(Not) My Comparative Advantage
“I’m not trying to look weak!” My gloved hands flew back onto my hips, but the trembling of my lower lip betrayed me. Even though it was a late night session with few people on the ice, I didn’t want my frustrated huffs to attract an audience.
My mom crossed her arms in reply. “Then stiffen up your arms! It’ll help you land your jumps!” She unhinged her elbows and straightened hers out on either side of her as a demonstration.
I sucked in a deep breath and pushed away from the boards near her seat. I needed to calm down before I attempted another run-through of my routine. Unlike a professional at all, every little thing could mess me up. And nothing was going right tonight. My gloves had holes in the fingertips, my blades weren’t gripping the ice enough, and my first competition was just a few weeks away.
I started the night confident that I could deliver a great practice performance for her to watch and record for my dad. Work would probably prevent either of them from getting to see me skate in the pretty, expensive, rhinestoned dress they bought just for the occasion. (I just want to sparkle like the other competitors! You want me to look good, right? Oh yes, I was unfortunately a manipulative little…)
I threw a few single jumps to get back into a groove, any groove, and looked back in my mom’s direction. She was reading something on her phone. I couldn’t blame her; I wasn’t impressing anyone at the moment. But maybe I shouldn’t have expected to in the first place.
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At five-foot-seven and not exactly the most svelte, my body didn’t fit the ideal figure skater profile. Super aware of my higher center of gravity, I couldn’t force myself to be fearless and throw jumps over and over again until I landed one. Faster, push more, my coach would urge me, but speed terrified me more than it carried me to any success on the ice. Suffice it to say that figure skating wasn’t an area of comparative advantage for me.
Yet somehow, I stayed with figure skating for almost a decade. I never experienced breakout results, rarely passed the level tests with any sort of colors, and often wasted time being upset over my practice one day instead of progressing on my math homework. My parents told me I could quit anytime and do something else, but I would not budge. I would love skating until it loved me back.
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Home from college one winter break, I tagged along to my friend’s jazz and ballet classes. I had just started dancing recreationally in college and quickly became envious of my stage-veteran new friends. Like many of my peers, I had been shepherded to dance studios as a kid, but it just didn’t stick with me at the time.
After we stretched, the teacher looked at my physique and said, “Oh, I could’ve made you.” I asked for clarification. She admired my height and long (really?) limbs. I could’ve parlayed my natural resources into being a beautiful ballerina. Could’ve. The word stung. It reeked of lost opportunity, lost potential.
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I went home that night with a simmering anger. Why couldn’t I have known this sooner? Why didn’t my parents try harder to get me to reconsider my obsession with skating? Why…not? Why not? The realizations burrowed themselves in my mind for months and leaked into other areas of my life.
In grade school, my talents manifested in classes like social studies and history, English, and foreign languages. Math and science? With the odd exception of chemistry, to say I wished, craved, cried for those subjects to feel “easy” would be a wild understatement. Unlike skating or dance, I didn’t have a choice but to do well in everything.
I wanted the advantages that I didn’t enjoy. I felt like those things were more impressive. Things I was good at? They were nice, but not so much in light of the increasing importance of STEM.
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In basic macroeconomics, you learn that countries should focus on producing things that they have a comparative advantage in. For example, Southeast Asia started to manufacture products when their cost of labor became more competitive, sometimes known in corporate speak as “cheaper.”
But you also learn that economies can grow by investing in areas they are deficient in, such as Singapore’s attracting of an international workforce responsible for much of its service industries or South Korea’s early investments in entertainment and pop culture that became precursors for the “hallyu wave.”
So I began to apply these principles to my own life. I would invest in learning things I didn’t know and needed to know, without neglecting to nurture my natural talents.
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Come winter of my freshman year, I had almost had it with “investment.” I was trying desperately to bring my math class grade back up after disastrous midterms, and the former valedictorians never stopped at anything to excel. I transferred my skating skills to a student dance troupe, where I was good enough but always aware that there were even better.
For a study break, I went skating on an outdoor rink for the first time at Boston’s Frog Pond. I glided easily among the awkward first dates, tweens goofing off, and parents who were regretting bringing their kid. Every bone in my body felt a newfound appreciation for the years I had spent falling and slipping and tripping on frozen water. As I exhaled and watched the tendrils of my breath uncurl and float away, I looked up and muttered a silent thank-you to my past self, for not giving up and for getting me this far. The decade had not, in fact, been for nothing.
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Thank you for reading! This is the second in my series “An Economic Life,” where I write to educate and entertain while attempting to remember and apply my liberal arts education. :)
Originally published at J Wang.