When I was teenager, I went through periods of low self-esteem as many acne-ridden kids would. It was a truly unpleasant period from the time my forehead first broke out in pimples at 13 till about 17 when the scourge on my skin went away. Naturally, it made me shy around other girls, especially those that I fancied.
Now when I was 15 and in Secondary 3, I used to take the bus number 157 to school every morning. There was this female student from another school who stayed near my block of flats and took the same bus. She wore the same Nanyang Girls’ High uniform as her peers but this girl was already a woman in more ways than one.
I only dared to admire her from where I was, packed between other sweaty students in this stifling bus, while she stared nonchalantly out of the bus window in her ethereal way. I never knew her name, but I did give her a nick “N.G.” – for “Nanyang Girl”. Overtime, I just referred to her as Angie.
Two years went past this way. As you can guess, I never picked up the guts to say hi to this girl. I was this pimply, somewhat overweight guy with dorky glasses. How dare I even entertain the thought of dating this lady?Then one day, the opportunity did come for me to introduce myself, and naturally, I blew it.
We had finished our GCE O-Level examinations, and it was a cheery March 1993 morning. My male classmates and I were hanging out at McDonald’s at Serene Centre, which was near Angie’s school. We were stuffing our face with hotcakes when I realised Angie was sitting just a few tables away with her female friends. She spotted us and her table of friends giggled a little as girls are wont to do at any age.
My classmate Andy said: “Hey Ian, why don’t you go and say hi to her? She must be feeling nervous about getting her exam results and it’ll be a great time to break the ice over the same topic.”
I protested with some silly reason and Andy just rolled his eyes.
That, as the story goes, was the last I saw of Angie. I believe she moved out of the estate and went to another junior college. I don’t even know if i’ll recognize her today. She probably doesn’t even remember I exist. All the better because it’s better she remain just a memory (read following chapter: The Things Men Shouldn’t Breathe About In Front Of Their Wives).
A few years later, another buddy named Vincent (Weizheng to us ACS boys) imparted this incredible gem of advice when it came to the topic of courtship.
“Ian, asking a girl out is a 50-50 thing. It’s either a yes or no that you’ll receive. If you never ask, you’ll never know.”
My dear old friend, you have no idea how that casual statement you dished out has changed the course my entire life.
But hang on – that was just one of two principles that transformed my paradigm.
The other principle came from our dragonboat coach Neo Seilin. Allow me to flip the page to 1994, when I was in the Anglo-Chinese Junior College dragonboat team.
Training as a dragonboater is one of the most brutal things you can go through as a teenager. For five days out of seven each week, we would be constantly running long distances, lifting weights, rowing in all sorts of choppy conditions and basically not seeing our families very much. Only friendship kept us going, and the friends you make as a dragonboater last forever.
As a college dragonboat team, we knew that we were one of the best in Singapore, having won local student races for consecutive years. Then in 1994, the opportunity came for us to race in the annual Hong Kong invitationals. We were slated to race in the Hong Kong student category, and if we won that, we would be eligible for the Hong Kong nationals to race against teams from the HK Police, HK Fire Dept, Aberdeen Fisherman’s group and so on.
A small-statured, but charismatic and good-looking, Seilin was a former dragonboat team captain who came back part time to coach our team. His training methods were simple, and his strength was instilling in us the belief that despite the odds stacked against us (short period of training versus professional rowers, limited school funding, the threat of failing our studies), we could do this together.
One day, as we wound down another day of training on the school running track he taught us the importance of “living a life of no regrets”. It’s a simple statement to make, but actually living it is another thing.
“Live a life that you will not look back upon and say that I should have done this or done that. When you make the decision to do something, stick with it, and accept the consequences that come your way.” was the gist of his speech to us.
Looking back, what Seilin and Weizheng said was essentially the same thing. I was brought up by my mum to be resourceful, to be hardworking, but what was the point of it all if I didn’t do things that I really wanted to do? What if I saw opportunities appear and did not seize them? Did I want to be taking orders for the rest of my life?
I don’t know when the turning point was, but thus began a rollercoaster life.
Over the next decade, I did everything people told me not to do, not out of youthful rebellion, but out of desire to be myself.
I rejected the popular but dreaded path of becoming a government scholar, though I took up an SPH scholarship when my mum fell ill.
- I ignored my university sub-dean when she wanted to dictate my valedictorian speech and get me to praise her administration instead. I submitted a fake speech to her and proceeded to tell the story of my mum during the actual stage ceremony itself. She was furious, but I just shrugged in fake puzzlement. This is my speech, M’am, not yours.
- I became a professional photographer, much to the horror of the people who hired me as a journalist. I was stopped from becoming a graphic artist when I was in school, so this was a great alternative to flex my visual eye.
- Despite attaining much success, I quit photography because I saw a future I didn’t want to be part of. I went to set up my newspaper’s first technology column and commercialized it despite the odds once again.
- I took up the violin, despite having small hands and no music background. I want to play as well as Itzhak Perlman by the time I hit 50, and I’m willing to take 25 years to do it.
You get the idea.
A few months ago, I was advised by a senior person at my workplace: “Ian, don’t be so passionate. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Because when you do everything with such burning passion, you will burn yourself out.” Obviously my intensity at work was worrying some well-meaning teammates, even within a fast-paced company like Microsoft.
I accepted his advice, but it didn’t mean I had to completely follow it.
For many people, living a balanced life means carefully calibrating the work they do to improve themselves gradually without burning out. That is the right thing to do, because we are only human and our flesh can only take so much beating.
But with all due respect to my colleagues whom I admire for many different reasons, to live a life without regrets is to live a life with fearless abandon. The passion must be allowed to bubble forth, because that sets you apart from the next guy who’s just interested in going home early.
I’ve been accused of being impatient by a friend working in HR, but I think she didn’t see that I was just eager to chase the opportunities in my life. I’ve also seen schoolmates cut down by death and disease before they could live the life they wanted.
To not wear my heart on my sleeve, is to not be myself. To not live a life that I can today, means I might not be able to do so tomorrow.
This doesn’t mean that I live life stupidly or recklessly, mind you.
I’m very aware of the fact that today as I write this, I have a wife and two kids to support. I have bills to pay. I have a company that I’m accountable to. I have my health to look after.
To live a life with no regrets also means you do things that put your priorities first (in my case, it’s my family), because losing my loved ones or letting them down is a regret I cannot bear to carry for more than a minute.
Once you’ve sorted out your priorities in life, you should not be afraid to chase your dreams, no matter how small they are.
Today, many inspirational books and speakers tell us to chase our dreams to become millionaires or great leaders. That’s fine by me, but I suspect most people are happy just to fulfill their desire to do something that everyone has told them was not achievable in their context.
When I take the morning train to work, I look around and see quite a few unhappy faces staring back at me. Are they tired of working in a job that is not suited for their skills? Do they find themselves in situations which they find impossible to climb out of? Or are they facing relationship problems that they cannot seem to solve?
Often, you’ll find that for every problem there are several solutions. For every situation, there are always choices you can make. Whatever step you take, as long as you fully comprehend the price you’ll have to pay and learn how to say “No regrets”, I think you’ll find that it’s the decision you’ll enjoy taking.
One final caveat though – ever heard of this saying: “Man proposes. God opposes.”?
Whether you believe in God or not, there are many things out of our control. As a Christian, I believe all things happen by the will of God. Even the most hardcore atheist will have to admit that he is not in full control of his destiny. The decisions we make need to take into account the unpredictable and the unknown, and in my perspective, the divine.
And that ends this first chapter.