I have about 2 weeks to go before I head to Nepal. And I am going alone. The big ticket things are booked now, and no cold feet madness can be tolerated. So I am in the mood for confessions.
The absorbing fascination of recent weeks are gently ebbing to a quieter, surprisingly re-assuring flow. For once I am able to contemplate scaling new heights without the supporting swell of motivation suddenly disappearing, forcing me into the panic and pain of crashing, or gliding – or struggling to grow wings mid-flight.
I wonder if I would be as grateful, had I not previously known the terror of falling – and become accustomed to expecting and surviving it.
There again, what do I know? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The fear of failure
I have a memory from school. I believe I was 15.
It was the start of Form Four and in English class. The teacher thought up an interview exercise and I was paired with my closest (guy) friend. We had to ask each other a number of questions, jot down all of the answers, and just have a conversation.
One of the last questions was about what you fear the most. When he asked me the question, I said “failure”. And then it hit me that it was a much truer answer than I realised. I think the shock of the epiphany was why that moment in time is burned into my memory.
[However, I also remember I answered ‘Zombie’ by the Cranberries for my favourite song, despite having no particularly strong feelings about it. I have no explanation for this].
The higher you fly…
I was the quintessential ‘A’ student. You might even say the stereotypical Asian student, except that clearly everyone was Asian in my school. So you might say I was an overachiever in a playing field of academic high achievers.
I was a prizewinner every year for the school presentation day, usually for more than one category. One of those categories would invariably be top three of my class, which was invariably the highest performing class, and often I would be the #1. [Do you hate me yet?]
What’s more, while most of my rivals shift and change through the school years, I was consistent.
You see, with the schooling system we had when I was growing up, there’s a marked shift in learning demand between Standard 6 (the end of primary school) and Form 1 (beginning of secondary school), and again between Form 3 and Form 4. And then of course from school to university. It is quite common for high achieving students in one paradigm to struggle to remain so through each transition.
I discovered from this that I had the kind of adaptive intelligence that allowed me to continually evolve to new paradigms. It translates well into the workplace. [Yes, I’m slowly getting to my point about solo female travel. Here, try this while I get there.]
The blessing and the curse of not failing
I’m not going to lie to you and say that it isn’t a blessing to have this intelligence, and to have done extremely well in school. It is. Especially if you’ve also been accidentally smart enough to ‘waste’ some time playing. At whatever – it doesn’t quite matter what. And if you’ve been accidentally wise enough to ‘waste’ yet more of it to help your peers when they find things a bit more of a struggle than you.
But I will confess to you what else it means to be an overachiever.
It means that I did not fail. Even for subjects I was not good at – like art – I did not fail. Even in the transition periods when I was adjusting to different study styles required, and a higher difficulty – I did not fail.
Now, I’m not saying it’s better to be a failure. Not at all. And it’s not a bad thing to succeed early and succeed often. That kind of head start is an incredible boost.
But when it takes too long for you to fail at something, while you see peers begin to experience it around you, you begin to dread the day when it might happen to you. It looks painful and costly. Humiliating.
So you unconsciously begin to play further away from the edge of discovery.
The longer it goes on, the more you’ll play safe. Make excuses. Get addicted to admiration. Feel entitled to being rewarded simply for having your natural advantage.
This is how those high flying prodigies become the people you love to hate.
The mantle of expectations
I was an intelligent girl from a line of intelligent women. Bearers and teachers of knowledge in the world of their times.
It was expected that I would be smart, and I did live up to that expectation. It was expected that I taught from what I had, and fortunately I lived up to that too. And it was expected that I could earn the highest of academic accomplishments. There was no doubt about it at all. It was only later in life that I understood the enormous privilege of this belief, this lack of doubt.
I was taught early the obligations of advantage, and was forever after immunised against both the temptations of predation, and selfish indifference.
So although I always felt a yearning to be seen for something additional to just my brain, these were expectations I bore relatively easily.
On top of all this, I grew up a Malay* female in Malaysia of the ’80s and ’90s. It was only one – maybe two – generations since independence. It was a time when attempts were still being made to transition the society from post-colonial divides to something else, while grappling with modernisation at the same time. Also, in hindsight, when the present-day ethnic and class rifts were being gestated.
So to be perfectly frank, I grew up a high achieving Malay girl anomalously absent of doubts over her academic parity with Chinese Malaysians and with boys. And one who regularly demonstrated it by merit year on year.
I was a Malay who was good at mathematics, and took it for granted.
I was a girl who was good in science, and took it for granted.
Needless to say, a succession of teachers and lecturers keen to change generational mindsets projected many things on my little shoulders. I grew up a reluctant poster child for a whole race and sometimes also a gender – well into university years.
This was harder to bear, and perhaps you will appreciate why as you read on.
Let me explain this situation in a couple examples. It will probably be non-intuitive for many readers, because in many countries my context is more usually correlated with the minority group, rather than the majority. Yet this is the reality and legacy of British colonialism in Malaya.
Are you sure you’re Malay?
I represented my school once in a national science quiz or something, together with two friends who are ethnically Chinese. Together we were the top three in our school. We went to another school that hosted the quiz.
When we were there, the students at this predominantly Malay school kept watching us, and me. Eventually a boy came up to me and asked who we were. And then he asked, whether I was in fact Malay. Even though I obviously looked it, and was wearing the baju kurung** uniform.
I still get asked this by my own people, in various contexts.
[Note that part of the mystification was probably also how friendly we three were. I experienced this again in university, when I surprised both sides by simply doing the Subang Jaya thing of expecting friendship across ethnic lines].
If I’m wrong, you can’t be right.
Another time in university, I was in surveying camp (like for land surveying – part of the civil engineering bachelor’s degree). We had a treasure hunt-traverse surveying assignment. Essentially if we did the traverse correctly we should reach the ‘treasure’.
Most of my team members were friends, from my own class. But there was a guy from a different class, first class honours dude. At some point, I had a hunch that he had made an error in one of the calculations and so we were going the wrong way. I tracked down the error and informed the team, and corrected all subsequent calculations to take us back on the treasure path. My classmates, used to trusting me, began to decamp to the error point.
Little did I realise the skirmish I precipitated.
He would not accept being corrected by me. For a calculation! That’s math! It was preposterous. I can’t remember how he came around. Perhaps because it was impossible to press on without the others, and they wouldn’t go without me. (It must be mentioned that some of them were themselves male and Chinese – they had my back!).
And we reached the treasure.
…the harder you fall.
So it was that I went through my formative years at first simply coincidentally never failing, and then acquiring a growing pressure that I must not.
And then one day, I did.
It was just a tiny bit of failure. It was my driving license test. Nothing to speak of, certainly not deserving of any drama.
But it was the first exam I failed.
Because it happened well after childhood, the crash bore with it the momentum of a long winning streak coming to a screeching halt. Like crash test dummy hard.
So fall. It’s ok.
Today I see many parents try to shelter their children from the bitter anguish of failure.
You are not doing your children any favours. Like chicken pox, it is better to get it early. What my parents did right, was to let me feel its full force and never explain it away nor make excuses on my behalf.
So. what. You. failed.
Not an easy thing to hear at the time. But necessary.
The second failure was more subtle but more stinging, because it was academic. I dipped from a first class honours CGPA to a second class upper at the end of my second year in university [yes, I know, boo hoo].
Here I made perhaps a milestone life choice. I could throw in all I had to recover the top distinction. Or I could choose to keep my reservist navy training and other activities, and take a comfortable next best.
Bear in mind, a large chunk of my self-identity at the time took first class honours as validation of itself. For others it could be their looks, or their cultural identity, or their rank, or their children, or their Instagram likes. But this was my thing. And if you have ever felt that something core to your identity was about to be lost, you will know the irrational desperation of the threatened ego.
I chose to forfeit first class honours. I chose to evolve my identity.
Embrace the phoenix
Many of the best things you can possibly do for yourself in life, seem impossible to do the first time. Yet you only need to do it one time – preferably well – and thereafter you can do it again and again, and acquire the most valuable resilience. Because the barrier is not real – it’s in your mind.
It isn’t easy to override the aversion to failing. It is part of my nature – you can see it in everything about me. There is aim and precision. I bob and weave and tenaciously try everything to avoid failing at something. There is value and courage in this. This, too, requires mental strength.
But I dislike fear. It is like a cage that shrinks and shrinks. So when the situation gets shadowed by the dread of fear, I find that I turn ‘suicidal’. Smash my precious planning to pieces and walk into its jaws. Endure the scorching heat and be reborn.
There is no success and no failure – only grace.
Today I still get asked, in our hierarchical worldview, to define how high I am in the pecking order that we’re all supposedly in. Who employs me? What are my titles so far? Am I a manager ‘yet’? How high am I in the company?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found there is profoundly more freedom when you do not care what you answer to these questions. Only in its grace.
To trust the cyclical nature of life, you have to allow yourself to ride the troughs of ‘failure’ as well as the crests of ‘success’. Only then can your light rise steady upon the land.
My secret lifelong failure
So how does all this at all relate to travelling solo to Nepal?
For this, I hereby confess the biggest failure I grapple with. The thing that no exam measures, but the assessment is constant and unrelenting. The assessors were everyone around me, everywhere, every day. And I know it was unrelenting because of my constant failure.It twisted like the unhealing wound of Chiron, because it was a constant mockery of my outward achievement.
Underlying a life that’s publicly successful, was the constant awareness that I cannot do the simplest thing – I cannot do social.
By this I do not mean introversion – although I am that too. I mean that I somehow could not learn social skills in the way and pace that my peers do. I could not really work out how people just know what to pick up on, and then know what is expected by others in social interactions. I’m told, you ‘just know’. Even after understanding it is by mimicry, it still doesn’t help, because I could not ‘see’ what it is that should be mimicked.
What’s more, I grew up in an Asian culture. The social cues are subtle and many. So I’m really sorry to everyone who may have been hinting whatever at me all these years. I probably simply didn’t see it.
If I’m human, I wouldn’t need to ask.
So I stopped asking. And tried to puzzle it out across years of silence.
When people admire you, it never occurs to them to help you. When they think you’re highly intelligent, they assume you will know everything. You’re smart, right? Surely that means you can diagnose whatever it is that’s wrong with you. You can then devise your own cure. And then apply it to yourself, all on your own. So many people have it worse than you, without the advantage of your intelligence. They need the attention more.
And of course, how can one argue with the justness of that morality?
This was the expectation laid on me, at the wise and ripe age of early teenage-hood.
I’m not claiming to have Asperger’s or something.
Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. What I’m saying is, I can relate.
I know about desperately trying to decide whether there is or isn’t subtext – and what it is. I know the impatience and dismissal in people’s eyes when you plumb for the wrong choice.
And the secret routines and rituals that have only a nominal purpose, but is really about maintaining a sense of control while you’re overwhelmed by expectations you don’t understand. I know that.
And the flippant comments over being robot-like. The dread of wondering how true it might be. Wondering if I could pass the Turing test. Whether it’s possible to be born to human parents and be objectively disqualified from humanity by a test meant for robots.
This weakness stops me from wandering alone, as I allude to in this article, because social acceptance is crucial to access help and information from the human network.
Fortunately for me, I grew up an Asian woman in an Asian country in a pre-social media world. So at least I had easy resort to the sanctuary of feminine dignified reserve – a mask and a crutch, until Galatea learned how to step out of stone. So my failure at being human is a secret only hinted at, but never revealed for sure.
I am human too.
But of course that isn’t quite true. I can no more ‘fail’ at being human than I can at being a girl, no matter how different I am from the mean.
It took me longer and slower, but I am getting there. With the help of friends who helped me down from the pedestal. Wise enough to see through to the fact that there are things they could help me with. Who loved me enough to accept me into a community just as I was. Who explained to me to blindingly obvious things they do all the time. Answered my questions. Who have no need of idols and torchbearers because they understand all people have different needs and strengths.
And protected me from other people as they helped me out of the prison I finally broke in my Blue Period odyssey.
It turns out that all I needed was extra help. Just like the extra help I had given to others weaker than me at the things I am gifted with.
So I turn around and walk into the shadow, this time ahead of fear. I know I will evolve once more.
*Malay: dominant race in Malaysia, and the majority of the political ethnic group considered ‘native’.
**baju kurung: traditional female dress of the Malay people.