The Scariest Birthday Present Ever
I Asked My Closest Friends for Personal Report Cards and This is What Happened
By Rich Tseng
She called me a masochist, but agreed to do it anyway.
I had just asked a friend I’d known since high school for a birthday report card. I was turning 30, and my news feed had gone from “Welcome to the New Adolescence” to “30 Things You Should Know by 30”. Yet somehow I didn’t feel more mature.
Self help blogs and ebooks helped, but most just taught me that best-selling advice is really hard to apply. Gazing at the author’s glamourized headshot while considering how much easier self actualization can be when you’ve got a seven figure passive income stream (funded by readers like me!) doesn’t help.
So while my dream of joining the new rich remained a fantasy after three decades on this planet, shit was nonetheless getting real. Six years ago moving to America for work seemed like a dream. Now, getting a Green Card so I can stay has become a nightmare. And it isn’’t just me. Fellow wide-eyed millennials who started businesses, marriages, and dream lives in their twenties are being tested. Many are failing. And everywhere this ‘lack of self-awareness’ is being declared the culprit.
My own lack of self-awareness became clear on the last morning of my 20s. My girlfriend called to lock down birthday plans and we got into a fight because turning 30 was scarier than I had been letting on. After angrily hanging up, it hit me hard that I’m supposed to be better than this by now. Then I remembered a time when feedback was constant and everyone was regularly made aware of what they had to work on: my schooldays. As much as I hated school, it was time to get evaluated again, only this time I’d be getting the grades from the people who knew me best: my closest friends. So I drew up a list of five people, which quickly ballooned into 15, and I sent them the following message:
Then I called my girlfriend and apologized. The next day she wrote me a glowing report card, probably because she was afraid I was going to get brutal responses elsewhere. Even though I specifically asked for criticism, I gave her a pass. Not because she’s my girlfriend, but because calling me out on my BS is what she does all year round.
As for everyone else, I was slightly disappointed at first. Pretty much everyone wanted me to stop being so hard on myself. My therapist wanted me to set firmer boundaries. A buddy I haven’t seen in a while told me to quit smoking. At first I thought they weren’t being honest. Then I realized they were being more honest than I was with myself. For example, I wrote off Mr. Quit-Smoking because I’ve been telling people I’d quit for years. But a few days after I got his message, a smoker friend stepped outside, and I caught myself following him to bum a cigarette “in solidarity”.
Then came some feedback from my past that really disappointed. A friend I’d known since college said a lot of people back then told him they didn’t get me. When I brought up the fact that another friend had said I was really sincere, he seized on that as being precisely the problem.
While some might say sincerity is a virtue, showing too much of any quality with others is probably a sign you aren’t showing enough of it to yourself. As much as I’d like to disagree, I did just spend a month and half a thousand words agonizing with friends, some of whom I haven’t spent much time with in years, over how to be better. I was making others explain what’s wrong with me because I lacked the courage to face myself. So I started comparing my self-talk to all the messages people sent me, and it became clear that my friends were nicer to me than I was. It also became clear that to solve my over-sincerity with others, and to actually fix a lot of my perceived shortcomings, I needed to be more sincere with myself. Self-knowledge would come not from self-awareness, but from self-compassion. Exactly what my friends were saying: stop being so hard on myself.
So how do you make yourself better? Be okay with who you are now.
I know, I hate those “the answer is in the riddle,” “you are the one if you believe you are” paradoxical endings too, but it’s true. Only after I became okay with the fact that I might never be some magazine’s definition of an adult, was I able to dispense with the grand gestures—and awkward emotional conversations—and admit all the little ways I haven’t been honest with myself from day to day. Like all those times I sat down to finish this article, only to start a Facebook marathon instead (sorry, Good Read editors). Somehow accepting that it was more probable I’d be liking me some dash cam car crashes instead of writing this article is what finally got me here. While the personal report card isn’t entirely necessary, I definitely came out of it a better person.
So my highschool friend was right. Asking my closest friends to judge me to my face really was a masochistic move. Thank God none of them felt the need to give me a punishing 10-point personal improvement plan to assuage my guilt (while guaranteeing my failure to follow through), and the gift of another three decades of wondering where I’m going wrong. Instead they wanted me to like myself for all the reasons that they liked me. Any changes they’d make came from a place of “What would make Rich healthier?” Otherwise they wouldn’t change a thing.
Compassion, as it turns out, is the gift everybody needs—and the best thing any real adult can give.
NOTE: I wouldn’t counsel against the Personal Report Card exactly. But I do think, rather than solicit painful advice from all your friends, you might want to try this first:
Set your phone to check in with yourself every couple hours for a week.
Look at what you’re doing at that moment. If it’s not what you want to be doing or what you decided to do the night before, tell yourself that’s okay.
Ask yourself whether what you’re doing is good for you and if you really want to fix it.