I was moved recently by a recitation of “Courage,” a poem written by the Korean poet Lee Kyu-gyeong. It fittingly starts with the inspiring line “You can certainly do it.”

You can certainly do it.
That’s what people said.
You must work up your courage.
That’s what people said.

So I did.
I worked up my courage.

I worked up my courage and I said:
I can’t do it.

The poem has a surprising twist. I thought for sure that the first line would be followed by verses endorsing the values of the industrial age, such as “I will work hard, work up my courage, and succeed without fail,” but instead it ended with a frank personal confession: “I can’t do it.” It seemed as if the poet was saying that shedding blood, sweat, and tears to succeed is not the only kind of courage; acknowledging one’s limitations, admitting “I can’t do it,” and recognizing that a certain path may not be right for them also takes courage.

When I think about it now, the seven years I spent in the United States teaching religious studies as a professor was not so much a deliberate choice based on my personal desires but rather an unconscious choice to follow the path people expected me to take. When I was studying in graduate school, all I could see were those who had graduated before me and gone off to become professors. I didn’t even know exactly what it meant to be a professor. I just wanted to be recognized by my colleagues and my own advisors. And so before I knew it, I was walking that path as well. At this important moment that would decide my future, I did not ask myself what I wanted, but instead glanced sideways to see what others were doing and followed them.

Yet once I actually became a professor, I found that it was very different from how I had thought it would be. In the world of academia, teaching my students well was not the most important thing. Writing as many academic articles as possible, obtaining research grants from outside institutions, and producing works that would please my senior colleagues were the ways to gain recognition and promotion. More than anything else, though, everyone was so incredibly busy. Traveling to conferences around the world to present new papers and network with other scholars was also important. Hence, the more successful a professor was, the more time they spent away from the university.

As I entered my fourth year as a professor, I couldn’t ignore the truth any longer: I just did not have what it took to become an outstanding scholar. I wrote academic articles but spent far too long on them. My shy and introverted nature prevented me from being proactive in securing research grants and effectively networking with other scholars. Moreover, I had initially studied religion because I wanted to walk the path of spiritual awakening like the Buddha, not because I wanted to write excellent academic articles. I gradually lost interest in the scholar’s life.

haemin sunim courage 1
Image from Adobe Stock

One of the most important factors in happiness is the level of control we have over the direction of our lives. Participating in activities that align with our individual desires and needs, as opposed to conforming to external expectations, instills in us a heightened sense of ownership and direction, resulting in a happier existence. Even if an activity is widely considered pleasurable, if we lack control over it, it can still make it feel like a struggle for us. Unfortunately, many people find themselves in this situation, as they lack the courage to say “I can’t do it” or “This is not the right path for me.” Instead, they follow the expectations set by those around them rather than charting their own course.

It’s OK to say “I can’t do it.” Maybe this path is not the right one for you.

According to the psychologist Taekyun Hur, it is important to learn how to give up in order to be happy. Giving up does not mean being passive; it means allowing yourself to discover a new path. When I started talking about giving up my job as a professor and returning to Seoul to open a nonprofit organization called the School for Broken Hearts, most people around me expressed concern and tried to dissuade me. To be frank, I too was not entirely sure about it at first. I was worried about whether enough people would be interested in our programs and enroll; I didn’t know if I would enjoy teaching adults instead of college students. But now, not yet five years later, there is a second branch of the School for Broken Hearts in the city of Busan, and the schools have become a meaningful place where I and fifty other instructors lead over 3,000 students a year through lessons of healing and growth.

Every now and then, after giving a talk, students approach me with tears in their eyes, expressing their disappointment at failing their qualifying exams once more and their uncertainty about what to do next. After offering a warm, supportive hug and acknowledging their feelings, I usually offer this advice:

It’s OK to say “I can’t do it.” Maybe this path is not the right one for you. If you stop following what other people are doing and start asking yourself what the right path is for you, you can become much happier than if you had passed that exam. If you look back ten or twenty years from today, you might even say that failing the exam was the best thing that ever happened to you. It was a blessing in disguise! So even if you feel at a loss right now, work up the courage to explore your own path.

A Monk’s Guide to Rethinking Your Life:

1. When your mind has become calm, use the power of that calmness to examine whether you really must continue what you are doing, which way is the right direction for you, and what it is that you really want from this life. The wisdom in that calmness will give you the answers.

2. Just because something you desired did not happen, it does not mean that the effort you put in was meaningless. The experience and knowledge you gained through the process will be useful to you in other ways, even if you failed. If these words do not resonate with you at this very moment, the day will come when you will be thankful for that experience.

3. Becoming too attached to one goal or one person may lead us to think only that goal or that person is right for us. Try to avoid getting stuck in this limiting mindset; we live in a world with multiple possibilities to choose from. When a goal does not work out, we can always set a new one. When a person does not like us, we can look for someone else.

4. If something is not working out, do not hold on to it for too long just because you have already invested a lot of time and effort. Knowing the right time to give up is a form of wisdom. Giving up does not mean the end but the beginning of a new path.

5. If you are too obsessed with being perfect, you will never be able to start. If you don’t start, the task will seem increasingly insurmountable. Take the first step and relax. You can always improve it as you progress.

6. Don’t feel anxious just because your future seems uncertain. You can only see the road ahead of you one bit at a time, not the entire road all at once. Likewise, you can only dream about your future one bit at a time. Unexpected opportunities will be revealed to you as you walk the road one bit at a time.

7. Continue doing your work to maintain a livelihood, but also explore your interests outside of work. Pursuing both simultaneously can bring a sense of joy and eventually lead to making a living from your passions. Don’t just contemplate trying something new; instead, take action even with small steps.

From When Things Don’t Go Your Way: Zen Wisdom for Difficult Times by Haemin Sunim, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. © 2018, 2024 by Haemin Sunim. English translation copyright © 2024 by Charles La Shure.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .