Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Portrait of Failure

I have not been writing, because recently I feel that my writing inspiration has come to some what of a standstill - there's a lot of negative energy these days, mostly from my current job as marketing executive secretary. In any case, I've spent a lot of time talking to people - friends mostly - on what I do I really want in life?

Surprisingly, after weeks of contemplation, I have drawn a complete blank. I felt almost a sense of loss, because people that know me, know that I am very sure of what I want. I am often the most decisive, the most sure. However, that was when yardsticks and KPIs were clear, in the form of grades and academic transcripts. It was also easier in post-graduate because your success was solely based on 2 markers giving you the go-ahead that you're a qualified researcher and thesis-maker.

In any case, the world outside school has always confounded me. I find myself increasingly lost at this maze of would-be achievements and metrics of "success". I have people tell me, I'm not "making enough" as a masters degree holder. Others informed me that I am simply doing what everyone else is doing - being the overpaid administrative secretary cog-and-wheel in a large organisation. It is at once frustrating and perplexing to be asked to print documents for your bosses, and to be at the beck-and-call of higher management (professional travel agent anyone?). Yet I see many people being okay with this - that it's alright to come into the workplace just doing what the bosses want, keeping a low profile and earning a monthly salary. For some reason, such an undertaking does not sit comfortably with me at all - and as much as I am a self-starter, I am hungry to learn more from others to see how they do things, so that I can return to teach others the same and pass those skills on.

I start to question what do I really want in life?

History has always been the best teacher and so I contemplated in the periodical episodes of life in what Life-Course researchers term "turning points".

I wanted to first be a conductor, and musician and a musical director. Until my parents told me that they can never afford me to live the undetermined life of a musician because I have to take care of them in their old age. The second nail to that coffin was that, I couldn't do musical dictation because I don't have perfect pitch. It was a handicap and unfortunately, I've learnt very early on that my brain just wasn't wired that way. Sadly, I also failed my audition to take A'level music - being told I wasn't good enough wasn't something that I wanted to hear, especially when I thought I did very well at O'level music. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be and I often label myself as a music-reject. I am someone who has enough talent to appreciate, but not make the wonders and magic that delights the aural senses of so many.

So I turned to my other passion - sciences. I thought perhaps I would become a food scientist/nutritionist since I love the science that goes behind baking/cooking. I applied to do H2 math, even volunteered to retain another year so that I can live my dream. The school rejected me forthrightly, considering that it'll perhaps bring down their reputation. I was rejected once again, at the onset of a path which I today, still think I would enjoy. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be, and struggling with Math all my life, it was something that I thought perhaps I'm never gonna do well in.

After wards, I turned to something I could do well in - Geography. I have always done well in this subject with little effort. The concepts always stuck well to my brain and I could re-call facts more easily than any other subject. That's perhaps what others call as "flair" in the subject. However it wasn't my number one passion. It was a bread-and-butter staple which got me going but doesn't delight my senses. It felt hollow, and ever success in this made me step back because it also acutely reminded me of how my passions and reality don't meld - and they may never meet.

I wanted to badly to go Geology later - marrying the conceptual understandings in geography with my love for chemistry and physics. Unfortunately, while I qualify to go overseas to do my degree there, my parents could not afford the hefty school fees. Furthermore, my mum had her stroke and leaving the country was simply not an option. I was bitter, upset, to only work so hard to qualify to enter a geology programme only to have failed again. No matter how hard I tried, it was just meant not to work out. For years, I was once again, having to settle for second-best. This time, it was more personal because it wasn't due to ability, but life circumstances that made me fail. It wasn't my failure, but it was a failure of consequences that I would have to live with. Till this day, I will forever live with "what if" questions.

During my masters, I took a part-time job, and I thought I was doing rather well at it. Until one day, the students I was managing quit en-masse because I was too harsh, and too dictatorial. I didn't see things their way. Later I learnt that my colleagues were also unhappy with my conduct, and they told my boss about it. It was a huge blow to my self-esteem, partly because I felt that I was doing well to push the show forward. Unfortunately, I was too careless with how I made others feel. It was a huge crush to my confidence as well, because I always felt that I had leadership matters on hand. Unfortunately, I had to live with the consequences and I cried bitterly over my failures. It was not a pretty time, and I had to prune my ego and pride away to see where I had gone wrong. At that moment, I felt very much not-in-control, and wondered for the first time, am I suited for working life at all?

During my masters, it was a very rocky road because writing academically because a challenge. For the first time in a long time, I did not score near the top of my class, and neither did I do well in modules. After the previous incident, I felt like I am not deserving, and left myself go completely. I would cry on the NUS roof top almost every other week. I'm forever lucky to call a friend, who was a good listener, and we discussed on many topics that ranged from philosophy to religion, and in some ways, helped me walk out of the dark path.

Fast forward to my first full-time job - the first few months was absolute hell. I would feel down-trodden and horrible because my manager could scold me every other day for not understanding something, or not doing something correctly. I couldn't answer her questions very well, because I was struggling in an environment that was 180 different from where I was used to. I was very very confused and negligent in a lot of things. It hit me harder because after 3 months of internship, I still wasn't converted to a full-time position and my bank account was wearing thin. I was doing full-time work with half-time pay. I was extremely depressing. In any case, even when I was converted eventually, my working days was more dark than light, and I dreaded going to work everyday.

Things looked well after a couple of months, partly because my manager left, and I was happy for months. I left the company because my bank account couldn't take the strain anymore, and now in my current job, I feel even more under-utilised. I've never once felt so disenchanted with what I'm doing and disempowered by the management of the company. In a way, I felt that I could have asked more pressing questions during the interview, and I could have made my interests clearer. However, I was too desperate to leave to ask beyond the obvious and see the danger signs that presented itself.

Now, I'm at another crossroads. The portraits of failure have thought me, that behind the veneer of success - presented in the form of social media posts, dinner-table conversations, hide the true complexity of what success really means. To many, I am an example of success - well-educated, job stability, brilliant in mind etc. However, these did not come at a cost. No one, in fact very few, have seen my blood, sweat and tears. I also have the same amount of self-doubt, periods of low confidence and self-esteem. I have also been told off that I wasn't good enough.

I wish to share, that everyone of us don't know what the hell we're doing. We're busy trudging along anyway, and pretending to the whole world that we know. We want to portray the very image of success, because very few of us want to admit that we're an accumulation of our failures and lessons. Conversely, there are those who are self-critical - who see only their failures because they benchmark themselves to the seemingly top of the class, without considering that path of destruction and sacrifice it took to get there. That like my failed-nutritionist and musician dream, that we're just cut from different cloths are not meant to compete in those fields. We are sunflowers in the midst of roses, and we should be proud of it. We should see our own kind, and work in synthesis to create the dreams we want, and not the dreams that we ought to have.

I think constant failures remind us that we're not losers, but messages that perhaps this path taken is not suitable for our dispositions. It is okay to keep finding, and searching. There is no shame in not knowing what we want. My only wish is that more people are honest about themselves, that we don't always know what we want in this point in life, and that is okay. It takes courage to admit that you're not happy in your current station, and it takes strength to do something about it.

Where failure is concerned, it is only truly the end, if you stop trying. So don't ever stop trying, pushing, changing and learning from others and yourself. I have failed so many times, and will continue to fail in the future. However, every little bit of it has taught me so many things about myself. I wish my experiences will serve as reminders that even the best of us fail - and some of us more than others. Yet in this war-torn battlefield, we wear the scars that we simply survived, and that is an achievement in and of itself. We should do better than who we were yesterday, and not punish ourselves to benchmark our abilities with the illusions of others.

I hope, after reading this, you'll forgive yourself more. Society needs to forgive failures more often, and be slow to judge but quick to empathise. For every one, their path is different yet so similar, and our dreams and hopes are not always matched with our abilities. We just need time, and strength, to find our way and in the process of it all, the success that will come, will eventually come.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Doing a masters: is there regret?

It's been 2 years since I stepped out of the ivory tower, into the chaotic honking world, to undertake formal employment. Back then, if not for a very kind colleague-now-good-friend, I would not have known my rights and my agency as an employee. Back then, looking at how my colleagues the same age have already progressed so far ahead in their careers, I can't help but wonder if my decision to do a masters was hasty, or even a sign of reluctance to move out of "the school" where there are no longer any clear goals or scores to strive for.

I don't necessarily regret doing my masters for personal reasons. As a workaholic, I had more time to fall in love, and find meaning of life outside of my work. I also had more time to travel and see the world with good friends. I also rekindled my lifelong passion for theatre, and staged productions I can be proud of. Amidst, I made many great aquaintenances and social networks that continue to make an impact.

The dream of a well-educated scholar seeking to contribute outside of the ivory tower was quickly faced with a rude awakening. A masters in social sciences, outside of academia, is pretty much a footnote in anyone's CV. It is drastically different if one has an MBA. The hierarchy of disciplines exist in the market where social sciences post graduate degrees (I suspect PhD as well) may cause 2 blinks but not raise an eyebrow of employers. It vastly differs between industries of course, but in my experience, very few hire because of qualifications alone. I spoke to my bosses - ex and current - and they stated that while my masters was a good-to-have, and indicates that I may have maturity, they were more drawn to my event-organising experience and ability to interpret and work with stats. So ultimately, what value does a masters have? After 2 years, I seek to come to terms the returns of a postgraduate degree in social sciences.

Well, that is of course assuming you did a postgrad degree to advance in your career. Many of my colleagues in academia do it because they are truly passionate in their area of study. So passionate was I in exploring theatre as a method for young people's expression and education in socio-political matters, I decided to set aside 2 years of life for this pursuit. There's also very little avenues in life, now that I've realised on hindsight, that allows one to solely focus on a dedicated pursuit. Not even at a professor's level, not anywhere else except postgrad school. It's an extremely privileged position, and I was lucky to go to a proverbial mountain to metaphorically meditate on a subject of my choosing. I don't flaunt a masters like a degree because it is a privilege, not a right, I had due to complex social and economic path-dependencies.
At work, I'm not sure if my masters training contributed to anything. However, I must say that I've grown to be more patient of certain frustrations at work - i.e. Weberian iron cages of bureaucracy and a very Foucauldian sense of self-discipline in an open-plan office concept. I have also realised that social sciences knowledge have made me almost a walking encyclopedia to my clients/colleagues. People ask, "how do you know so much?" Which is, admittedly, always nice. At the same time, it grants perspective and in some areas of the industry, perspectives are what employers look for.

Perhaps it is of no coincidence that the french word, employer - to use - is also used to describe bosses that hire. Employer: to use, a user. The lesson I've gained over these 2 years is that, we are all being used for our skillsets or use others for the same reason. This increasingly dehumanising approach in companies is sadly the reality for many employees. Ultimately there will be those that find meaning in their work, especially those in the social and health services. If work is an empty shell, the empty hearse of the humdrum of life, then my masters is the continuing light and hearth that keeps me going especially during difficult times. It is comforting to be able to step back from a tough day at work and be able to reflect, to perhaps sometimes put on a geographical or sociological, or even historical lens to understand what factors contributed to my frustration.

Do I regret doing my masters? In terms of work skills and time "lost" in my career progression, absolutely. Yet, the time lost also ironically gave me more time to retreat and focus. If the skills and discipline developed during postgraduate study do not manifest themselves into focus, determination and fortitude, then having a masters is nothing but a self-indulgent pursuit. If reading endless literature does not translate into taking into account multiple stakeholders' interest and interconnecting symbiosis within an organisation, then all there is left are just words and concepts. If working cross culturally during conferences doesn't make you more sensitive or open to connections, then perhaps, ivory tower indeed. the process of doing a postgrad degree should leave you changed, transformed, humbled.

Ultimately, a masters is the sign, that signifies the educational journey, the proliferation of one's ideas through healthy debate and discussion. The semiotics of education cannot be so easily captured in a singular concept such as returns on investment. A dialectical process or abstraction, is necessary, to fully appreciate the qualities that proliferate in an individual. These qualities continue to unfold throughout life, and becomes a foundation upon other pursuits are built upon.

If spending 2 years gives me thirst for knowledge, compassion and lifelong learning, I gladly drink.