For the Workaholics: Stop Doing and Just Be

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From the weekend:

The curtains shield me from the merciless Sun that remains deprived of attention from the unusual downpour yesterday; ceiling fan whirring, the house is quiet besides the sound of occasional vehicles from the highway nearby and everyone is engrossed in their own things to do. Feeling rather relaxed from a weekend of family time and thankful for this time to reflect, my MacBook plays indie music I have recently been introduced to with audio clear as crystal while I type this: this piece is about the ‘stop doing and just be’ mantra that has increasingly perpetuated my hopes of leading an intentions-based life.

The morning crowd that joins me on the East-West Line towards my workplace every morning holds a familiar tension. I recall it from the mornings I was heading to school. There is a congregation of workers from all walks of life – “workers” because we are all working, always doing something. All task-oriented, ready to check off a list of ‘To-do’s that we list in our heads before the day even begins. We are workers that take all forms: some in suit and tie, others in the school-designed uniforms and a few in baggy jeans and flip-flops even. The similarity we share is the fervor with which we seek a “purposeful” life. Increasingly, I find this passionate search for purpose and meaning lost in translation. They have become a tyranny of expectations, never-ending ‘To-do’s, our hastened footsteps and the shoving into trains. Perhaps our addiction to our mobile devices stems from hopes of finding distraction from thinking about things we have to do. These ‘To-do’s have turned into our anxiety: our inability to be responsive rather than reactive and our selfishness in what we have been conditioned to view as a zero-sum game. (Ironically, in this ‘game’ there are no prizes and no ‘fun’.) It seems we have almost completely misunderstood, for this search for fulfilment should only leave us more fulfilled and not less.

A recent article I chanced upon illustrated our meaningless rat race as a continuous obsession to “get into” something spectacular in the next stage of our lives. The “Singapore success story” that propagates the prestige, prosperity and certainty that comes with committing to certain professions only adds fuel to the fire. Do well for the Primary Six Leaving Examination so you can “get into” a “good” secondary school, then do well for ‘O’ Levels so you can “get into” a “good” Junior College, then “get into” University, then “get into” this industry. Then what? All this doing would have contributed no more to our being than to our being in someplace – how fulfilled, then, might we feel when there seems to be nothing else to “get into”?

My favourite read of all time, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli mentions the Swimmer’s Body Illusion. This illusion is one where we get the causal relation of two closely-knitted ideas wrong – using the example of a swimmer, we play with the idea of “being a swimmer” and “having a fit body that swimmers typically have”. The illusion might lead us to think “Wow, I wish I could be a swimmer so that I would have a fit body.” Actually, it is flawed to think so, as it first takes one with a fit body to be a swimmer. In that same way, there is little meaning in counting on “getting into” an institution or industry to change who we are. The “who we are” part should come first.

All that said, I acknowledge the difficulty of “stop doing and just be” when the way we use social media (a large proportion of our brain’s ‘food’) encourages us to celebrate each other for the things we do more than for the people that we are. I am a self-admitted workaholic and the crammed words in my planner that list the many things to do in a day stand testament of that label. At this point, I propose the attempt at an intentions-based life – an idea adopted from a read during my ‘A’-Levels insomnia earlier. Do the things we do, for the intentions we have about the people that we hope to be rather than for the sake of doing – that, is the challenge. Then it wouldn’t be “meet him for an afternoon out” but “be a good company and friend”, not “update my bankbook” but “be responsible for my savings” and scratch “go for weekly run”, it’s “keep fit because it is empowering”.

In that light, then, my weekend of doing little and just being has been priceless.

KICKSTART with Strong Mind Fit Body

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This evening, I am seated by Bukit Gombak MRT – this adjacent carpark sees an incessant flow of “L-plate” drivers inching in and out of the carpark; once in a while, a manual car stalls and a queue forms quickly. The upward slope into the carpark is a tricky one, I would know. There is a quiet breeze that makes this spot particularly comfortable and today’s reflections are about a community project that has recently gained traction. The adrenaline from our three-hour back-to-back functional exercise sessions remains pumping in our veins though two days have already passed.

Strong Mind Fit Body is the brain child of my sister – passionate about exercise, her dedication to fitness as a means of empowerment could inspire anybody who carefully observes her lifestyle that amplifies her convictions. She has taught me to view exercise as a tool for empowerment. In her words, “anyone, with a strong heart and a healthy body, could lead a happy life”. With the privilege of our month-long holiday after graduating from Junior College, she made sure to have us all hit the gym at least every alternate day and to make smart food choices in the supermarket. My story with consciously leading a healthy lifestyle after I’ve left school really began from there and I am so so thankful to have learnt these lessons from her. Today, I alternate between running and working out in the gym (with the convenient ActiveSG FREE Membership) three times a week. The increased strength and fitness, indeed, gives me confidence to commit to other commitments I find meaningful.

The Strong Mind Fit Body project is currently funded by the Housing Development Board’s “Good Neighbour Project” that awards projects that fulfils the criteria of fostering neighbourliness in the community with a $1000 grant. Additionally, the project receives strong financial and moral support from our Residents’ Committee at Bukit Timah Zone 4. In promoting the adoption of functional exercises as a means of cultivating a healthy lifestyle, it has also been important to us that we use it as a means of bringing the Clementi neighbourhood in which we grew up, together. The movement is one that is inclusive exactly because of the accessibility of the type of exercise that is promoted – functional exercise rides on the idea that anything found in our daily lives can be converted into effective and safe exercise. In the future developments of the community project, we have hopes of reaching out to the MINDS community and the St. Luke’s Eldercare: both of which are within our neighbourhood. It is exciting to think of the possibilities we can achieve when driven by good intentions, big dreams and support from people who believe in our cause enough to invest in it.

From the proposal writing meetings of February and late night discussions at home since March, we have come a long way. In no more than a month, we conducted two engagement sessions to introduce the concept of functional exercise to neighbours, volunteers and our own family – one titled ‘The Dynamo Series’ and another titled ‘The Chair Series’. As their names suggest, each made use of a simple household item that was converted into a tool for exercise. Thanks to the valuable feedback accumulated from these engagement sessions, we were able to put together a decent anchor event last Sunday, titled ‘KICKSTART with Strong Mind Fit Body‘. This event saw a little more than 25 sign ups from neighbours who were inspired by the idea of a ground-up initiative by neighbours, for neighbours and from May, we expect to gather every two weeks for regular functional exercise sessions.

The execution of this project, though, has been no less than turbulent. The countless liaisons in order to obtain sufficient funding, meet with the Residents’ Committee members for more resources, or to pitch to suppliers to obtain partial sponsorships wherever possible only constitute the rollercoaster ride in the financial aspect of the project. I vividly remember the night my sister and I sat down for our first ever “team talk” – then, we had been at two-person team for a while, both cracking under the weight of our countless responsibilities. And memory of the morning my family came together in front of a whiteboard in the kitchen to list out responsibilities will remain clear as crystal for a long time.

Our dreams remain big, fire burning in the belly and the execution of the ground-up initiative remains an uphill battle. Cheers to the challenges that lay ahead, we’re ready!

Find out more about our project at bit.lyl/strongmindfitbody or email me at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg.

The Coming Jobs War

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“What everyone in the world wants is a good job,” wrote the Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton in his book titled The Coming Jobs War. I recall this read from my years in Junior College – Clifton wrote of the inevitable ‘war’ waged between countries to create the most fulfilling and relevant jobs for people to commit to in their lives. According to Gallup’s World Poll, 3 out of 7 billion people want a good job and there are only 1.2 billion jobs to go around. The short-fall of 1.8 billion jobs is at the heart of the emerging war – the challenge is one faced not only by governments but by entire nations, for the responsibility to create and fill up new jobs lies in the hands of all whose survival is dependent on the nation’s economic development.

The reality painted by Clifton was one where old jobs continually disappear while new ones emerge gradually with entrepreneurship. In light of this ever-changing landscape, the importance of flexibility and lifelong learning is amplified, putting things into perspective for me since the Junior College days.

On Flexibility

At the recent Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) admissions exercise, there was a short essay-writing component where candidates chose a question out of three given options to write about in 30 minutes. One of which quoted PM Lee saying, “We will put more weight on job performance and relevant skills, rather than starting qualifications,” in the National Day Rally Speech of 2014. The issue at hand, then, was the pros and cons of having university degree programmes and how we might judge workers based on qualifications rather than on-the-job performance.

Perhaps, for too long, our system of meritocracy has embedded a form of inflexibility in our association of capability to qualification, overlooking the intangible aspects of job performance shaped by our work attitudes. The discipline, accountability, respect and verve with which we perform our jobs can rarely be captured in a qualification or certification of any sort. Yet, these are the defining characteristics of truly capable workers who do a good job – those with intrinsic motivation to do what they do, who feel deeply fulfilled by their jobs and who are more likely to ride on the waves of greater job satisfaction when given affirmation.

The recent SIT essay-writing exercise, in this time of transitioning into the workforce, was a good reminder for our flexibility in work attitude to supersede our preoccupation with qualifications.

On Lifelong Learning

In a Medical Symposium earlier last year, I had the privilege of listening to Singapore’s ‘wandering saint’, Dr. Tan Lai Yong, share his experiences in China and views on healthcare/social work. A brief statement about his wife who, then, applied to go back to University for further studies as the oldest student in her course was one of the most memorable statements for me from his presentation.

The rigid idea of what must happen at every phase of one’s life as a “successful Singaporean” seems to me, to be perpetuating the stigma against lifelong learning. The institutions and policies set in place will be futile without our gradual mindset change. I prefer to think that with the uncertainty of the future and the possibility of my change of heart in my career aspirations, there is always the option of relearning knowledge or of picking up new skills.

Five months on from our ‘A’ Level examinations, this has been a transition to independence and making sense of young adulthood. Following the results release, this month in our rite of passage is one characterized by university and scholarship applications, as well as interviews – thought it was a timely reminder to put the reality of our job market in sight and to remind us of the intangibles that will truly matter on top of our decisions at this point.

May the short-term rush to make decisions not distract us from how these choices define our long-term attitudes. Then, may we emerge victors in the coming jobs war.

You’re Special, but You’re Not

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This Saturday follows a similar timetable I have committed to religiously ever since March began: half a day at work is short (albeit sufficient) and it ends with a trip from the hospital to the MRT station carrying a box of our weeks’ worth of recycled paper and cardboard boxes (part of a simple recycling system at our workplace I am immensely proud of and thankful for) to be recycled at the nearest recycling bin. What follows is but an adventure – volunteering at the Little Coders Program with UPstars tutors bringing coding to young children as a means of teaching logic, inspiring learning and inciting curiosity – every lesson introduces to tutors different challenges and accompanying insight. Then, a project recently initiated by my sister and I titled Strong Mind Fit Body has also found its way into my Saturday evenings, now dedicated to project discussion, engagement session or on-the-ground outreach. Saturdays pass quickly until dusk falls upon us and the family is together, that is my favourite part. These exciting moments that make up a single day can easily have different permutations; varying combinations of these very different days make up a month, then a year, then a decade. Keep counting up, it makes an entire life.

The room for exploration with our countless moments easily leads us to believe that we are special. People say “it is what we make of our moments that make us” – that our actions, attitude and the choices that we make in the small happenings determine our person. When we consider the almost infinite possibilities in what we can do and if every tweak in a small moment can result in our becoming someone different, it is only logical that we are as different from one another as possible. We are different. We are special. And with the passing of time, the culmination of experiences, it seems, we can only become more different from one another and more special in our own way. That is true, but only partially so. I would like to propose that we are more similar than different and it is helpful to remind ourselves once in a while that ‘no, you’re not special’.

Where I work today, I encounter people with an unjustified sense of entitlement often. This is perhaps due to the culture of excessive apologies that the service industry perpetuates, compounded with the tendency to assume that we are so special. Ideas like “you can never understand me” and “you have no idea” convey assumptions that we are too special to be understood completely. We underestimate one another’s capacity for compassion, then create a society that undermines the application of empathy – our ‘Feeling Special Complex’ builds barriers around the bridge to connection even before we try to step foot on it. Our stories that we are so special focus too much on our differences, it crowds out our overwhelming similarities.

Two nights ago, I was privileged to be in the midst of other passionate volunteers at Youth Corps Singapore’s monthly Teh Tarik Sessions. The networking night brings together Youth Corps Members, Aspirants, Aspirant Leaders and staff to a common space to explore possibilities of doing good together in a variety of areas. This month’s Teh Tarik Session brought founder of Geylang Adventures, Cai Yinzhou to the spotlight where he shared the inspiring story of his creating trails in a community that is all too often misunderstood and masked by our negative connotations. The crux of his experience assimilating migrant workers in his neighbourhood lay in focusing on the similarities rather than differences. It was in acknowledging their ‘special’ for their culture and backgrounds, and at the same time, finding the similarities with the local community hidden within this same ‘special’.

In truth, we can have very different stories to tell about our being but when we go back to basics, there are convictions we hold close to heart that are similar to one another. Convictions about equality, integrity, justice; about how to treat each other with respect and how to work hard for what you hope to achieve – these convictions, though derived from very different experiences, reveal our similarities in intentions and understandings. We are not that special.

As we were growing up, our family’s love for us can sometimes convey themselves as subtle reminders that we are special – the “you’re a smart child”, “you are different, you can do it” and the ‘adult conversations’ about their children making competitive comparisons while we sit by the sidelines as exhibits. The intention is assurance, some form of affirmation. Unintentionally, though, it teaches us to see ourselves as different from the rest and to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be different. This plays out in a circumstance I find myself in presently. A month on from our ‘A’ Level Results Release, we face the paying the cost of opportunity: opportunity cost. With every decision made to accept, there are decisions made to reject. To pick a leap of faith is to forgo a ‘golden opportunity’ and to make time for one experience is to compromise time for another. The idea that ‘you are special’ makes those choices more difficult because of the looming responsibility to “do justice” to our capacity to be extraordinary. We are lured to be part of the competition that nobody wins, to be “outstanding”, to be special. It is trying to grow into a pair of shoes you don’t know the size of as it changes constantly based on expectations. The idea of ‘special’ is created then validated externally, beyond our own control.

I am not saying there is no place for ‘special’.

Let’s reframe: you’re special for the moments that have made you, but it doesn’t mean we are different. (We are same same but different). Rather than overrate being special, let’s be comfortable that regardless, we are going to be one of the many – the many who study overseas (or locally), the many who decide to study a certain course, the many who land up in certain a career path. Perhaps we can redefine ‘special’: because in the end we may make very similar choices and have very similar moments, the true magic of special will lie in the spirit with which we do what we do, the purpose-driven and passionate disposition we choose to lead our everyday and the intentions we perpetuate. If we may be special, let us be special in that way.

May our verve make us special.