Advice to my younger self
As 2021 draws to a close, the world looks a shade brighter, yet as uncertain as the year began. Thanks to amazing scientific advances and the efforts of countless healthcare workers on the frontlines, the pandemic has receded in some parts, yet a new variant is on the rise in other. As we hope for the world economy to slowly limp back, any form of normalcy still seems farfetched.
Personally, as one more year draws to a close, I have come to the realization that there is less time ahead of me than behind. As I march towards 48 years on planet Earth, I seem to be more at peace with my life and happier too. It is not surprising since research shows that around 50 is the time when your happiness quotient rises (provided all other parameters are constant). The book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch provides the reasoning behind this phenomenon. Findings by scholars from a range of disciplines consistently show that life satisfaction is U-shaped, with contentment high in the 20s, plunging in middle age and taking a turn for the better after 50. As I spend more time teaching the younger generation, I have been wondering what advice I would give to my younger self. Here are five insights that I would like to share on how, with time, some of my fundamental thoughts about life have evolved:
1. Changing the world to changing yourself: When I was in my early 30s I wanted to change the world and believed I could. I was convinced that I could right every wrong I came across. It meant that I was trying to fix every error and misdeed, constantly jumping from one problem to the next, and also sometimes foolishly believing that I was the only one who could fix it. This was exhausting and I got burnt out in the process. Over the years, though, I have learnt to let go. I have realized that not all battles are worth fighting, that there are multiple points of view, and that every issue is multi-dimensional in nature. I have concluded that you really cannot change the world: you can only change yourself. I changed my motto from “With passion and compassion, you can change the world” to “With passion and compassion, you can change yourself”.
2. From being impatient to becoming patient: I used to be impatient with stupidity, outcomes and people. I would get very annoyed when people did not do their homework and come unprepared, assuming that they lacked interest or were plain lazy. As I grew older, I realized that people have to deal with different circumstances in their lives and not everyone had the same level of access that I had. Also, being in a position of power meant that I was unaware of certain aspects and challenges that others who were not in the same position had to deal with. Dealing with people is an entirely different ball game that requires an immense amount of time and patience. Changing people is a long and hard process and there are no shortcuts to it. I have now realized that you should hold two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously — impatience with stupidity and patience with people.
3. Life is sometimes unfair and that is what makes it interesting: When you are young, you grow up with a sense of naive idealism. That life is fair and good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. In reality, however, life is full of uncertainties and surprises. The best student is not always the topper, the fastest does not always win the race, the smartest does not always get the promotion, the strongest may not win the fight and neither is the wisest the most respected. Ironically, we often see the least deserving sometimes getting the most rewards. Bad things happen to good people and vice versa. You realize that life is not always fair. But that is precisely why life is so much fun! Because there is more to life and the world than we know about.
4. Success is overrated. Significance is underrated: For as long as we can remember, everyone has been chasing success whether academic, professional or personal. We study hard to get into the best college/university so we can get the best job to earn a lot, live a good life, have a family, buy a car/house and so on. We have come to believe that success is the single most important aspect of our lives and that we must be successful at every stage of our lives. But success is hollow without significance. Do we make meaningful use of this success? Once we are engulfed by the all-consuming desire for success and we achieve much of what we aspired for, we realize that what we have been chasing was not what we wanted. The view from the top is not as glorious as we imagined. As David Brooks in his book The Second Mountain writes, “On the second mountain, life moves from self-centered to other-centered. They want the things that are truly worth wanting, not the things other people tell them to want. They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment.”
5. Life-long learning to long-life learning: It is very clear that the only asset we own is our ability to learn and constantly evolve. Becoming a life-long learner is the only guarantee to remaining relevant. We have already moved away from the concept of a fixed period of learning followed by working. I used to think that performance starts when learning stops. Now I realize that performance happens only when learning continues. As human beings live longer than before, the bigger question is not how we can remain a lifelong learner, but how to practice long-life learning. In her book Long Life Learning, Michelle R Weise talks about a near-future where careers last 100 years and education lasts a lifetime. The book makes the case that learners of the future are going to repeatedly seek out educational opportunities throughout the course of their working lives — which will no longer have a beginning, middle and end. Life will become a learning journey that alternates between the performance zone and the learning zone.
Finally, I realized that good things take time to materialize — sometimes a very long time.
Wishing the best for everyone and hoping that 2022 will be a meaningful and fulfilling year for all.