I still remember the 10 minutes walk from my house on Senter Road to the Seven Trees Branch Library. It was a trek I made daily that first summer in America. I was only 11, but my parents let me roam the streets at will. Maybe life was simpler then… it never crossed any of our minds that predators could be lurking.

The journey was well practiced. I had the path planned out and mastered: a sprint across Senter Road to the other side, then a right turn and a light jog on Ezie Street, followed by a shortcut on Los Arboles Street, cutting across the elementary school, and finally squeezing through an opening between two bushes to arrive at the library.

Seven Trees wasn’t a grand library by any means, but it had everything I needed – books, tons of books, and they were all free for the borrowing. This was a concept we never enjoyed in Vietnam. I never really had an affinity towards reading, mainly because books were so scarce where I originally grew up. But here, I found worlds ready to be explored, all at my fingertips.

I’d spend the next several hours combing through the children’s and young adult section, grabbing all the Goosebumps I could find and sitting contently at an empty desk immersed in the supernatural and weird. A dictionary accompanied me during these long reading sessions. I’d look up every word I didn’t know.

I was determined to get out of ESL class that following fall.

Worthwhile journeys aren’t easy

When hunger pangs started to kick in, I’d grab a couple books to take home to finish that night. Our 2-bedroom rental home was small, and often the fridge was sparsely stocked with fresh food. However, we had what seemed to be an unlimited supply of spicy shrimp noodle packages that I would eat on a daily basis.

My parents worked late back then, doing hard work for Vietnamese restaurants and the flea market on the side. These businesses exploited them the best they could. There was no better labor than a new crop of immigrants with no clue of workers’ rights or fair compensation.

I just wanted to make new friends.

My brother, sister, and I were often left home to our own device. I don’t particularly remember what my brother and sister did. I just remember huddling in a corner with my books, giggling at funny quips and imagining myself as the hero of the stories I was reading. I’d take an occasional break to watch and practice my English with Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, and Barney & Friends.

As bedtime neared, I would cover myself with a blanket and stole the few precious minutes before I dozed off to finish the books I had borrowed from the library.

For 3 full months, I poured countless hours into improving my English, repeating the same routine of going to the library, reading, and mimicking spoken words from those children’s shows. Within that short timeframe, my vocabulary grew exponentially, and with it, a chance to make new friends and fully assimilate into the American culture.

Owning it by working hard

As the new school year commenced, it became evident that I no longer needed ESL classes and was promptly placed into the normal regiment of classes. I don’t know if I can claim credit for the quickest exit from mandatory ESL classes, but I’d like to think that 4 months was a great achievement. I would go on to Honors English throughout high school and skipped mandatory English classes in college.

It’s hard to believe where I’d end up when I first came to America. That first month in 4th grade was particularly difficult as I was unable to communicate, and as such, did not make any new friends. I never dreamed of placing into Honors classes at that time. I just wanted to fit in. I just wanted to make new friends. I wanted to be rid of my accent.

The success I had comes down to one truth: hard work. There’s no magical formula for it. If you want something, you’re going to have to invest and commit yourself to the task. Society is full of people selling the easy way, easy money, easy growth, easy path to success… and maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones who strike it rich quickly and easily, but that’s a foolish dream to chase.

The success I had comes down to one truth: hard work.

There’s no getting around hard work. Your dream, whatever it might be, can only be realized through sweat and pain. That’s just the way it is. Now, I realize that there’s also the idea of “working smart,” – using available resources such that you’re not toiling aimlessly but strategically focusing on paths that get you to success more efficiently. For example, instead of manually inputting similar data into a spreadsheet, write a formula that automates the process once then sit back, relax, and reap the results.

But there’s hard work involved in understanding the data structure, how it needs to be inputted, how to write the code, how to debug the algorithm, and why it is important that the data needs to be entered in the first place. While you should strive to work smarter and more efficiently, hard work is the foundation that will get you there.

So, dig in and get to work.