Go with a smile!

Friday, August 03, 2012


I saw an article by Kirsten Han on what people used to do in elite schools.

It is very interesting. I used to go to a similar school and they ranked all the classes. I suppose it was pretty odious: I didn’t know how odious it was, because at that time I probably had very little conception of what merit meant, outside of scoring more than 95% on your tests. And I was in the “best” class, I didn’t have any conception of what was said to the other people in the other classes. And I didn’t struggle in school for any subject other than Chinese.

Later on I got into the gifted program. There were good years, and there were bad years. But overall it was a good experience. They didn’t rank people in there, which was good when I was doing badly, and really bad when I topped the class one year and had nothing to show for it. Other than being good at school I had other interests in music and drama. And I went on to believe that I could be good at almost anything I tried. Well, not really. I also played music, and while I still believe that I have a great musical mind, I was pretty crap at actually playing. So that should have been another warning sign.

The very dangerous thing about the gifted program is this: when you’re inside, you’re exposed to a great deal of things. You get time and space to develop your talents, and find the things you’re good at. That was very good for me because I was flexible enough to be good at quite a few things. But you also get cut off from the rat race. Because it’s a more forgiving place, once you’re inside, you forget that you have to keep on striving for the top. There’s more of an emphasis on nurturing the love for learning rather than pushing you hard. Unfortunately in real life, you actually need both: if you have one but not the other you won’t get very far. So generally I would say that people might have a little bit less fire if they came from the gifted program, although there were quite a few people in there who were very hardworking.

I knew from my days in the gifted program that relationships between the gifted people and those outside the gifted program were not very good. In fact one of the worst things that happened to me during those years was that I hardly had any friends outside of the gifted program, and that was something that I would live to regret for quite some time.

I left the gifted program and I got into JC. That was where the problems started: I didn’t really know how to connect to those people who were outside of that system. I gradually learnt, but it was too late: JC is really the time for you to make good friends for life. The GEP is in its way a nerd paradise, and if you don’t learn how to connect with non-nerds, then it can be a little tough. Until today, I’m still a little wary of non-nerds.

I got into NS, and it was even worse. There were some tough moments. At the same time I started realising that there were things I wasn’t very good at, and a lot of them had to do with practical soldiery stuff. I was prepared for that, because my parents would usually warn me, even when I was a kid, that being good at school was never good enough.

I got into Snowy Hill. This was my first taste of life in another country. It was an exciting but very chaotic part in my life. Social life was pretty bleah. I did learn how to be cool and get on with the Singaporeans who were there, but I just wasn’t getting through to the Americans. I guess I’m just not good at transcending cultural differences.

When I got to work, that was the toughest time in my life. The first few years were the worst. I think a few of the colleagues would understand that our work is pretty tough in the sense that you’re the only person who can see and understand the relevance of your own work. I had a few bosses who were openly doubtful of my ability for the first few years. My grades at Snowy Hill were not fantastic and they were constantly using that against me: it’s as though there wasn’t a real need to open your eyes and see your employees for who they are. Eventually when I left that place, though, I was in a much better position than when I entered it. I wasn’t going to be a model employee quite yet, but at least they managed to see the worth in me. There was this guy – he seemed pretty intent to second guess everything I wanted to do. I’m pretty glad that I didn’t have to work for him much after the first few years – maybe things would have been better after that, but it doesn’t really matter now.

When I look back upon those days, I think I could have accomplished what I did in around half the time, but if I did that, I wouldn’t have had the time and energy to do other things like read 400 books, write 500 blog posts and run a marathon. So I’ve been at the two extremes. I’ve known what it’s like to have the benefit of the doubt because people think you’re smart, and I’ve known what it’s like to be constantly questioned because people always doubt you. When I was in school, I had a few good years, and then I slid back. And during the time that I slid back, people were always treating me like “the genius who didn’t try hard”. Or during the years at work, people were ignoring me and even saying things like, “I don’t know why you keep on trying”. But I did persevere anyway. And I’ve come to realize that for creative people, especially people with new and different ideas, you do have to expect that people are going to turn you away. You just have to do it anyway. Of course, I have to say that when my bosses put down my ideas, they were right around half of the time. Which means you do have to be very clever about which half you’re going to fight for.

I’m too old to worry about my own ego. Of course it’s dangerous that I can’t really tell whether I’m an egoist or not. It used to be such a big issue during my younger days, but somehow, not right now. Anyway I’m really too old to be worrying about whether my ego. I should be worrying about the egos of young people, and how they manage it.

The thing is, ego is not as important as motivation. I know that we Asians hate egoistic people, but there’s nothing wrong with a good and strong ego. I’ve come to realise that self-doubt can be paralysing. And I’ve come to understand that the elites of the society would want to make sure that generally people have a low ego, because it’s easier to control the underclass that way. Sometime in my college, I stopped worrying about my ego, and started worrying about my motivation instead. That was a very good switch because your ego really affects very little other than whether you’re rubbing people the right or wrong way.

Another thing that is very important for you to remember is that everybody has a very different set of talents. There were people at school I used to thrash at mathematics, but I was never good as them at English. That is important: more important than ego. More important than understanding how good you are is understanding how good your are at what. That can fight off the ego problems. If you are weak at your studies, you can always remind yourself from time to time that you're good at sports to lift yourself up. If you are always scoring As, you have to ask yourself whether it's that important, whether it's going to matter in the larger working world.

It used to be quite a big issue when I was younger. But it was never as big a problem as my teachers or my parents had feared. If I could go back in time, I would say to them, “I’m interested in knowledge. I’m interested in music. I’m not particularly interested in looking at myself in the mirror.” And my mother, who was totally clueless about reading people was pretty shocked when I came to the conclusion that I had low self-esteem when I was younger. She always thought that I was too arrogant and needed to be taught a lesson. When you have a situation like this, you can imagine what a disaster it can be.

I would say that your opinion of yourself should be slightly higher than the reality, but not much higher. You should have to shut off criticism to a certain extent. People always complain about cognitive dissonance and bias against changing your mind. But we all need a bit of stubbornness to a certain extent. You can’t be changing your mind too much, and there is a very delicate balance between standing up for what you believe in or changing your mind when you’re confronted with too much evidence to the contrary.

So there’s no hard and fast rule about how you’re going to manage the ego of a young person. I think ultimately you have to be managing his motivation, rather than his ego.


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