This has been on my “to write” list for a very, very long time. I think I’ve been putting it off because I want to do something really amazing and spectacular, but I think it’s time to just give it a single attempt and then see how I feel afterwards.
I was a JC retainee– I repeated JC1 at Tampines Junior College in 2007 and 2008. I did my A levels in 2009, and didn’t really do well enough to get into any of the courses I wanted to get into in local Universities. Ultimately life turned out well for me– I got invited to work at a local startup, and it’s been a wonderful challenge and an opportunity for growth. I’ve since had the luxury of turning down multiple job offers– I know that can sound braggy, but all I really want to say is– if I can have a comfortable life despite screwing up my A’s and “wasting” a year, I bet you can too.
Some thoughts about my actual retaining. From a very young age I was very curious and inquisitive and read loads of books, comics, everything I could get my hands on. At the same time, I never developed much in terms of self-regulation or discipline. My parents didn’t ask me to do any chores– I didn’t have to make my bed, I didn’t have to do the dishes. Their logic was– if they removed all of that from the equation, I would be able to focus entirely on my studies. I think on hindsight that was a bad idea. Children ought to be given lots of structure, a progressive amount of responsibility, a sense that they’re participating in the household, not just being a sort of… absent, vacant member.
In primary school, I could coast along without any effort. I had already read all the textbooks and more during the holidays before the school year, so everything was really familiar and easy for me. I got into the Gifted Education Program and I thought it was lots of fun.
But– and this was the case even before the GEP, I realize– I was never able to do my homework. I know that’s a vague statement to make, and people can ask– were you “not able to”, or were you “simply” lazy? Did you “simply” refuse to do your work, were you just stubborn? I look back and I think… I remember being incredibly hurt and upset and embarrassed when my parents were called up to school to have to talk to my teachers about my terrible performance. I would be one of the few people singled out over and over again for being too talkative, for not being able to keep my mouth shut, for being a class clown, for being tardy with my work, for not handing up my work on time. It was incredibly disruptive and frustrating for everybody– for my teachers, for me, for my parents. I suppose some of my peers enjoyed the entertainment and free time, I don’t really know any more.
But what I know is this– I would have moments where I felt incredibly strongly that I wanted to turn my life around, that I wanted to study, that I wanted to work hard and that I wanted to do well for my examinations and make my parents proud and impress my friends and secure a brighter future for myself– and despite all of that, I was never able to make much headway on it. When I confronted the books, it would be like staring into the abyss. I suppose now that I think about it– me versus my examinations and schoolwork is much like how a non-gamer might seem when they’re faced up against a complicated game of DOTA or World of Warcraft of Starcraft or something. If you missed out the basic fundamental discipline-development, the ability to get things done, the skill of responsibility, then the learning curve is incredibly steep and overwhelming. I remember writing in my journal day after day, “Why the fuck are you not studying? What is wrong with you?”
Those were dark days and miserable times for me. I think I largely distracted myself from all of it with video games and cigarettes and whatnot, but that probably exercebated the problem.
When I look back on my life I think the problem was incredibly far upstream. I should’ve learnt to be responsible as a kid– I never did. I never had to be particularly accountable for anything when I was growing up, and when the time came for me to sit down with abstract mathematical concepts that didn’t have any immediate gratification for me, I simply couldn’t do it. It was like asking a skinny guy to lift a heavy weight. Doing so would require not just a workout regiment, but a lifestyle change– it would require changes in diet, changes in sleep.
On hindsight, my parents, my schools, my teachers, my peers, nobody was really equipped to help me. And even now I’m still trying to figure out how to help myself, as an adult with adult responsibilities– bills to pay, a mortgage, a marriage to hold together, work obligations. It’s a little better than school, because I can see how these things affect my life. Paying for the roof over my head makes a lot more sense than trying to do well for a test for an exam for a chance of getting into a school for a better chance of maybe getting a job.
Anyway. Every year I get loads of emails from people who screw up their A levels or who retain, and who ask for help and advice. And very often they set out to retake their A levels (which I did, but ultimately didn’t do very well at). And I think what I need to say is– the problem is probably far upstream. You might think you need motivation (which is like fuel), but what you really need is discipline (which is like an internal combustion engine), and chances are your discipline muscle is incredibly atrophied and weak. You’re smart, which is why you got into JC in the first place– probably by coasting. But to do well for your A’s you need a dramatic, radical lifestyle change that is really… I don’t think your parents or teachers can fully appreciate what a radical change that is. And it’s very painful. And to have to do that while you’re also dealing with hormones and socializing and all of that stuff… it’s really messy.
I suppose ultimately I failed at playing the A levels game. What I can tell you is what not to do, and what I didn’t do that I wish I did. I wish I committed to much smaller sessions of study much earlier. I kept trying to do big sessions, and then I would get exhausted, distracted and demoralized. I wish I would commit to working in environments that were designed to be without distraction. I wish I had a commitment buddy who kept me accountable. I wish I had worked in smaller chunks, and charted my progress day in, day out. I wish I reflected every day on what I had learnt, on what my weaknesses were, on what I needed to do next. I wish I had practiced my papers. I wish I slept earlier, I wish I ate better. Taking a 3 hour examination is a physical activity, and you need to prepare for that.
Ultimately I’m lucky and happy with how my life turned out– and the meta advice I would give people beyond examinations is to think about what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, and figure out ways to be economically useful to the world independent of your examinations. This applies to a narrow band of people who are going to screw up their exams anyway. Life can go on, you just need to be really proactive, have lots of initiative, and to do a little bit of work every single day.
Well, that was a crappy letter. I’m publishing it anyway, maybe I’ll revisit it later in the future.