Advice for a younger person

Recently, a young person reached out to me to schedule a video chat about life paths and careers.

I was pretty impressed by a few things:

  1. First, her courage and confidence in networking, especially since neither of us knew the other before this.

    It takes gumption and moxie to do a cold approach in any situation, so kudos to her for breaking the ice.

  2. Second, her creativity and maturity – while she’s on a gap year, she’s been talking to people around the world to learn from them.

    This is precisely what the internet was built for – knowledge and exchange of ideas across boundaries.

  3. Last but not least, her well-crafted questions.

    What she asked gave me much food for thought, in terms of what I’ve learnt thus far, and how someone else might also be able to use that learning to do or be better.

I’m penning down my responses here, partly as a comparison with my responses when I was posed a similar question seven years ago.

And, perhaps, if another opportunity presents itself again, it might be a comparison to what I would say in the future. It’d be interesting to see how my thinking would’ve evolved – or not – at each age or life stage.


  • What advice would you give your younger self?

    When it comes to learning and life, strike a balance between going at it on your own versus getting trusted advice from someone who’s been there and done that.

    On one hand, reinventing the wheel can often be an exercise in futility.

    Having someone reliable with the wisdom of experience to guide you makes the process of learning and development quicker and less painful; you get to avoid any pitfalls while reaping the rewards of success.

    On the other hand, tried-and-tested methods, while safe, may not always lend themselves to creativity and innovation.

    She asked a follow-up question: How do you find that balance? While i had provided an initial response, I’m reworking what I said initially and would like to offer this instead:

    Always gather information first, regardless of whether what you want to do is something others have done before, or something no one has done before.

    You may uncover inputs that are useful, relevant and applicable, in a direct or indirect way.

    Conversely, you may discover information that indicates a need to forge your own path, instead of following a well-trodden one.

    Once you gather sufficient insights, distil them to make decisions on how best to do what it is you want to do.

  • What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your career?

    Take care of yourself.

    I don’t mean this in a selfish or self-centred way, such as by placing your own needs before those of others.

    Rather, really carry out self-care in all the different dimensions i.e. physical, mental, emotional, etc.

    When you’re in a good place, you can accomplish almost anything, be it leading yourself or others to greater heights.

    To use the oft-quoted Oxygen Mask Analogy: during turbulent times, putting on our own masks first allows us to help others put on their masks.

Maaf zahir dan batin

Ever since I came to learn about the phrase “maaf zahir dan batin”, I’ve been fascinated by both its meaning and the context in which it is spoken, in terms of custom and practice.

Translated to the best of my knowledge, “maaf zahir dan batin” means “forgive me inwardly and outwardly” or “forgive my physical and emotional wrongdoings”.

It’s used as a greeting on Hari Raya Aidilfitri, in which the speaker seeks forgiveness from others for any lapses or hurt that may have been caused through word, thought or deed.

Also, while I can’t find an authoritative source on this right now, I remember reading previously that the phrase has special meaning for the recipient too.

It urges them to forgive wholeheartedly – not just on the outside, in a superficial manner, but in their hearts as well.

This relieves them of carrying the burden of hurt, which can be doubly damaging, and at the same time, genuinely assuring the speaker they are forgiven.

At the same time, I’ve found the custom and practice of seeking forgiveness fascinating, in relation to the concepts espoused in Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton.

For some context, de Botton:

…examine[s] aspects of religious life which contain concepts that could fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society…that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet” (19).

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

One of the aspects De Botton discusses is habitual practices, in terms of customs or conventions.

While sometimes tedious when carried out in a monotonous, ritualistic fashion, having a routine can be beneficial, especially when opportunities may not always readily present themselves to, for example, soothe or ameliorate tensions or grievances.

In de Botton’s musings on the practice of seeking forgiveness, he writes:

As victims of hurt, we frequently don’t bring up what ails us, because so many wounds look absurd in the light of day. It appalls our reason to face up to how much we suffer from the missing invitation or the unanswered letter, how many hours of torment we have given to the unkind remark or the forgotten birthday, when we should long ago have become serene and impervious to such needles. Our vulnerability insults our self-conception; we are in pain and at the same time offended that we could so easily be so.

[…]

Alternatively, when we are the ones who have caused someone else pain and yet failed to offer apology, it was perhaps because acting badly made us feel intolerably guilty. We can be so sorry that we find ourselves incapable of saying sorry. We run away from our victims and act with strange rudeness towards them, not because we aren’t bothered by what we did, but because what we did makes us feel uncomfortable with an unmanageable intensity. Our victims hence have to suffer not only the original hurt, but also the subsequent coldness we display towards them on account of our tormented consciences.

[… when] human error is proclaimed as a general truth [it] makes it easier to confess to specific infractions. It is more bearable to own up to our follies when the highest authority has told us that we are all childishly yet forgivably demented to begin with (56 – 57).

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

Thinking about “maaf zahir dan batin” in light of this makes much sense and, as de Botton suggests at the end of the chapter, could become a universal practice.

So from me to everyone, here’s kicking off this practice by wishing you a Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri and maaf zahir dan batin.

Write of passage

Swineherd and sounder (PHOTO: Teh Wen Hui)
Swineherd and sounder (PHOTO: Teh Wen Hui)

It’s been a while since I’ve made the journey to the memory of young adulthood.

I think about what it was like to be 21. I remember Pooters; parties; Perth; Peer Pressure; the Panopticon. I’m reminded of the feeling of invincibility and immortality; I distinctly recall speaking and writing about it, to someone, somewhere.

I think about whether I’d like to be 21 again. Reliving the growing pains while coming of age holds little appeal. But were they really matters of great importance – or mere minutiae? If I had known then what I now know, perhaps I would’ve treated those mountains for the molehills they were.

Therein lies the paradox of growing up. When it comes to the yearning for a golden age, departure is both the impetus and a necessary condition. It is only through crossing the Rubicon of youth that we can land on the shores of reminiscence and epiphany.

In order for us to arrive, then, we must first leave.