I would open my heart and carry it in my hand so that others may know also; for there is no deeper desire than the desire of being revealed. We all want that little light in us to be taken from under the bushel. The first poet must have suffered much when the cave-dwellers laughed at his mad words. He would have given his bow and arrows and lion skin, everything he possessed, just to have his fellow-men know the delight and the passion which the sunset had created in his soul. And yet, is it not this mystic pain — the pain of not being known — that gives birth to art and artists?
“This I choose to do. If there is a price, this I choose to pay. If it is my death, then I choose to die. Where this takes me, there I choose to go. I choose. This I choose to do.”
― Terry Pratchett,
A friend sent me a link to George Carlin’s video of why religion is bullshit. I watched it, and my mood went downhill from then on. My mind automatically corrects what he says, and when I scrolled to the comments I was thinking “there is so much hatred in these people”.
And then I got an email for a mock interview session in two weeks. Which made me feel like a very, very scared, and useless rabbit. The common theme is that I don’t know how to protect my ‘self’ or have complete and beautiful answers to people who ask me about my career or religion. I don’t know the answers. I wish I had the answers. Fuck. All the brainpickings articles I read about living the questions does nothing for my anxiety.
Although this brings me to the next point. I spent last night reading Tolle’s The Power of Now. It is a good book only if you have enough life experience to understand what it is like to be held back by the past, or to constantly wish for the future. I know that I am good enough to be hired for most of the jobs that I am applying to, those are ‘safety jobs’. But I don’t think I am good enough- not yet. I am not where I want to be, because there is no end goal.
This whole high school mentality of not fitting in and being awkward happens in adult life too, even though I know that passing job interviews is a function of how well-prepared you are and what the interviewer thinks of your fit with the company. It says very little about your potential, unless you don’t have any past job experiences to show that you are a high performer, then the interview is all the recruiter has to go by. Which can make me feel like an insane, cooped-up box of hair.
I completely identified with what he meant by constantly living for the future. I spent 2016 doing things for the future- getting good grades, to secure an internship, to secure a job, to secure a pension. I didn’t spend too much of my time in the moment, it was always about the future, because that is the only thing that matters. Now I look back and I realised that the whole of 2016 passed by in a blur. I learned so many things that I don’t remember.
The only moment that I will experience is the ‘now’. It sounds simple, until I looked at myself and realised that I was spending a lot of my thoughts about anything other than now. The human condition: to be lost in thought, unable to retrieve myself.
I do think I am self-aware though. Reading helps a lot, I don’t ascribe the way I think or my values to other people, I believe that individuals are all unique and worthy of a human life. There is good to be found in everybody, even if the uncle is blasting his pop music on the bus at 7am and I just want to murder him. Maybe the uncle has no grandchildren to tell him what earbuds are, or maybe he can’t afford hearing aids. There are many explanations for the person acting the way he does, and unless I take the time to be present, to really look at him and wonder what it is like to live his life, I might continue living our (wrong) instincts. Seeing the person as a whole is a hard thing to do when I have anger inside me.
For example- my mom cooked TCM medicine in the morning and I was so irritated because I told her clearly the night before that I don’t take medicine in the morning on Fridays, because it causes untold pain and I don’t want to suffer through comms class at 8.15am. I snapped at her, and she said something rude back. And then I regretted it immediately- it was my instinct to protect myself- the narrative inside my head was “I don’t want to take the medicine, I don’t want to waste my time storing it either, I clearly told her and she should have followed instructions.” And also, I was half-awake, I literally just walked out of my room and into the kitchen.
But I was the rude one first. At the back of my mind, I knew that she probably woke up at 4am to soak the medicine in water, and then she had to watch the stove, which disrupts her sleeping time. While she might have forgotten, it is not like she intentionally did it. After all, it’s my medicine, I should be the one watching it on the stove. Who am I to tell other people to do things for me? But she left the house already- she always attends church in the morning, and yes she is normally awake at 4am doing other things. I texted her that I was sorry, and she texted something nice back. But if I had this narrative of me being some sort of wronged and abused alpaca, I would have been steaming in my anger for probably another good twenty minutes. Being present and not letting emotions mislead me is important. Being able to see peoples’ side of the story is also important, many narratives form a sort of 360 degrees view of the situation.
Returning to the topic of job applications.
Any action is often better than no action, especially if you have been stuck in an unhappy situation for a long time. If it is a mistake, at least you learn something, in which case it’s no longer a mistake. If you remain stuck, you learn nothing.
― Eckhart Tolle,
But one thing after reading The Power of Now is that I see my past slightly differently. Yes, it created me. Yes, it was painful. But instead of seeing it as ‘I don’t regret anything, although I dislike some parts of it’, I choose to see those experiences as something that money cannot buy. They are completely, wholly, mine. Even if other people want what I got, because those are not experiences created by other people but by mix of circumstances and luck, they can’t.
I now see myself as being given unique opportunities to form my character. Although I might be a bit wonky in the head, but that is the human condition. Adults are just as bogged down by their ‘identity’ as children are. To not know if there is one good character, and to always be wondering at “what else?” in our lives and relationships.
Until we live in the now, and there are future plans, but there is nothing lacking in the ‘now’. Apart from a slightly odd sense of uneasiness because I know that I have a quiz in three days, but I haven’t started studying yet.
My favourite word of the month of January is ‘ikigai’. It is a Japanese word which, loosely translated, reads as ‘the reason for being’, or the reason why you wake up in the morning. Ikigai isn’t something tangible like money. It is actually the nexus where four circles meet. What you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at. If you fulfil all four circles, then you have achieved ikigai.
There’s another concept called ‘flow’, which is complete absorption in what one person does. It is a mental zone where you are focused and fully involved in the activity, and you lose track of time. For me I experience flow in writing, group discussions, thinking about people and why they do what they do, social interactions with new friends, reading, and walking in parks and the like. Experiencing flow for something that you are paid for, which the world needs, is ikigai.
I once thought that McDonalds had great impact but zero ikigai for those who work in the lower paying food counter jobs. I had to reassess my assumption of ‘meaning’ when an acquaintance told me that McD’s fries are her comfort food. It is something she eats whenever she is feeling down. It cheers her up, it is what she enjoys. That is meaning in a salty, oily, finger lickin’ good packet, it is what the world needs. Meaning is what we are attracted to, it doesn’t need to be logical, it is like personal preference. Some people find their life’s meaning in being a theoretical mathematician, I find meaning in writing my thoughts down. I don’t think we can all articulate why we are drawn to the things we are.
As a final year undergraduate in Singapore, with four months to securing a job offer, the concept of flow and ikigai sometimes seem so far off from what I actually am experiencing. I don’t know if my degree is something that I love (like really, really love), and with only theoretical/internship experience I don’t know if it is something that I am good at. I know that my job is something that I will be paid for, but I am not sure if my job is something the world needs. Or if my company is providing a service that the world needs.
The job matching process can feel like I am selling myself to the company- what does A do, who are its competitors, why do you think you are a good fit for the culture of A. Which is interesting because at every point in this job matching process, even though I am the one getting interviewed, I am also constantly assessing if I am a good fit for the company culture. Do I want to work for an organisation who focuses very strongly on coaching, matching strengths to passions, and unlocking the potential of individuals? Do I want to give years of my life to a company whose by-line is “High performance. Delivered.” With every question and answer and career chat, I am assessing if they are providing the sort of services to the world that I would be proud to introduce to my relatives and friends. But still, the job search can seem like a race against time and against other undergraduates. Or worse, MBA students, with more experience and more theories in their head than I have.
I would like to integrate all four circles in my life, but there is a footnote to the finding of ikigai. It is a lengthy process that requires years and years of experience and reflection. Some people never find their ikigai and they die unsatisfied and unknowing about their higher potential. As Oprah Winfrey puts it, she is still moving towards her ‘aha!’ moment. Most fresh graduates spend the first few months of their job really putting in the hours, wanting to make a mark in the industry with the skills they have. Balancing what we want from the company, with how we can contribute to it.
I don’t know if I am doing the right thing by going into HR, because everyone (my mother, my father, my uncle, my boss, my friends, and my family cow) says that HR has no technical skill sets. I am not very useful in times of recession. But the thing is, I am going where I find meaning.
If there is one thing that I have learned in my 23 years of living, it is that I always screw up and hurt the most when I follow the well-intentioned advice of others, while my intuition tells me to go the other way. Because other people don’t know how I feel. They don’t know what I think of on a daily basis, they don’t know what ‘flow’ feels like to me. They don’t consider the things I consider, that the one thing I am scared of is wasting my life. 80 years on earth as a cycle of growth and decay, with nothing to show for it but a few human beings surrounding me and a lot of money.
Even if HR is the first ‘cost centre’ to be laid off in the future, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is laid off at some point. Laid off from family, laid off from church duties, getting fired from a personal relationship. It doesn’t need to be a failure at work to feel that I have failed in this period of my life.
In Japan, they use lacquer to repair broken ceramics, like tea pots. It is called ‘kintsugi’, using a mixture of gold, silver, or platinum. The piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Let me make my mistakes, I will learn from them. Or maybe I will find my ikigai.
P.S. My next favourite Japanese word is tsundoku, loosely translated as buying books and leaving them unread in a pile. Because I always do it HAHAH.
I belong to the group of people who will spend $48 on a tub of jellybeans so that I can have a greater absolute number of caramel popcorn, marshmallow, and butterscotch jellybeans, and grudgingly eat the rest only when I am desperate for sweets. I wish I could customize my own tub of flavours that I enjoy and ignore the rest. Which is kind of like life, I wish I could pick and choose which experiences I want in this buffet spread called ‘trials, tribulations, and your favourite things to do before you die’.
Mortality has been on my mind for a few years now. Ever since I turned 17, I have been aware that my time on earth is steadily dwindling down to the last few years. That means a lot less time for bullshit like crappy people who pretend to be friends when it suits them, and less time for escapist methods like alcohol and smoking- I don’t want to spend years in a funk, only to realise that it was for nothing. Wasted time in a very short life.
It also means a lot more time to invest in things that I do want to achieve. I really want to experience forest bathing- the Japanese term for going to the forest and relaxing, and see the sunlight creep between the leaves of the trees. To breathe in the first air when the sun rises and know that it is the start of a new day. To lie on the grass tickling my ears, with the cows and horses just on the other side of the hill, and appreciate nature. Know that as a human I cannot change the world around me.
The idea of dying painlessly is attractive to some- those who are suffering right now and can see no way out of their pain. It is an end to everything that they know. And they prefer that route.
But to me, a relatively healthy person who can’t travel out of the country but can travel in her mind, dying painlessly is not attractive. It means an end to all my experiences. I won’t be able to know what it feels like to breathe, to climb mountains, and to roll down a grassy patch like a honey bear. Or what raindrops against the windowpane sounds like. It means leaving behind all the bad memories, but also the good ones.
I know that life is an awareness of having to struggle. Mundane things like job interviews, having to express myself in front of people who make me feel very small and unprotected, moments of joy when I see babies toddling about in their nappies. It is being in the moment, even if I cannot predict the future. It is eating the wrong sort of jellybeans.
A lot of self-help books are catered to increasing productivity, losing weight, increasing social status, things which will make us happier. But do these self-help books really work, if we don’t have that acorn-like seed of need within us to make those methods work? Because the goal of the self-help books is to increase happiness.
But that end goal of happiness is not process-oriented, it seems like a “okay you do all these things, you will be a lot happier this time next year.” Better off, maybe. I am not so sure about happier. The flavour of life to me in the past few years is ‘meaningful’ and ‘interesting’, not always happy. In fact, rarely happy.
But as cliché as it sounds, I would go back and do it all over again. Because I know of no better way to create meaning, except by staying in the process and not letting distractions get to me. Because I like the process of making new friends, doing new projects and making mistakes. It reminds me to breathe and not panic even when there is a hurricane smashing against the windowpanes.
That said, I still get angry when people jump ahead in dressing rooms.