The Ego, Success, and other random thoughts

I’ve always been schooled in a certain way; that success in my life, my academic journey, and my professional journey all meant ticking a series of boxes on a checklist. Perhaps at some point, it also meant a fixed set of options — i.e. being a banker, a lawyer, an accountant or a doctor.

It is only hindsight that a large part of my education journey had conveyed on me a privilege that I only came to understand very much later in life.

What was consistent throughout my education journey was the inherent need of competition. It was hard not to compete in an environment where everyone wanted to be “someone” when they grew up. I had done my primary school education in what was essentially a small-town school, and if not for my parents who had a certain amount of foresight and discipline, I would probably never made it past my PSLE and gave myself a shot at one of the most elite institutions in the country.

Throughout most of my secondary education, we were constantly reminded that we were meant to be “future leaders” of the country. Even the school motto ‘Auspicium Meliorism. Aevi’ encapsulated that.

As a consequence, my peers were some of the most driven young men I have ever seen. This was coupled with the fact that they were also objectively extremely intelligent, and everything they did seemed effortless and they were so all-rounded that it was staggering that it could be possible.

For instance, my head boy was not just the head boy, he topped the cohort in multiple subjects, managed multiple CCAs, and to top that off, represented the country in competitive shooting at the Southeast Asian Games… and he wasn’t the only one. I knew at least a dozen guys who were excellent students and represented the country in a variety of sports.

It was bewildering — I felt like a duck amongst swans. Here I was, a grubby little kid who could barely play the piano and the only sports I knew was street football — against these modern-day renaissance men!

Being an impressionable teenager with a desire to please and impress, I lost myself in the competition.

My entire psyche revolved around how I could fit in, how I could live up to certain concept and ideal, and I was constantly reflecting on how far away from my peers I was. If they had any insecurities, I couldn’t see it. In fact, all I saw were my own inadequacies and I had imposter syndrome in everything I did; and this was even before imposter syndrome was a thing.

In short, I tried living up to an ideal that I never was. I could never be a renaissance man, I could never be someone who would make the alumni proud. I felt like a fish out of water every day in school, and my awkwardness was clear every day.

If any of my peers ever read this, now you know why I was always caught between being extremely reticent and trying to look “cool” all the time. I was always trying to fit in the stereotype, but at the same time, terribly unsure and fearful about how I was perceived by everyone else. My insecurities were glaringly obvious, and junior college was no different.

New Zealand then, was a safe space. It allowed me to grow and find my feet again. I guess being away from my peers helped, for there was no source of comparison and I was in many ways, given a second chance to grow at my own pace. While Victoria (“Vic” for short) was an extremely competitive environment, it was also one that I was allowed to make my mark, for there was nothing to live up to.

Looking back however, I think the main reason was that I was entirely anonymous in Wellington. There were no stereotypes I had to live up to, there was no need to be an “all rounded genius”. I was free to be whoever I was, away from comparison and the pressure cooker that Singapore at times can be.

I was allowed, essentially, to indulge, to find my feet, and to grow as a person. It made me rethink a lot of the assumptions in life, of what success meant, and the man I wanted to be. There was no box that I needed to fit into.

What is the point of all this then? That we as humans have a tendency to be tribal, to want to fit in and be accepted by the people around us.

Sometimes we wish to be seen as important members of our tribes, of our cliques, and this consequently means that if we don’t get achieve the above, our egos take a hit, we feel disappointed, down or even tragically disillusioned about ourselves and self worth.

It is at this point that I go back to one of my favourite and most inspirational verses of poetry, “If” by Rudyard Kipling:

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Mulling over that one cold day sitting by Paraparamu station near the New Zealand beach was arguably one of my best memories of life down under, but aside from that, it taught me that success means more about being guided not by visions of grandeur, but by virtues and values that embody what being a good human being should be.

It shouldn’t be about how many subjects you ace in, or how many people you manage in your team, or how big your corporate title is. It shouldn’t even be about how much money you make, or how great your peers. regard you to be, or whether you’re a scholar or not.

What really matters I guess, is whether you have empathy, whether you treat people who work with you/live with you with respect for who they are as individuals, and to live not for fire and glory, but in the quiet satisfaction that you have done the best you can, for yourself and those whom you go through life with.

I end this with this line by Marcus Aurelius:

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

If I can “be good”, and do good, and live my days with empathy and respect for others around me, that in itself is a good way to live.

Perhaps at the end of the day, that is what success really means.

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