The last thought I ended with when I was writing on the way to work this morning was- how do you save a kid from himself when he seems hell-bent on self-destruction? “Save” is an unnecessarily loaded term so maybe it would be better to just ask, is it possible to steer such a person away from the path he’s on, good or bad? What could have made a difference in my life then? If I can go back in time and talk to myself, would I be able to induce a different outcome?
That’s a valuable question to answer, because if I could do that, I’d be able to do something that eluded my parents, my teachers and myself. I could formulate a hypothesis and test it on younger people who’re now in the same situation that I was then.
It’s easy to say what needed to change, but it’s the roadmap of that change that’s hard to properly define. We all know what’s wrong with the world- it’s the fixing that’s the tough part.
I suppose the first thing is to outline the change. At the extreme end we’d need total behavioural change. That means a different environment, a different peer group.
This gets convoluted though. I know that I’d have resisted drastic change if it were imposed on me against my will. So any such change would have to be rooted in personal choice. I would need a thoughtful peer to advise me- somebody whom I respected and admired, to ask me questions in a socratic way to tease out my inconsistencies.
What do you want to do with your life, Visa? At one point I wanted to try to go to RJC to be with my girlfriend. I hoped to go to VJC or SAJC. I could’ve maybe gone to CJC but picked NYJC instead for my PAE period. I didn’t realize that I had put it as 2nd choice. Frustrated with the travel, I picked TPJC.
My life might’ve turned out pretty different if I went to NYJC or CJC. Who knows.
I often acknowledged the importance of studying, doing homework. I kinda assumed I’d end up doing okay in life. When I was in lower primary I think I thought I’d end up in temasek sec, where my sister had been. When I was in the GEP, I started thinking vague abstract thoughts about Cambridge and Oxford. I had no idea what I wanted to do there. It was just the where all my peers seemed to be going, so it seemed ordinary or natural.
I was interested in building websites and video games. Up to this point I think I was moderately all-rounded. Good with words and number patterns, bad with drawing and art (but always with strong ideas about aesthetics that I never fully explored.) I ate a lot of mcdonalds and was actually really unfit- something that wasn’t obvious because I was tall and skinny. I played a lot of video games and read a lot of books. I got interested in basketball at some point, after watching slam dunk. (I’d come home from school and watch anime without doing my homework. My parents were too busy to monitor me, and I’d lie to them about having done my work anyway.)
I’d often have teachers calling my parents to tell them about my disappointing work ethic. I was terrified of tamil class and would skip it altogether sometimes. I was that guy who never did his share of groupwork. I’m so sorry.
How do you change all that? The problem ran really deep. My parents sent me for tamil tuition and I didn’t do my tuition homework. I needed unfair, ridiculous amounts of supervision that nobody would be able to give.
I’d often go to school worried sick about the homework I hadn’t completed.
Ok visa I get it you were a horrible student and a rotten apple of a procrastinator. What could’ve been done? If my parents locked the computer I’d find some way around it. If my mum made me sit in her office and study- and she drew up all these timetables for me, bless her- I’d diddle my thumbs.
I’d copy homework at school. I found other slackers “like myself”, but somehow I took it further then everyone else. I was typically roped in with the troublemakers, but I’m pretty sure I was always the polite one with the least bravado or aggression. I think some teachers still complained that I’d “talk back” to them but I thought I was pretty civil. Lost to history, that one. I do believe my teachers said I was a pleasant boy. I was always big on meaningful class participation if possible- giving presentations, etc.
One theory is that I never learned the value of hard work. I suppose I still don’t. I was kicking around this hypothesis about how if you don’t know where you’re going in life and you don’t know what you want, it seems rational not to focus on anything- because then you can blame your lack of trying, which can seem cool, aloof.
Fuck me, I don’t care if I flunk out of school. I can work as banquet staff at a hotel and work my way up into a managerial position or something if I really had to. That said I never actually expected to do badly in school. I always scraped by with minimum effort and kind of assumed I always was going to.
A strange moment for me was when I got my mediocre A level results and my parents didn’t seem too upset. They were expecting me to fail spectacularly. That was odd. I felt the urge to work really hard in NS and become an officer… but PES E derailed my plans for that.
It’s very difficult to reduce my schooling experiences into a nutshell because I had many conflicting perspectives, which were a source of anxiety for me- an anxiety I’d readily deny because I thought I was so devil-may-care.
Was I? It gets confusing because my parents and teachers were a lot more angry and troubled than I was most of the time. I harbored some resentment about that- I often felt like my parents expected a lot of me simply because I was in the gifted program. When I got kicked out of it, my dad would often introduce me to friends and family as the kid who was gifted but screwed up. Never understood why that was necessary but I guess parents will be parents.
The more I think about it… it’s not like I was incredibly ignorant or anything. Intellectually I understood the signalling value of good grades. If I had gotten straight A’s I’d probably have gone into law. Would I be happier there? Who knows, man? I think I’d be miserable, but I’m obviously rationalizing it. Realistically I’d probably get away with doing as little as possible and her a shitty degree and work at a third rate law firm or something.
Who knows. My lackadaisical, irreverent attitude towards hard work is such a core tenet of my being that giving it up seems like it’s going to be harder than quitting Facebook or even smoking. The “slacker life” has immense appeal to me, immense negotiating power and persuasive skill. Everytime I decide to work hard at something, it becomes a case of the devil you know against the devil you don’t. Immediate payoff versus possible failure and rejection and mockery. Also school was never that interesting. But I didn’t do the work even when it was relatively interesting. Games were just MORE interesting, maybe.
But hey, I didn’t really work that hard as a musician either. Or video games. I’d sit for hours doing the same thing over and over again. Once I found sonething that worked I’d typically stick with it. Why maximise pleasure when you can minimise discomfort? Something like that.
When I playes in a band I worked really hard at promoting us. I’d spend a lot of time socializing and talking to potential fans online. I’ve always had this impulse to share and have conversations. I always took people very seriously and tried to engage them as deeply as possible- I’d look at their profiles for cues, stuff like that. I never really applied that sort of rigor to my actual musicianship or to our songwriting and performance as a band.
To be fair, we were kids and we really just wanted to have fun. But we also had ambitions for greatness but we didn’t act on it very well. We should have practiced more and written more together. I think we didn’t fully appreciate or understand the potential of that. My guitarist is/was a slacker just like myself, and my drummer was a powerhouse with little variable speed or volume. We were typically too loud and too fast with a poor sense of beat and groove. What we had was flair and enthusiasm.
On hindsight I think we had a few good shows but more bad ones, and we often went home feeling rather frustrated with our own ineptitude. The same kinda applied to the events venture me and a friend started- we didn’t do much research. We got lucky a couple of times, but our lack of preparation eventually killed us. Same for EP recording. My T shirts might’ve met the same fate if I hadn’t been so lucky as to be blessed with a cofounder who’s responsible, industrious and proactive.
Which brings me to my best shot yet at behavioural change, identity change. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating- my work. I’m surrounded by incredibly driven, committed and relentless individuals and I have to pinch myself everyday to realize what an amazing opportunity I’ve been given. My job simultaneously functions as therapy, my boss is paying me when I really ought to pay him for the incredible opportunity he’s giving me.
Despite all this I sometimes find myself procrastinating at work. I’ve weeded out the outright bad procrastination- deactivated my Facebook account, saddled myself up to sit next to my boss to keep me from going to distracting sites unrelated to my work. Despite all this… I still procrastinate in softer ways, like spending way too long on each piece of work I do, and splitting my attention between multiple tasks (which ensures that none of the tasks get completed.) So my inability to focus is some deep rooted shit. It’s like being an alcoholic despite being warned about chronic and potentially irreversible liver damage.
So clearly I have a real problem. I say it’s a problem because it affects my life. It affects my relationships. It affects my emotional/psychological well-being, which affects my physical well being. Sometimes I can’t get a good night’s sleep because I’m stressed out by the work I’m not doing, and then I struggle to get out of bed because the day ahead feels like such a burden. And now that I’ve experienced a bit of this (I was temporarily free from this for quite a bit of NS because I had a completely inconsequential bullshit job), I realize that this was practically the status quo for me in primary school, secondary school and JC. I had gotten accustomed to it, I normalized it.
I developed an elaborate defense mechanism for this which turned me into an evasive, compulsive liar. I’d experience a strange kind of social anxiety while being superficially sociable. I had a bubble of self-worth that was built on empty promises. I was a con artist at a deep, internal level and I believed my own bullshit 95% of the time. The remaining 5%- or 3% or less- was when I was exposed by reality to be a fraud. And it wasn’t debilitating. How did I cope with that? Grand promises that I couldn’t follow up on, and further subsequent delusion.
I needed reward for effort, not results. I needed responsibilities, not privileges. I needed commitments. I needed a social group that had a collective commitment to excellence- though I still need to think long and hard about how to make that one a reality, because i would have sabotaged myself back then. I did have access to hard working peers but I laughed them off as nerds. Maybe i needed bigger dreams, better context, a clearer sense of progression from a to b to c. My relationship with hard work has been similar to some people’s fear of commitment to a relationship. So I need something vaguely like a safe space to experiment and be mentored and guided.
Do I deserve it? Oh, absolutely not. My work is the closest thing I have to that, so my present goal is to figure out how to maximise the value of my existing circumstances- so that maybe I might be able to be of use to people going through similar difficulties or circumstances.