Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Second Chance...or Third

I have often thought about how we obsess about life milestones, like passing class X (or O levels), scoring well in class XII (or A levels), graduating, getting a good job (and salary), getting married, having kids and so on. We give so much importance to these, yet achieving these milestones at the right time and as per the benchmarks is no guarantee against unhappiness. And people who fail these milestones are not doomed to unhappiness either. In fact, I have always found people who have had a few knocks early on in life far more energetic and alive than folks for whom life has rolled out a red carpet everywhere they went.

Never was it as obvious as yesterday, when I met a young man, let's call him Mat, who has certainly not followed the usual path in life, and would be deemed a failure as per a typical Singaporean's strict view to life. He dropped out of school after middle school and worked in his grandfather's hawker stall for a couple of years, helping him cook and earning meager wages in return. Then, he went in to do his National Service (NS), where he first realized the kind of stuff he didn't want to do, i.e. manual labor. So, after spending two years in NS, he enrolled in Institute of Technical Education (ITE), also derogatorily referred to as It's The End by status-conscious Singaporeans. He did pretty well in the computer course there, and because of that managed to gain access to an IT course in a Polytechnic. Now in the final year of poly, he dreams of doing creative programming for mobile apps.

Most Singaporean young men who choose to go to poly are done with it by the time they are 19, and then are in the job market by 21 after completing two years of NS. Mat, on the other hand, will be 25 by the time he graduates from poly. What have these additional four years taken from him? Perhaps that's not the right question. I should really be asking what these additional four years have given to him.

A lot. The look in his eyes when he looked straight in mine and spoke of his so-called failure early in life was worth more than any salary his peers would earn in this time. It was testament to his self knowledge and growth, more precious than any degree proclaiming academic knowledge. I have no doubt that a few years from now, Mat will be a very happy person, who would be making this world a better place for many people.

Can't say the same for the guy next door who scored six A's in his A-levels and averts his dull eyes every time our paths cross. 

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