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Toxic Beliefs I Unlearned in 2018, Part 1

Toxic Beliefs I Unlearned in 2018, Part 1

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Note: I was reviewing my 2018 New Year’s resolutions when I realized that my scores did not tell the full story of how far I’ve come in the past year. This is the first half of a more personal, holistic reflection of what I’ve learned in 2018. You can read the second half here.

I started 2018 wanting to refine myself.

I wanted to become a high-performing machine of the greatest caliber, which was reflected in my 2018 New Year’s resolutions. I got a great head start … and then I started questioning all of the things that had made me want to be a that high-performing machine in the first place.  

You don’t have to be a builder to know that it’s hard to build a house while you’re simultaneously tearing down its foundation. I should have been strong in my convictions and sure of where I was going, but instead I felt lost and adrift. Here I was, embarking on the grand adventure that I’d planned when I was still in maximum-get-shit-done mode … except now I had no idea why I was even going.

Eventually, I paused the building of the house and focused on tearing down and rebuilding the foundation. Just like construction workers sometimes find dead bodies and all sorts of gnarly shit hidden under crumbling foundations, I found tons of fears, insecurities, and toxic beliefs hidden deep within me that hadn’t seen the light of day for years.

So I set about digging them out, one by one.

The first half of 2018 was positive growth, the middle was a confusing and painful existential crisis, and the end was dedicated to exorcising my demons. I’m proud to say that I came face-to-face with a lot of fucked-up shit, and lived to tell the tale.

On career and achievement

Toxic belief: I’m too young to do anything substantial

Though I did some pretty cool things all throughout college, I had a really nasty, subtle belief that I was too young and too inexperienced to accomplish anything of real substance. I was just a kid; why would anybody take me seriously?

Then I graduated. Writing for my blog became an actual thing I was committed to, and I relocated to a place where almost everybody my age was doing something incredible — founding companies, touring the world, buying their own houses before the age of 24. I became friends with a lot of these people, and discovered that they were just like me. We all work incredibly hard to achieve our visions, but at the end of the day we hang out and watch Netflix just like everybody else.

I may still be just a kid, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do big things.

Toxic belief: I need someone else to teach me everything

This mindset almost destroyed my engineering career before it even started! I thought that, in order to quickly become a good coder really quickly, I needed someone to show me the ropes and hold my hand through every damn task.

This is an extremely dangerous mindset to have. No matter how great your mentors are, you can’t skip paying your dues or slogging through reading messy code and poor documentation.

I mean, you can, but the slogging is a super useful skill in and of itself. I didn’t learn that until it was almost too late.

Please don’t make the same mistake that I did. Good mentors are invaluable and can indeed 10x your career development — but you can also mentor yourself.

I realized after I left my startup job that I was more than capable of writing good code on my own.

Toxic belief: My productivity/output = my worth

Despite the saying “you are not your productivity” and all of the rants my friends went on about the tolls of capitalism on the human psyche, I had a really hard time decoupling my sense of worth from how much work I was producing. If I was being extra productive, I felt like I was on top of the world. If I failed to meet a deliverable, suddenly I was a piece of human garbage.

At my first job, unclear schedules and the lightning-fast-ramp-up-and-turn-around time that was expected of me made me feel like shit all the time. I thought of myself as a total failure, and spent my time either at work, in bed at home feeling like crap about myself, or going on photoshoots all over the city in an attempt to escape.

The photos would be my saving grace. They weren’t “productive”, necessarily — I’m still waiting for the right moment to post most of them — but they gave me a purpose outside of work and made me realize that my performance wasn’t everything.

I still feel a really good high when I’m in “the Zone” and everything is on track — but I now refuse to let myself feel bad if I tried my best, regardless of the end outcome.

Toxic belief: Showing my personality online is unprofessional

Okay, it’s still up for debate whether I should swear like a sailor in the middle of a seastorm, but this actually extends to all parts of my personality. I was hesitant to advertise my blog at all outside of my “personal” social media avenues such as Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, fearful that my other interests would take away from my professionalism.

I have found that the opposite is actually true. In every single job interview I’ve had, the interviewer has brought up my blog with great interest. It’s a great way to show my real self, and will determine right away if I’m a good culture fit.

Personality always shows through eventually; I’d rather be upfront about my gender identity, fashion sense, and opinions than land a job than have it be a career version of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”. [1]

On personal identity

Toxic belief: There is a such thing as being “trans enough”

When I first came out in December of 2017, I only said that I didn’t identify as female, when in fact I had known I was trans the entire time.

I hesitated to come out as trans because I’m so, so, so not visibly queer. I have a shit ton of cis- and straight-passing privilege with my preppy dresses and long hair; I could turn my back on my gender identity right now and not suffer any real repercussions. I’m out to my entire family — I’m not hiding anything from them — but the more bigoted members of my kin could simply pretend that I wasn’t trans.

Furthermore, I was afraid of being shat on or invalidated by other members of the queer community. I didn’t look like their idea of “masculine of center” and I didn’t behave like their idea of “femme”. I figured that I would rather stay silent and invisible than run the risk of being called out.

Eventually, I just got tired of this charade. Coming out felt like going outside into the sunshine after spending a lifetime holed up in a dark room. Each time I said “no, I don’t identify as transgender,” I felt like I was stuffing a part of myself back into the closet.

The truth is that gender is just a bunch of made-up nonsense, and letting other people tell you who you are and are not allowed to be is the height of cowardice.

I am trans enough if I identify as trans. Period.

Toxic belief: I need to justify my aesthetic

My aesthetic is a super bougie, idealized, pastels-and-brights affair. I like my Lilly Pulitzer dresses and fancy salon haircuts. Unfortunately, there are some unsavory things associated with this particular aesthetic of mine — it reeks “spoiled, vapid white girl” — and I was all too aware of this.

I felt like I had to justify everything: “All of this is from eBay! I got it for $20 and I earned all the money from a software engineering internship where I worked my butt off. I swear I’m not a spoiled brat. I SWEAR!” [2]

While it’s good to be self-aware, there’s a good line to draw between being self-aware to the point of self-consciousness and just plain not giving a fuck. These days, I realized that it doesn’t really matter who judges me based on my looks. You know — the people who matter won’t mind, and the people who mind won’t matter.

I enjoy my aesthetic, and I don’t need any to add any disclaimers on top of that.

On art

Toxic belief: iPhone photography is not “real” art

I currently shoot with an iPhone X and the occasional clip-on lens. The quality is amazingly sharp; I do the same amount of post-processing that photographers with DSLR cameras do. I haven’t upgraded because I like to take my own pictures; in the absence of a photographer who can consistently follow me around and take pictures just the way I like them, I can always have a rando press the little circular button on my iPhone.

After hearing this, some will insinuate that iPhone photography is inferior, and not “real” art. I don’t find this to be the case at all. You may have a lot more control over how your photos appear with a DSLR (how much light are you going to let in? How blurry is your background going to be? What’s the resolution of the photo?), but that doesn’t mean that mobile photography can’t be of the same caliber.

If van Gogh used a restaurant’s kids-meal crayons instead of oil to paint Starry Night, it would still be considered art.

I rest my case.

Toxic belief: Being “dreamy” and “artsy” is detrimental to my success

I’m an art-making, fiction-reading, dreampop-listening, color-loving creative at heart — and when I started getting serious with my work, I thought that I had to give all of that up in order to be successful.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As it turns out, creativity is a big part of success in the “real world” — and not just for software engineers, either. Problem-solving in general requires a shit ton of creative thinking. You need to get something done, and you’ve got to figure out what tools to use. I’ve gotten inspiration for a lot of my solutions out of the books I’ve read, the music I’ve listened to, and the locations I’ve visited.


When I say that this is only half of the toxic beliefs, I really mean that there are many, many more. It kind of blows my mind — I felt like I wasn’t doing much towards the end of this year, but my mind was actually working overtime to process everything.

2018 taught me to take a stand for my own lifestyle and my own beliefs. I let so many people talk down to me because I thought that they knew better than I did about my career, my identity, the way I wrote about social justice on my blog, et cetera. I still welcome all respectful challenges/inquiries, but now I trust myself. There’s so much beauty in that.

I learned the importance of setting boundaries and standing firm in the choices I make. I advocate and believe in myself; I learned to love the real version of me that wasn’t curated to please others or to seem perfect.

This, to me, is everything — and in it, I have found true success. ♚


[1] You know, “So it’s gonna be forever/or it’s gonna go down in flames …”

[2] I started buying my own shit at the beginning of my sophomore year of college, and always had a rule that I couldn’t spend more than $25 on a single frock.

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© 2019 by Marty Noel Chenyao. All rights reserved. | @fake.and.basic

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