May 19, 2021

Reflections from my third year at college: Making possibilities real

I reflect on going through my lowest of lows and highest of highs.

Reflections from my third year at college: Making possibilities real

I spent my first year transitioning into university life and stretching myself to my academic limits. My second year saw me double down on building niche research skills and experimenting with my leadership capabilities. It has become quite obvious that a university degree alone isn’t sufficient for a fruitful career. Hence, like many others, I spent lots of time loading up my CV with extracurriculars which I thought were interesting, fulfilling and had promised teaching a skill or two.

And then, the pandemic hit. I saw the plans I spent a year preparing for (a summer spent abroad doing research; followed by an exchange semester abroad at a dream university) crumble to nothing. The pandemic has caused huge suffering. Health systems collapsed. People lost their loved ones. And among those who were safe, unemployment rates soared.

Being located in extremely COVID-cautious Singapore and fortunate enough to have a comfortable roof over my head, I had the ease of mind to ponder the road that lay ahead.

I came to two conclusions.

First, I do not want to be dependent on my future employer. I am going to do whatever it takes to make my career antifragile. Second, to do so means I must become a student elsewhere- anywhere but the archaic university system I was installed in. Save for a handful of life-changing modules, my university experience has not taught me how to make an impact on the world.

And so, my third year was a lot about making myself uncomfortable. This decision was of course, one fraught with uncertainty. One year later, I am elated to say that I have never felt more content, energetic or at peace with myself in a long time. I started writing online. I met amazing doctors, nurses, academics and public health experts who I deeply respect. I enrolled in ODW’s inaugural writing fellowship. I got my first role as a science communicator- a role that has thrilled me to no end.

It hasn’t been easy. I battled periods of crippling self-doubt and negative self-talk. I fell on my head and became hospitalised. I confronted my problematic relationship with food and health. But along the way, I also picked up habits I want to keep for a long time. I have been running for close to 4 months, and have run more than 260 kilometres this year. I made friends from different parts of the world that I want to keep close to my heart. And because I am more honest in my relationships than I have ever been, my relationships with my loved ones have grown stronger.

I am still filled with uncertainty about the way forward. I’m nowhere close to building an antifragile career (I’m still figuring out what that exactly means). But I have no regrets.

Here are some lessons from the past year that I want to keep close to my heart.

True self-care is unglamorous.

“Self care is essentially just ‘procrastination’ repackaged to make it more palatable” - My good friend Sean Heng.

It is foolish to take breaks when your body is not asking for it. Just because others tout the importance of self-care, doesn’t mean it’s always time for one. No, you don’t need to treat yourself with a break, or indulge in a sugary snack.

Forget what the internet has prescribed. While ‘self-care’ as a concept might have been recently popularised, the most effective measures have been known for ages.

True self-care is less glamorous. And you have learned that your body is the best judge. If you do any of the following,

Go outdoors. Exercise. Eat nourishing food. Write. Meditate. Spend time with your loved ones. Do the work you’re procrastinating. Get enough sleep.

The inner lethargy or bodily fatigue you’re feeling will go away. All of that isn’t just self-care. It’s life-care. Do all of that, life will take care of itself.

Running is meditation.

You’ve harboured a love-hate relationship with running for the longest time. So, you’d be surprised to learn that you’ve been running almost daily, for four months straight.

I started running in February. I was injured for two weeks in March (hence the dip). Screenshot taken from Strava’s desktop app. 

You used to hate it because you found your gorilla-like huffing and puffing distracting. The park nearby was also too crowded for your liking. Noise from the roads irked you. And the biggest barrier? You expected your performance to consistently surpass your last. Talk about putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.

So, how did you end up running on average, six times a week? The following tricks worked for you:

Leave your expectations at the door. Pop your earpieces in. Queue your favourite songs and podcast episodes. Run at your own pace. Run where there are little people and where it’s quiet.

Feeling stressed? Run. Feeling tired? Run. Feeling happy? Run.

You’re not the fastest runner. But you’re consistent. Someone wise once said that the best exercise is one you can’t stop doing. You started running in February with two goals: to become healthier and cope with the low moods you were experiencing. Now, you crave your daily run because it makes you so happy.

Running is meditative. It’s also free and convenient. You get to be outdoors. You get to be around trees and birds and run along a canal. You give your eyes a break. Running is quite possibly the best thing ever. The next challenge for you now is to figure out how to incorporate the strength exercises you used to do but have completely neglected since this new love affair started.

Important relationships reveal themselves naturally during your lowest times.

February to March 2021 would be one of your lowest and most emotionally turbulent periods of your life. Without going into too much detail in this public setting, you and your partner took a period of time off to re-evaluate whether you would still like to continue investing time and effort into what was a loving, six-year relationship.

As conflict-averse individuals, you had both subconsciously swept many problems under the rug, only for them to re-emerge later with a vengeance. Taking a break had been a difficult but necessary decision. It was also a great opportunity for the both of you to work through your personal issues.

You have always prided yourself on your independence. But it was different this time round. Overwhelmed with uncertainty, heartbreak and a crippled self-esteem, you cried for help. The moment you scanned your social circles for a lifeline, the people you knew you could count on instantly became crystal clear. They would be your listening ears, your voice of reason, and the comforting presence that grounded you as you tried your best to keep from unravelling. Your closest friends and your parents would become your bulwarks against desolation during this trying period.

These are the people you want to keep closest to your heart, and never, ever let go.

Life expands in proportion to one’s courage

This is a quote taken from the writer Anaïs Nin.

You used to be extremely terrified of taking risks. But ever since you started stretching yourself beyond the boundaries of school, life has truly expanded.

When it came to your professional life, you took the uncomfortable plunge to publish your first words online. As someone who could only write about things close to your heart, sharing your work was akin to putting your writing, your opinions, your entire being- up to public scrutiny.

But you realise that it wasn’t so bad after all. Before long, you start sending cold emails to professionals and experts you deeply admire. You sat them down at cafes and asked probing questions you’ve only ever dreamed of. You did all of that while keenly aware that a meeting gone wrong or an article poorly written could jeopardise your entire career. The stakes were on the table and I am so proud of you for embracing them.

You also discover that courage is a reserve that grows the more you tap on it. And being courageous has an amazing side effect: you start living. You went from a blubbering, awkward student interviewer to a (comparably more) confident conversation partner. You went from an aspiring amateur to a somewhat competent writer- a feat you never thought was possible.

Investing in your relationships takes great courage too. There is nothing quite so terrifying as laying bare your fears and insecurities in front of people you love and care for. Their rejection could possibly crush you.

But I want to emphasize that there is nothing more freeing than being able to be your complete self around those that matter the most. As for the people that can’t accept you the way you are, who cares? Life is way too short to have to pretend or hide.

So muster the courage to do the difficult thing. Want to improve your relationships? Have the courage to be vulnerable. Want to become healthier? Have the courage to sustain a healthy eating habit. Want to pick up a new skill? Have the courage to make time to practice, consistently.

“Kepler knew what we habitually forget: that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined, then made real through systematic effort.” - Maria Popova in Figuring

Have the courage to imagine the impossible. Then, as Kepler advocated, take systematic steps to make the impossible, possible.

Work isn’t work when you love what you do.

You would not know how much you were missing out on until this happened to you. Heck, you did not even feel this happy or fulfilled when you were doing research.

When it comes to writing for your site or for others, you could totally lose yourself in the work because it was fun and made your heart sing. You are learning things you care deeply about. You are creating work that will be helpful to others. And unlike school, where the quality of your work is oftentimes determined by some arbitrary metric (i.e grades), you know whether your work is good or not by simply evaluating the impact it has had on others.

And one glorious side effect of doing work you love is that instant gratification falls to the side. You constantly berate yourself for procrastinating. If there’s anything that will threaten your career, it’s the time you spend reading webtoons, scrolling through social media, and doing everything but the things you need to. Now, you wake up thrilled to get to work. You can’t wait to improve your craft. Sure, you still love to indulge in a good webtoon, but the temptation to seek immediate gratification has largely fallen away.

Being able to experience work as play is a blessing. Now that I’ve tasted freedom, my bar for my future options have risen, for better or for worse.

Lean into what makes your heart sing. Then, do the work.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” -- Debbie Millman

It took me many articles, many more unpublished drafts and infinite rounds of re-writing before you’d stumble upon the kind of style that seems to work for you (for now). And when you finally do, you’ll notice it intuitively. You’ll experience a joy higher than Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. You’ll be prouder of this work compared to any other you’ve produced. You can’t wait to create something like this again. And when you share your work with your audience, you’ll feel fearful- for you’re sharing a piece of art that you’ve poured your realest self into.

What re-writing sometimes look like.

You’ll discover that you want to write deep, nuanced, reflective pieces. Most importantly, you want to write to uplift. Writing such pieces takes time. For some writers, publishing consistently (by consistently, I mean ‘weekly’) works best for them. But you’re part of the camp that prefers quality over quantity. Your work improves the more time they are given to ‘sit’. Discard the idea that readers will only pay attention to short, pithy listicles. If your work requires substantial length to illuminate its unique nuances, then write as long as you want.

Like all the advice that comes your way, test them and see what works for you. And then, put the necessary hours in and chart your own way forward.

Conclusion: Live life as adventure.

Sure, I am still uncertain about what the future holds. But at least now, I wake up excited for what the day holds for me. And really, life should be lived as though it were pure adventure. I’ve taken enough safe routes to knit me a cushion if I fall. Now, it’s time to take risks and do what truly makes my heart sing.

Why give up the opportunity to feel alive? Life is short. Do things that uplift your own spirit and expand your personal understanding of what’s possible.

A public note on gratitude.

“Nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship. What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready and willing to receive all your secrets in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation soothes your distress, whose advice helps you make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up!”  - On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Here is a shout out to the group of people who have been some of my key pillars of support. I am really nothing compared to the accomplished writers and artists and scientists out there. But this academic year has really been a crucial one in my personal journey of becoming. Thanks to you guys, I now have the courage to re-imagine what I'm capable of.

So thank you-

For being there for me, be it about matters of the heart or the mind.

  • Rachel, Sean, Kaisen, Jerald, and Jet for being a constant source of joy, encouragement, and for showing me that the true light in life comes from friendship.
  • Jean and Cass for being akin to the big sisters I never had.
  • Amelia and Alicia for helping me rediscover what a gift kinship can be.
  • Matthew, having walked part of life’s journey with me as a partner, confidant, and companion. I wish you all the best in your next chapters of life.
  • Chinni and Mingyang for always being an unrelenting presence with me through the mundane, as well as the toughest of times.
  • My parents for the gift of unconditional love.

For sticking through my worst first-drafts and for inspiring better pieces.

  • Meeta, my new bff thousands of miles away in Bangalore. You are an inspiration, a comfort, a true gem.
  • My writing group Jared, Alysia, Rohen, Emmanuel and Natalie for always offering their time and generous perspectives on my work. A special shoutout to Alysia and Natalie who live and breathe many of the values I aspire to embody. Thank you for believing in the sanctity of craft and for inspiring me to create pieces that uplift others.
  • On Deck Writing Fellowship, the best launchpad I could ever ask for.
  • Jess and Andrea for being willing to take a bet on me, some unknown student who is entire time zones away.  

And of course, a shout-out to my favourite webtoons that were not only great companions during life's mundane moments, but also a comfort during rough times.

Romance 101
Some comics we read at Laura's online comic book club
Odd Girl Out

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