I celebrated my 26th birthday yesterday. The day was spent with my oldest friends over food and mahjong, and it was also spent reflecting on my life this past 26 years. Looking back, I thank God for His blessings in my life and the friends and family who have been with me every step of the way.
While I was thinking back on the bigger milestones in my life, I realised that I never would have been able to guess that I would end up where I am now. Yet, I am right where I am supposed to be. I was just telling Teck yesterday that somehow all the skills that I picked up in school has come into use in some way or another at work. Like what Steve Jobs said in his Commencement speech to Stanford University, you can only ever connect the dots retrospectively. I now have a newfound understanding of what he meant.
To try to engineer your own future by trying to fit your life into some sort of mould that someone else told you is good would only bring about unnecessary angst and pain. Unfortunately, so many of us fall into this trap because of familial and societal expectations. I call this the fallacy of the perfect picture.
The Fallacy of the Perfect Picture
Since we were young, especially for an Asian society like Singapore, we have always been told what success looks like. I am sure most of us have gotten this same comment from our parents or relatives:
“Ah boy ah! You better study hard so that you can become a doctor or a lawyer next time!”
Our family tells us that there are specific routes to success when we were yet younglings.
Even as we get older, people around us still feel like they know what is best for us, and the type of success we might be able to get. I will always this conversation I had with an Assistant Dean:
Me: “Any advice for me if I want to go into Marketing?”
Assistant Dean: “Marketing is for pretty girls and handsome looking men. Why don’t you consider retail? I know someone who used to work at a mall. Let me know and I can link you up…”
People will always be telling us what we can do or what we cannot do. But we have to decide for ourselves whether we want to listen to them, or to go with what’s in our gut.
In university, our curriculum influences us to think that some jobs are better than others. Studying Finance? Better become an investment banker. Marketing? Go into a Fast Moving Consumer Goods company! What you learn in modules are often skewed with these careers in mind as well. When you finally get into the workforce, you then realise that what you have learnt in your 4 years do not exactly apply in your workplace.
In society, we are told that successful Singaporeans are those who have achieved the 5Cs, getting themselves heap loads of cash, a car, a fancy condominium, a bunch of credit cards and a brilliant career. Anyone who veers from this perfect picture is somehow seen as less adequate.
With all of these influences, we develop a mental model of what success looks like. There is this list of boxes that we have to tick before we can say, “Yes, I’ve made it.” That is what I call the “Perfect Picture”. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. Most of us want to achieve something and for our lives to mean something. We all have a desire to be significant.
The problem comes when we become too obsessed and get stressed over not being there yet. Worse yet, we might develop feelings of inadequacy because we are fishes that can’t climb trees, to quote Einstein.
Manifestations of the Fallacy
So how do you know if you have fallen into the trap of wanting to have the picture perfect life? How do we get out of it? In my interactions with others over the years, I have seen that we normally fall into one of these 3 categories:
“I need to be in this particular industry/role in order for me to succeed”
This is by far the most common manifestation of the fallacy I have seen. I myself believed it for a good 4 years as well.
For the longest time, I felt that the true mark of a marketer is to be from an FMCG company. That was the holy grail so to speak. If you were in FMCG, you would be able to use the full suite of marketing techniques that you have learnt in University, and you will be demanded throughout your career because it would be known that you are a good marketer. Simply because you went into the Unilevers and P&Gs of the world.
Well, the truth is, FMCGs are hard to get into in Singapore. Most companies use Singapore as a regional hub for other SEA countries but place little emphasis on our market because we are too small. Even if you do get into an FMCG, you might not be able to fully use all your marketing skills like you would in a bigger market.
Frankly speaking, finding a marketing role that allows you to run national campaigns is tough in Singapore. Yet, I managed to find one in my current company. I learn something new every day and I’m not in an FMCG.
Similarly, many of my fellow students have found that there is more to the working world than investment banking and management consultancy. There are just so many opportunities out there! You only need to have an open mind and be willing to try out different things to find out what you like.
“I need to have all my ducks in a row”
This is a compulsive need to chase one thing after another. It’s the idea that you need a full list of criteria to be successful.
Great pay? Check. Great job? Check. Trophy girlfriend? Check. A car? Check…
What then happens is that nothing is ever good enough. You are forever looking for that next greener pasture, that next higher hill to climb. Suddenly your work is never good enough, or your pay is never high enough. It never ends. You might be having a great life from another person’s point of view, but you will never be content and slow down to smell the roses.
Having your ducks in a row always reminds me of the movie, “A Lot Like Love”.
In the movie, Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) meets Emily (Amanda Peet) and falls for her, but they never quite work out. Each time they meet, one of them would be chasing their career or struggling with life while the other is content. Eventually after 7 years, they realise that all they needed was each other.
“I won’t do anything until I know for sure that it will work out”
I guess this is more of an outcome of having a perfect picture of how things should be in your head rather than a manifestation. When you do that, you expect things to happen and work out according to what has been told to you. When it doesn’t, everything breaks down.
You stop and suddenly realise you don’t know what you are doing anymore because things are not turning out the way you wanted them to. Unfortunately, no one can guarantee that life would always be smooth-sailing, or that there wouldn’t be changes along the way. Hoping that things work out in the end without trying to do anything about it is the last thing you want to do.
So What Is The Truth?
Having said all these, how do we avoid the pain of falling into this fallacy?
It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
The most important thing is to realise that you will have to take time to figure things out and it won’t come overnight. If you don’t know what you want to do, just do different things and find out what you enjoy more than others. Life is a journey of discovery and everyone has their own life to live. Don’t use another person’s ruler to measure your own life.
I have immense respect for this JC friend of mine. Although we were in the same Project Work group, we were never close in JC. I was too much of a nerd, and he was the total opposite from me. Today, he runs a successful barbershop and online store, and I love seeing all the updates from his store on Facebook because he lives out his passion and I get excited when I see him succeed.
He gets frustrated when some people don’t see him as successful. And that is bound to happen to everyone of us as we search for and chase our dreams. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, you will be happy doing what you like, and you would have lived out your dream.
Change is the Only Constant
Next, know that things will always change. This is something that I am learning at work as well. There is no use pining for things to stay the same because THEY. WILL. CHANGE. Doing the same thing over and over again will make you irrelevant sooner or later.
Knowing this, you will have to adapt to whatever new thing life flings at you and never sit on your laurels when you have reached a certain level of achievement. What I have found to be helpful is to not fixate on specific things but find out what I like and just do them in a generic way. For example, when I was looking for a job, I wanted something to do with marketing, but I had long given up on choosing only FMCGs. That would be a bonus, but I figured I could still do what I love no matter what the industry.
That was some heavy talk for a birthday! I had a lot to think about over the weekend, and hopefully this helped you in some way too if you were lost. Cheers, and Happy Mother’s Day!