All my life I developed an addiction to winning.
And my insecurity fuelled cycles of comparison. When someone excelled academically I thought of the many school activities I was involved in (even though a decent tennis player, I never was). When someone led a school club and won awards or accolades I spoke of the need to go beyond the confines of the school. “The school is but a sanctuary which shields one from the realities of the real world”, my fifteen-year-old self mused philosophically. When someone in the community lengthened the list of contributions I focused on my examination report card. In my mind I was always winning these imaginary battles.
I clung desperately onto endeavours to prove I could do it all. The projects which transcended my pragmatism – working with at-risk youths, the eating disorders and body image campaign, and Model United Nations – still drive me, yet I plunged into others that I had no interest in. At interviews I spoke about my exposure to diversity when I organised volunteers for the Chingay Parade and a National Day event, my service to the community on a youth executive committee and at meet-the-people sessions, and my personal development as I fought through adversity (yet what do I, being immensely privileged, know about adversity)?
Thousands of service hours, lines on the résumé, and Hwa Chong’s service-learning award.
Having all these ambitions is hardly a bad thing. In fact experimenting with options made my interests and strengths more evident. I started working with at-risk youths after a leadership programme, on eating disorders and body image because of an international competition, and Model United Nations when a teacher signed me up for it. I was aware of my pragmatic motivations – to one-up my peers and be the all-round student – but I grew attached and fell in love with these undertakings. And if there was nothing wrong with these trials-and-errors it must have been how I experienced and worked through these activities.
My peers probably knew me best. I remember a group reflection session – “Pandora’s box”, it was titled – with the consortium councillors in secondary three, and each of us had to sit in the middle of the room in turns, to hear what our counterparts thought of us. Only the negatives, we were reminded, so that we could work on our weaknesses.
When I sunk into the chair I was hardly surprised. “Arrogant and aloof”. “Proud”. “Stuck-up”. A “self-important” was maybe thrown in for good measure. I was cynical and unkind about the achievements of others. I only valued mine. I was so obsessed with that next personal breakthrough. I concerned myself with petty matters which matter so little in retrospect, and along the way lost touch and lost friends. Which is devastating, when breaking the ice and making new friends are hardly my forte. I scurry behind the keyboard to communicate, and am the gold standard for introverts when it comes to awkward social interactions.
In short I was, and possibly still am, a conceited asshole.
Amidst all these I have been my biggest critic. Because I had convinced myself that I had to be the best I never got over – and never will get over – the decision to stay in Singapore for years of college. Of not having the courage to even make a single application. I went on about the merits of going local, about the bond-free scholarship and the master’s programme, and wanting to stay close to the family was the only legitimate justification. And it still is. Furthermore choosing the business school confounded me, still does, and taking on that summer banking internship has sunk me deeper into the quagmire.
Many saw through my uneasy façade. And to the National University of Singapore, the Business School, and the University Scholars Programme I was never committed, beyond the need to get good grades. I dispensed criticisms indulgently, never with the intention of being part of anything. I shunned all activities and kept to my engagements in the community.
These few months in Finland have confirmed that NUS was not my best decision. Yet two things clicked. First, with all my privilege my supposed insecurities and woes not only paled in comparison to the struggles my friend faced, but these feelings were a reminder of how I used to be: self-important and haughty. Everyone around me had had enough of it. Second, I was tired of feeling sorry for myself and putting that pitiful misery on display, all the fucking time. I got tired of my bullshit. It is a strangely cathartic stage when you truly come to terms with your emotions in the past years, and know that it is time to get going.
To get going. To start.
Some perceptions will not change, and the university and the programme is better off without this self-centred armchair sceptic. The insatiable desire for success is not necessarily deleterious, and will continue to drive my enterprises. The insecurities will stick around, but with the self-pity left behind and with a renewed awareness of my arrogance trudging ahead is a lot less daunting, even if it is no less uncertain. This is most confident I have felt in years, and as I make amends new and more promising endeavours will follow.