On ‘A’ Level Results Release

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As February draws to a close, a new countdown begins – five days to the release of ‘A’ Level Results. I’ve had mixed feelings about this moment to come ever since I stepped into RI: in the very beginning, it was excitement (as in, “I can’t wait for that day to come”) because this moment represented the conclusion drawn to the ordeal of 2 years in Junior College. It would symbolize a chapter closed, a mission accomplished, a task fulfilled, box checked off the to-do list. Now five days away from d-day, it is merely apprehension. This one is in light of the release of results (I guess this is what you would call a prep talk):

Letting go of expectations

The apprehension is derived from an accumulation of expectations, some perceived and others self-imposed. In a piece for PostScript Stories in the beginning of this year, I wrote about the “tyranny of expectations”. It illustrated the gargantuan psychological burden we create for ourselves in being obsessed about expectations we perceive for ourselves or create in our minds. More often than not, the expectations translate into anxiety and fear rather than leading to meaningful goals to work toward. Somewhere in the rollercoaster ride of Odyssey of the Mind World Finals, our coach watched the team crack under the pressure we placed upon ourselves the night before our final performance. It was then that she had said, “Girls, no matter what happens tomorrow, the people who love you will not love you any less.” They wouldn’t. So first, as best as we can, let’s let go of those expectations.

Intentions vs. Goals

A discussion over the dinner table recently with a good friend of mine from JC was centered about our “narrative-based” versus “episode-based” idea of our life events. A “narrative-based” framework would acknowledge the continuity between seemingly separate events and understand how many happenings may piggyback over each other to slowly but surely cultivate a certain trait in us. Conversely, an “episodic” framework asserts that our life events are discrete. The irony lies in that the former sounds more logical and yet the latter is subconsciously preferred. Then, five days from now, the tangible outcome to this episode will be almost conclusive of the past 2 years. After all, “doing well for A’s” was the common goal.

Goal; not intention. The goal to do well had been reiterated over and over – reflected in the informal gatherings to study into the night that became formal, the “optional homework” that became “done-on-my-own-initiative assignments” and the mandatory lessons that transformed into arranged consults. We had a common goal to do well. The goal is tangible but the intentions are not, that is the one key difference that makes one no less important than the other. We all came with different intentions: before entering JC, I remember telling myself that “In the next two years, I want to stay true to my convictions and invest in experiences so I might learn more than just what is on the syllabus.” Let’s value the intentions, still, even as we assess how close we’ve came to our goals – we deserve credit for our everyday investment into those intentions.

Learning to Learn

One of my favourite parts about the past two years was being surrounded by a community of learners; I loved sitting in the classroom and discussing solutions with neighbouring desk mates, staying on after lessons to clarify doubts and attending numerous consults every week. I guess all these amounted to learning how to learn (resilience, resourcefulness, the list goes on). And the best part is that we learned in order to learn for a big part of the two years – attending extra-curricular programs from Organic Synthesis modules to Southeast Asian History lectures. We learned to learn and not merely for a silly paper chase.

And so, life goes on

With butterflies in our stomachs, cold feet (and hands too), thumping heart; as we proceed to retrieve our result slips this Friday afternoon, may we fight the urge to define the two years of ups and downs with the one column of grades. May we remember the many ups and downs – the emotional whirlwinds caused by things besides grades in our two years that represent memories of other things we cared dearly about. They were the schoolmates, the peers or seniors or juniors, our CCAs, solving that one chemistry question and completing that last 2.4km round the school track amongst friends. There were these other small moments that made us arrive at school anyway: our incredibly tired selves standing at assembly after a night “chionging” Project Work or rushing to leave the Marymount Gate before getting caught by the security guard at 10PM because we had stayed on to finish something we cared about.

Good luck, and more importantly, good job.

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Once Upon a Time: The Story Bias

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This month I have been privileged to rekindle many old friendships – primary schoolmates whomI have known for the longest time, teachers who have believed in me from my earlier days of childhood, and communities that embraced me with whatever I had to offer as a volunteer and developed me. Revisiting the earlier chapters of my growing up is akin to a journey to the past: there are memories as vivid as if they were yesterday and pangs of pleasure as I reflect on how the culmination of various episodes amounted to my convictions today. This February, I appreciate continuity.

It is sexy to tell the story of “how we came to be” in distinct episodes, clear climaxes and clean resolutions. Our love for drawing patterns prefer that “A leads to B” and “B to C”, you know, “that’s why D”. (On the contrary, we don’t quite appreciate “there was A, B and C – not really sure whether they were related even, but now we have D anyway”) In one of my favourite reads of all time, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, our love for having coherent stories is explored in the chapter titled Even True Stories are Fairy Tales. Dobelli calls this the “Story Bias”: our tendency to create stories to explain happenings in our life create notions that, at times, unnecessarily trap us with an idea about what we think we know about ourselves. Somewhere in between, we risk drawing wrong causal relations and creating fixed ideas about circumstances or people.

Let me be clear, I do see value in making a story of our experiences – to be able to do so requires significant commitment to reflection on what the experience has meant for us. Imagine our memory bank to be a shelf of books, every one of which representing a significant phase of our lives, experience from our past or person we’ve met. The repertoire of knowledge potentially serves as “anchors” in times of uncertainty for they may remind us of the strength we once displayed, the skills we have developed or the relationships once loved or lost. In a way, there is value associated to every one of them.

I guess this is one of the many balancing games. The intention is to ride on our stories so they may give us strength and skirt round the potential booby traps lie in the stories we tell ourselves for confirmation bias. I think in time, with the accumulation of more stories and experiences, I still want to be able to approach every new person as the stranger that they are (rather than the person I once knew that you’re similar to) and come to every situation excited and ready to learn (rather than feed over-confidence with memories of prior experience). May the “anchors” that I choose to hold onto be the anchor for merely my values.

In the midst of February’s revisits, I am consciously steering clear from being too fixated on writing a story while indulging in the bliss of appreciating these constants who explain how I might have came to be. This one’s to February, the month of revisits.

 

Reserved Seats

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This weekday morning I am immensely thankful for this half-day leave from work to slow down and celebrate multiple milestones – applying for my Provisional Driving License (after multiple nights at theory lessons so I can begin practical lessons) and taking my first half-day off work (after 5 weeks thereabout as a Patient Service Assistant). The canteen at Bukit Batok Driving Centre has neatly-spaced bright orange tables and yellow rectangular seats; unsurprisingly, most in my vicinity are driving instructors proudly donned in their uniforms, many of whom I admire for being advocates of safe driving on roads. An entire row of tables to myself, this Wednesday morning I am on a reserved seat: this one’s about the privilege we so unknowingly enjoy, that I would liken to being on a “Reserved Seat” in public transport.

In the past month of joining newfound familiar faces which never fail to accompany me at the Clementi Station platform 740AM, we head to the city every morning with familiar shoving and pushing towards the centre of the carriage. On these journeys that have become habit, I have been especially observant of the “Reserved Seat” – in particular, the hesitation that comes before its occupancy. I recall from the most recent Hoodie Hangout with the Hidden Good at National Museum of Singapore’s Food for Thought Restaurant, a conversation pumped with passion with respect to these forbidden seats meant for you if, and only if, you bore resemblance to one of the four iconic symbols accompanying the “Reserved Seat” sign. The discussion was centered on the stigma against people who appeared ‘well and healthy’ occupying these seats. The stigma that came as a result of public shaming on STOMP was one we concluded to be unnecessary (if not, unhelpful). Thanks to silly reports that big up instances of these “Reserved Seat”s being sat on, we now pause in our footsteps before being the “inconsiderate” occupant of the “Reserved Seat”.

At this point, I draw parallels between the “Reserved Seat” and being in a privileged position in our lives – some feel a sense of entitlement while others fear to even consider it. Just as how there is some truth in the seat being meant for select few, the preconceived notion of its exclusivity unnecessarily hinders those who do not fulfill the “necessary” conditions from even imagining being in a privileged position. We paint pictures of ideal qualities required for success and privilege (like paper chase, the perfect portfolio), then big them up to the point where we can barely imagine ourselves even trying for it. In that same way, we’d rather leave the “Reserved Seat” empty than sit our tired selves down. Rather, we focus on convincing ourselves we are not that tired, that we are undeserving. It is understandable, we are what society makes us: being the occupant of the “Reserved Seat” invites judgment all around. In a situation where an elderly comes on board, you’re the first who’s expected to give up your seat as if it were a duty that occupants of all other seats are incapable for accomplishing. Similarly, we constantly judge those in a privileged position and expect them to give generously. Noblesse oblige not il est mon obligé.

Last year, somewhere in July, I was given the opportunity to be on the panel of the Drama Box Forum Discussion titled “Inaction // In Action”. An hour was dedicated to engaging the audience in thoughts on the role of young people in social engagement, along with inspiring local project champions in their own fields. My greatest takeaway was the idea that we made our own choices, later reinforced by one my favourite reads during the A-level period titled Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal freedom by William Glasser. There are conscious choices we can make to evolve social construct from the way it is and to be better people, so that everyone may dream to be sitting in a better position from where they are today. We can slowly, but surely erase the complex stigma attached to privilege and the silly one attached to that “special” seat on train rides. Everyone has a right to a seat, there’s enough to go around if we all share (I mean, can you imagine if everyone sat for half their journey and stood for the other half?).

Inaction or in action? Let’s make better choices.

 

When I Grow Up

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Did I ever mention that the routine of attending Driving Theory lessons on weekends feels characteristic in this rite of passage into adulthood (to me)? It’s as though being able to drive would earn the license not just to drive on the roads but also to be taken seriously. Amidst the new normal that we shift uneasily to adapt to: the internships, the thinking about your future, university applications, the reshuffling of priorities; it feels as though these 8 months culminate in the “when I grow up” phase that we’ve begun dreaming of ever since we could write that primary school composition titled “My Ambition”. Perhaps, it was even before that – remember the day we had the English lesson titled “My Occupation”? There were colourful picture cards with multiracial hand-drawn adults dressed in their respective uniforms; beneath them their occupation typed in Comic Sans, font size 15 thereabout, black and bold. Today, on the long bus ride that has become a weekly affair, this one’s about the young adult I don’t want to be “when I grow up”.

“Let’s play a game of word association, starting with the word “old” “ – “retirement”, “slow”, “dementia”, “fear”… – I recall this activity vividly from an Interact session back in Junior College, aimed at developing empathy for the elderly whom we served regularly. Then, of the many ideas that arose, I found “dementia” the most terrifying of all – silent, incurable and enduring. In recent days, the recurrence of this issue in the newspapers has found new life for a familiar fear. Forgetting (the essence of dementia) is scary, but so is remembering too much. Drawing parallels between earlier experiences in customer service and new ones from the current internship, I have been especially observant of how we may abuse our ability to remember as we increase in age (and so memories, experiences, perceived knowledge, confirmation bias). One would expect our fear of forgetting and of dementia to have developed conscious appreciation towards remembering (just as how awareness of ‘have-not’s may be reminder to appreciate what we have), but this we forget to do. Ironic.

Don’t get me wrong: Forgetting is still terrifying and dementia, unimaginably awful. That’s a story for another time – for now, I would like to propose that remembering too much can be frightening too.

It seems, the more we remember our life’s experiences, the more we reinforce existing beliefs and the narrower our points of views. Frontline service has always promised me a daily dosage of Ms./Mr. ‘Think-You’re-So-Big’s plagued by their impressive repertoire of life experiences – from which, they have drawn up sufficient patterns, decisive conclusions and firmed up inflexible convictions. Like reflexes, these preconceived ideas as a result of their remembering kick in quickly before they can stop that frustrated sigh or instantaneous eye-roll at service that comes a second too slow for their liking. 14 year old and working at Macdonald’s, I recall my frustration at these adults. It was as if they remembered so much of their efforts put into working hard early in their lives to get to their million-dollar desk jobs today that they forgot in real-time, the crew at Macdonald’s put in continuous effort standing behind the cashier putting their orders together. They remember their stories too well to remember others have their own too.

I used to make frequent promises to myself about how to be “when I grow up” without dedicating myself to actions aligned with these promises because of the false illusion that “when I grow up” happens in a faraway moment, a split second. This year, I am learning this transition of growing up is always, always happening: slowly but surely. Along the way, everything I choose to remember and to forget determine then, how I will be “when I grow up”. We prize remembering things so much because, perhaps, it makes us feel in control of the decisions we make. If that is so and as memory is finite, it would probably be a good idea to start picking and choosing the things to remember. Along with that, it might be a good idea to remember to forget. Forget the people who hurt us and forget the stereotypes. Instead, remember what the little things that bring us happiness were and remember that every person is different. I admire dearly many adults who’ve imparted me their wisdom and who inspired me to be more than the number that is my age. (It is, but a number.) They are the ones I will remember. As for Ms./Mr. ‘Think-You’re-So-Big’s, you’re the ones I will remember to forget.