I’ve decided to relocate my blog, you can now find me here:
Feeling like I need something a little bit different :)
Anonymous said: Hello Alice, we miss your posts. Hope to read something else in the near future =)
Hi Anon :)
Thanks for the nudge in the right direction! I’ll try to keep these regular again, and hopefully not as dark as the one just gone… I don’t quite know how I ended up where it did, hmm.
A few years ago, my biggest worry at the end of the year was my yellow highlighter running out of juice halfway through a reading. The most difficult decision of the day would be whether to break all the rules in my carefully implemented colour-coding scheme, or pause all my study until the following day when I could go and buy a new yellow highlighter.
Today, I just use a pen.
It’s been a while since I thought about writing, and I guess I needed a kick up the backside to get the ball rolling again. The irony is that I feel like my mind has never been more clear, yet also so cloudy. Most things about life seem so simple, but still there are those things that twist in your brain and that never seem to stop twisting harder.
This afternoon, I overhead a cancer patient telling his friend about how he wished he could just be dead already. The nurses joke with the patients about their pain and side effects, but it’s the kind of joke that makes your face smile but your eyes cry. I really wonder sometimes why people have to suffer - physically, psychologically, emotionally - but I never come up with any good reasons except to be in awe of the human body’s resilience and ability to cope with stress.
But we are not invincible, even though most of us live like we are.
I’m speaking on a panel tomorrow evening on the topic: “What would you ask the you in 15 years?” and I’ve been struggling to come up with questions. I feel like it wouldn’t really matter because for all the advice that I get given, I never truly take lessons on board until I have experienced it for myself.
I guess the only thing I would like to know would be what I value in 15 years time. There are a lot of things that we all want in life - I want a cool job, a nice house and cute kids .etc - and also a lot of things that we also don’t want in our life (I don’t want to live in a landlocked country). Then there are the few things that are essential to who we feel we are as individuals. Mine, at age 21, are to (1) have close relationships with the people who are important to me, (2) do meaningful things with my time, and (3) always find time and space to play. I have a theory that if we put our efforts into making sure that we hang on tight to these few things, then it really doesn’t matter what combination of the rest life will hand out to us.
I remember Steve Jobs saying that death is the greatest gift to life, and that all our fears fall away at the face of death. I didn’t really understand what he meant until I started a relationship with terminal illness. I’m not dying, but sometimes I feel myself living vicariously through the person who is.
Welcome to the abyss.
When I was in primary school, I remember finding out that “KISS” stood for Keep It Simple, Stupid. Being the immature little person that I was, I remember giggling to a lot of jokes based on this acronym.
Long story short, the phrase has stayed in my memory banks ever since.
A year or two ago, I thought that people who could think simply about life were not very “high-functioning” people. Things are complicated because things actually are complicated - and if you couldn’t appreciate how complicated things are, then you must not be switched on enough to appreciate the true nature of the situation.
Advice that other people would give me felt too general and too vague, and surely something like “do what feels right” was too simple to deal with the complexities of my young adult life.
When I was in Indonesia last month, a group of students did a presentation about building self-confidence in children from disadvantaged (mostly very poor) families and they cited this passage from the Serenity Prayer as their starting philosophy:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I learnt two important lessons about making decisions during the past year, and it all came down to understanding how to think clearly and simply.
The first is the whole idea of not crying about spilt milk. If there is something that needs to be done or fixed, then do it and fix it. I’m flying off to the United States next Sunday for a month to visit a few hospitals in New York and see family, and I spent a good week bitter about all the things that I had to give up - two papers at university which means graduating a semester later, a forum in Hong Kong, an international case competition in Queenstown and an invitation to chair a panel at a national conference. I have a problem with saying ‘no’ to people and I felt that not only was I letting other people down, but that I was effectively stunting what otherwise would have been such an awesome second-half to the year.
If I stayed consumed by my circumstances, I would probably have found myself in a hole of self-pity. Life knows nothing about fairness, so there’s no point complaining about the cards that you are dealt. If you can understand the aspects of your life that you cannot change and have no control over, and learn to just accept them and worry instead about the things that you can change, then life becomes much easier and happier too.
Watching the paralympians compete at London has really crystalised that idea. They do more with their lives than what I can do with a fully functioning and healthy body. Sport, much like success in any endeavour, is all about the mental game.
Thinking about the things that you would (or perhaps wouldn’t) regret also means that short-term gratification really goes out the window. Missing a few trips and opportunities now really isn’t going to have any impact on my life a few years down the track, and so it’s not something I would turn around and say that I truly regretted giving it up - even though it might feel like the world to me right now.
Some things in life are far more important, and always thinking about what it would be like to see things in retrospect really helps to prioritise choices and decisions. I think that not doing something is sometimes actually harder than doing it. But if you rule out all the factors that make a decision complicated for you now - factors of recognition, prestige .etc - and go for the one that is going to make a bigger footprint on your life, then it usually turns out that not only is your mind a lot more at ease, but that you also tend to make better (and wiser) decisions too!
Turning 180 degrees from where I started, I now feel like too many people unnecessarily overcomplicate their lives. Most of our decisions are not really cognitive anyway - we don’t think, we feel - so why not do ourselves a favour and keep things simple?
Sometimes I think that my leadership style is a bit like a dictator. I get an idea, have a vision about how it’s going to be created, and then look for the team that will help me put it all together. By the time I have the team, it’s 1% concept and 99% execution.
But in many other cases, I am just as lost and confused as everyone else. People look to me for direction, and if I give you a straight answer - then I’m probably just making it up.
One of the things that I have noticed about university students, or perhaps just people in general, is the unwillingness to do things that do not receive recognition. I listened to an interview by the man in charge of London’s transport system during the Olympic games, and they joked about how if, by the end of the games, no one knows who he is - then he will have done his job well.
No one will congratulate him if he succeeds, because he is the invisible guy that make all the cogs turn. But should he fail, he will be the first person people turn their heads towards to blame.
The problem with new initiatives and quasi “startup” groups is that the work you put in relative to the recognition “reward” is terrible. You put in so many more hours than ends up actually being productive, and should you fail then no one will blink an eye.
But sometimes these are the best learning experiences. When you know that there is no credit waiting for you at the finish line, you attune yourself to the experiences and the things that make you tick. It stops being a means to an end, but an end in itself. And if there’s no “higher” purpose, then what are you doing here if not to learn and grow and figure out this thing that you’re doing and maybe even figure out yourself in the process too.
I’m not sure if it’s because I’m becoming to notice it more, but it feels like cancer is stretching its hands across everyone’s lives.
A few decades ago, cancer probably wasn’t such a big deal because people weren’t living as long as they do now. Something else would get you first before cancer had its chance.
The advancement of medicine now gives cancer patients better chances, more time and a relatively comfortable departure - but none of this takes away from the fact that cancer is destructive on so many different levels.
It’s difficult to accept that there are hurdles that you cannot overcome. Of all the things that I have lost, you do learn a lot about yourself and about people in the process.
Human vulnerability is a beautiful yet sad thing. No one is bigger than their physical constraints - we are humbled by our own bodies. Pain batters and bruises. People will hang onto anything they can.
And you can tell so much about a person just by looking at them in the eyes.
Steve Jobs is not a perfect man, but he did have some interesting thoughts. He once said that “almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
I don’t know whether it’s apathy that has overcome me, but you really learn how to separate the important from the insignificant; the meaningful from the irrelevant.