The 2 most challenging time in my life was when I was 18-19 years old. I was enrolled in Raffles Junior College, which is the top college in Singapore. For a very big part of my life, I have always seen myself as someone who was good at studies, I got good grades and did well in school.
That was my identity and the source of my confidence, back in secondary school, I would top my class in various subjects and get straight As at the national exams. But when I got the government subsidy to study at the top college, things changed.
I knew this from the first month at school, no matter how late I stayed at the Shears’s library at that dimly lit wooden desk, with air-condition that was way too cold, no matter how many times I read my lecture notes and did practice, I was no way near my classmates. Every morning at the assembly hall, there would be a genius that won an award, someone that did something great for the school, the country- some team won at the National Sports Championships, some guy published his own book of poems.
Back in my old school, when there was an achievement of this sort, the school would celebrate for 2 full weeks happily and really feel proud of our team’s achievements. Here, it happened so commonly that frankly, I tuned it out over time and mindlessly clapped for “so and so, who won this or that” award.
People there were multi-linguists. They could speak English, Mandarin, French, Japanese or German. They mostly played piano until the diploma level, they were just being super incredible human beings – that by the way, could ace a pop-quiz. A pop-quiz. Geez.
The school exam papers were so much harder than the national exam papers (I have no clue, why) and everyone was so awesome that somehow, being less “paper-clad” or less “awarded” made you more special that if you were not to be a leader of some sort or an achiever of some sort. Instead of doing 3 H2 subjects and 1 H1 subject (H1 is a level easier than H2) , the default was for everyone to do 4 H2 subjects at the national exams. Oh, and by the way, students also had the option to take H3 subjects, which, many of my classmates ended up taking- studying the crazy world of Game theory, advanced Chemistry/Physics/Math.
Many of my classmates wanted to study at Ivy League unis in the West- Yale, Harvard, Brown… And so we studied for the SATs exam (to study in the US, you need to take the SATs)- I got 2050 for the test and felt pretty good about it, until classmates started producing 2300s or dang it, the full 2400/2400.
It was a whole new level of genius that I have never experienced. SO much brains in 1 place. Well, being 18 and unsure, my confidence took a huge hit and I never felt enough. Everything I did, felt like it was’t enough. Not good enough, not smart enough, too lazy.
I skipped so many family dinners and studied way too much. Because I desperately didn’t want to lose the identity I created for myself. I was so driven by fear.
I remember after a long season of study, again, I produced another C on a test. I just in the middle of a noisy lecture hall and thought to myself “Wow, I really hate this”.
Blind rat race? The daily grind? Check check. I was so tired of it.
It didn’t help that during the same period, there were a lot of changes that happened in my family structure. This added a lot to my stress and I am so grateful for my teachers (Especially Ms Hong) and my friends who encouraged me to focus on the exams and to be strong.
Deep down, I told myself, that I’ll get through this… and I’ve never been as fervent in prayer than that period.
I wanted a new life. But I felt stuck, because studying was all I ever knew. What could I work as if I didn’t get a degree?
Would I not make it to University?
How am I ever going to afford going to university? $40,000?
I remembered being so fearful in that entire period, I dropped a lot of weight out of stress and I fell sick a total of 7 times in a year because of sickness. At night, I couldn’t fall asleep because of the pressure. The sounds of flushing water at the pool, sounded like a waterfall that kept me awake, instead of soothing tired minds. I was in a bad state in my life and I couldn’t see a way out.
I had to keep going on, studying, working as a part-time waitress at Thai Express restaurant and trying to stay in the manager’s good books and manage politics between colleagues, working as a stall attendant at this tiny shop near my home at $5/hour.
Daily life working in this tiny shop.
“This beautiful mess, means something to me.
Just walked past this shop that I used to work at just 2 years ago, hawking all sorts of random wares.
I made $5/hour and worked throughout the day, manning the shop.
All sorts of people would come in.
The day was really routine, I would get busy for brief spurts throughout the day and the rest of the time was sitting behind the counter and reading.
Reading and dreaming.
The people who accompanied my quiet afternoons were incredible authors- Tim Ferriss, Rolf Potts, David Schwartz etc.
I remembered reading sales books and trying to apply the techniques on the spot when I met customers.
When it was night time, I would go out and take all bamboo poles in, hang all the trinkets back on the racks and pull the shutters.
Then it repeats.
My comfort, was through books. I read a lot, I read bible verses, I read inspirational business books and saw the life of entrepreneurs- the kinds of challenges they overcome, the glory, the creative process, the drive to create massive value to society. I thought to myself that personal problems didn’t matter.. They are solving everyone’s problems. They shared sales strategy, marketing strategy, business strategy and they taught me to expand my capacity for thought- they taught me how to learn, how to think and how to develop habits. I spent a lot of my time just being in the presence of these books and allowing it to permeate my unconscious.
Through their stories, I felt better about my situation- that I am only in stage 1 of my life. That I can get through this, if they have gone through worst things. That I can be brave. Bit by bit, I diversified my sources of self-confidence, I explored faith on a deeper level, I picked up new ways of thinking.
I think this is the real step 1, even before I took and “business” action. This reading time and time for exploration planted in me, a deep seed of desire.
I think more than having a grand story or an inspirational quote or person in my life, the raw truth is that I was probably most driven by a deep self-doubt at this point of my life, the need to prove myself and a lot of fear, this made me desperate to get out.
I didn’t want to be overweight anymore (I was for more than 13 years in my life), I didn’t want to keep getting sick anymore (I had bronchitis when I was younger, and was dangerously diagnosed with secondary dengue fever and I didn’t get better soon because of my weak immune system), I didn’t want to be a victim of my circumstances anymore. I want to be fit, resourceful and be able to give to others, I wanted to make choices and create the life I want- I want to experience deep peace of mind, I want to remain curious and optimistic about the world.