hardwork includes the internalization of something very unpleasant. It adds the flavor of enduring pain. In fact, the word for bitterness (far right of the three above) is paired with the word for pain (left below) to create the expression for agony, pronounced "tone coo."

pain bitterness

So if a young adult is willing to use able to eat bitterness as an expression of hardwork, then that individual sets a higher standard for her/himself.

As a child in Taiwan and later in San Francisco, I heard dozens of stories of relatives who endured tremendous hardship to escape the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. My own father, who is the eldest of seven children, literally took the last boat out of China with his parents and siblings to escape to Taiwan in 1949.

fleeing mainland China to Taiwan

After arriving in Taipei, Taiwan with only a few pieces of luggage, they struggled mightily for years to survive. My father often ended such stories with "able to eat bitterness" as the reason for their survival.

Years prior to their escape to Taiwan, my father had gained admission to Peking University Medical School in Peking (Beijing). The student admissions rate was 0.02%, which is about 250 times more selective than Stanford and Harvard today.

Peking University Medical School

My father told me about how during the bitter cold winters, he and his dormitory classmates wanted more than anything, a few pieces of duck fat to protect their writing fingers from cracking from the dry cold winter air. Again, "able to eat bitterness" ended such stories.

Because my first language is Mandarin-Chinese, often I hear in my mind the Chinese equivalent expression for English words such as hardwork. By reflex, when I think of working hard, I think "able to eat bitterness."

Young adults who live in comfort and security should not take for granted their good fortune. They should remember that millions today toil in unspeakable conditions to survive another day. Sulfur miners come to mind. They smell and taste sulfur as they mine. They literally eat bitterness every day.

sulfur miner eats bitterness

So if a young adult today, who is fortunate to grow up in comfort and security, chooses a higher standard for hardwork that is rooted in privation of previous generations, then might that young adult learn more, develop faster, and achieve more than her/his peers?

New Words

able to eat bitterness


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