MY FRIENDS DID BETTER THAN ME ... NOW WHAT?!
"I COULD HAVE DONE SO MUCH BETTER!"
My students would know I enjoy talking about failure. Not necessarily to brag about my rags to riches story (Really.) but to share with them how failure is a rite of passage towards success. Yes, it is cliché which is why I spend a majority of my time sharing with them how I felt and my thoughts process and journey in overcoming failure. And more importantly, the fear of failure.
However, what’s worse than failure is competition. More specifically, you losing in competition with people around you. You just can’t help but to compare. Especially so, in our education system where most of our exam grading systems follow that of a bell curve (Normal distribution).
It’s true a part of us have this competitive nature inside us and it is evolutionarily justified. The better we are, the more resources we gather, the likelihood of our survivor is secured and potentially prolonged. However, our competitive nature is misdirected.
Precisely because of this misdirection, we often find ourselves devoting our time and effort to improving not for ourselves but rather to be better than others. As students, our initial feeling towards our academic performance is based on the grades assigned. However, our feelings are recalibrated when we look around before we finally decide on how we feel based on our score relative to others. Sometimes, we feel better. Other times we feel worse.
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Low self esteem
David Sinek puts it more bluntly and would probably get downvoted 2358359 times on r/SGExams. Poor parenting. In other words, you were raised wrong. Watch any psychologist and therapist on YouTube and there is a general consensus that we all need therapy at some level. It is hard to be a parent. (No, I’m not pregnant.) More often than not, how your parents raised you have an impact on your self-esteem consciously and subconsciously.
Your parents’ voice is your subconscious voice. There are many books and research papers supporting this claim. Do a simple google search and many articles detailing the impacts of your parents’ communication with you will surface.
"During the age of 0-6 years, the brain downloads all the perceptions, activities and knowledge, it receives without the benefit of discrimination. The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice."
You’ve seen it in public before, albeit more prominent in the early 2000s. Many have made it into a Singapore meme. Mum chiding the toddler for not doing well in school.
"You see your uncle’s 3rd son, no tuition also do better than you. How come he can score an A and you can’t even score a B?"
Admit it, you have experienced this personally or seen it happen. Many would say it’s toxic and it is. However, most of us grew up absorbing that as part of us. Eventually, it becomes our inner voice that guides us through life. Hence putting the education system aside, we can’t help but feel a need to compare with our peers and calibrate our feelings towards our performance based on relativity to others. Ultimately, developing a sense of self-abasement. (自卑)
Unfortunately, moving too far away from this spectrum of parenting would result in the same impact of low self esteem individuals. The converse does not necessarily result in a opposite effect. The modern day parent are leaning towards encouragement and building up a child’s confidence excessively.
How I grew up
I still recall vividly this one day in Kindergarten. My K1 teacher was giving out pencils to students who could answer her question correctly. Despite being the conservative and introverted child that I was, I mustered all my courage to raise my hand. However, despite my bravado, I answered incorrectly and couldn’t get that all elusive purple pencil. (Yes, that’s how well I remember it.)
It looked exactly like the above.
I went home disappointed and threw a mini tantrum at home. I had to summon all my courage to raise my hand, answer the question and got embarrassed in front of all my classmates. How could I not be given anything? It felt like a punishment.
The very next day, that same pencil was in my teacher’s hand. I recall she said something along the lines of
"Some students did not get the pencil here because they did not answer correctly and are very disappointed. So, can the students who did not receive the pencil please come get a pencil?"
The only purple pencil was handed to me specifically.
How I felt walking about growing up.
There must have been some holy intervention. (READ: My mum)
No wonder my Kindergarten teachers still recognizes me 25 years on.
Back then, people around me were telling me how sheltered, pampered and spoilt I was. What I achieved in Kindergarten was considered an anomaly. Many around me thought I would grow up to be an 阿斗. However, this seems to be the norm today.
How most of you grew up
There is this student of mine who had a trophy in his display shelf. It had his name engraved and naturally I asked what that trophy was for. He told me his mummy had it custom made for him and his sister because they participated in Sports Day but came home empty handed and mummy wanted to gift them the trophy as a consolation.
You may not think this has happened to you before at all. But it has, whether it’s in school, at home or any other settings. You just haven't realized it. Parents and teachers today tend to declare everyone as a winner despite it being a competition.
"WE ARE ALL WINNERS!"
A lot of people misunderstand the appropriate narrative to introduce to children. It’s okay if you fail, you just have to try harder. But if you fail, you don’t get a reward. In fact, not every participation you engage in deserves an award. Awards are reserved for winners who worked hard, performed under pressure and had a small pinch of luck. (Luck actually plays a bigger part in your success than anything else.)
Fortunately, the harsh reality is introduced to you in school through national exams. Failure to hit a metric results in inability to matriculate into the course of your desire. Your parents cannot complain to the Ministry of Education through the mainstream media for a difficult PSLE Math question regarding circles. And in an instant, the self image groomed of you through participation awards immediately shatters. There are people better than you and prizes are not for everybody. You realize you’re not special.
However, I still believe what my inner voice. "You’re such a handsome boy!" IKR.
Our growth continue through to our teens. However, the dynamics takes a small turn from here on. As young children, we tend to value our parents’ opinions more than anything else. However, as we grow into our teenage years, we start to seek approval outside of our family. We want approval from our peers.
That is absolutely normal. We are primarily programmed on an evolutionary level to survive in bigger herds and packs outside of our immediately family. However, beyond that, teenagers today can seek approval from a wider circle. Tapping on stranger’s approval through social media such as Instagram and TikTok. No doubt, they absolutely love it.
25.4k views and 1000 likes?! The kind of drug I need.
Social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram allow teenagers to curate what they want the world to see and how they are viewed. Every time their phone lights up notifying them of a “like”, they get a shot of dopamine, the same chemical that drives addiction in alcohol, cigarettes and pornography. Their self-worth then becomes entangled in how many “likes” they get from the latest post uploaded. Every shot is a drug.
The real world, in stark contrast to the social media world is difficult to curate. If you don’t do well in school, you can’t help but feel inadequate. You can’t change the results. You feel worse when you’re clearly the straggler and you can’t curate that fact away. It is in plain sight.
Indeed, not everyone is the same. Some might not even care about their social media presence while others care only about their social media presence. For those that choose to pivot on their social media presence and build a career out of it, power to them. However, regardless of the aforementioned group you are in, extensive historical scientific research has proven, adolescence is where most of us crave approval from our peers in addition to our immediate family. Social media just accelerates the process.
All of these are familiar terms to the younger generation, myself included. In retaliation, the older generations are then termed "boomers" who lived in much less competitive times, at least in the eyes of the younger generations. Are the younger generations really entitled?
I have successfully transitioned into a full grown man. I deal with teenagers on a daily basis from all backgrounds. There are occasions where teenagers annoy me with their "sense of entitlement" which is actually the lack of patience.
TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit
My generation (Millenials, born between 1990 to 2000) learnt to transition in our way of life. From payphones to handphones, dial-up broadbands to modern wifi, and a diskette (the save icon in Word) to cloud storage. We learn and we adapt along in our way of life. Naturally, we were not exposed to the influence of internet and social media as much in our adolescent years compared to the teenagers of today.
Teenagers live by their phones. Apart from nurturing addictions in the general population, phones also breed a sense of impatience, especially so in adolescent teenagers. Most things that our heart desire can be done through the phone.
Looking for someone to talk to, go on Instagram.
Looking for a dress to wear on an impromptu date, go onto Shopee.
Looking for answers to homework, search YouTube. (Or check out my TikTok. Teehee!)
We have grown accustomed to immediacy. Anything less than that, we become annoyed. Instant gratification has become a need for many.
There has been so many incidents of students texting me to ask for the steps to solving a tutorial question. A tutorial question that will be discussed in class with the teacher in a day’s time.
Sometimes I solve it for them, other times I don’t.
" ; ) "
Sometimes, I get thanks in return for my efforts. Other times when I don’t, I get a "good morning" text after a night’s sleep.
Naturally, many of my students mistakenly grew up with the mentality that this instant gratification can be applied through life. A significant amount of teenagers today wants to achieve the best results in the shortest time. Not only that, they believe that just because they put in effort, they will definitely receive a reward. After all, just participating and not winning already earned me the label of a winner. What more, with effort put in? Yea, you deserve a fucking medal.
It has always been about my goals.
I remember when I was in Secondary School, a speaker spoke at length about how we should always strive to be the best. I still remember the line that struck me so hard.
“You scored an A1 but all your friends scored an A1 too. How would you feel?”
In my mind, I thought, that’s great, we are a smart bunch.
However, his answer to his own rhetorical question was
"Disappointing. Because you’re not better."
Looking around, based on expressions, my friends and teachers seemingly agreed with him. That’s when I realized…
Other things my inner voice tells me.
In school and in life, you decide your reality. Not every event you engage in has to be a competition. You can use other's achievements as a learning tool. You can see mentors as role models and their exemplary behaviour and work ethics as something to emulate. You should seek to learn, not to win.
Every day I remind my students to look beyond your marks. Look through your paper, compare it with the paper you did a couple of months ago. Scrutinise recurring mistakes and identify the root of the problem. More importantly, search for areas where you excelled and made significant improvements. Celebrate it. It doesn’t matter how others around you did. Your improvement is truly the fruit of your labour. Your desired ideal academic results will come, knowing that you’re on the right trek.
Furthermore, these people you compare yourself to are not people you know on a very personal level. All you see is the glory but you do not see the struggles behind it. Maybe he worked day and night to get his results because he needed a scholarship to better his and his family's life. While others might have gotten their ideal results but are left wondering where his next destination is now that he fulfilled this goal that he put on a pedestal.
Don't compare. Seek improvements only for yourself. Be content and learn to celebrate the small victories you've rightfully earned.
To my 2021 A' level students, I'm proud of your achievements.
Almost all of you scored higher RP than I did. My streak may have been broken but the joy I derived from teaching you and the deep level of analysis that your intelligent questions push me into more than made up for it.
I have nothing else I can teach you. I wish you strength and luck in your future endeavours.