Wednesday, 29th May 2024

Wednesday, 29th May 2024

What if my best, is average?

21 Apr 2022

Struggling to find his place in school, writer Lim Jun Kang was not certain where his education journey would take him. But permission from his parents to take the time he needs to walk before he runs led to a breakthrough moment of clarity. He shares what success now looks like to him, someone who was once ‘an average student’. 

I had always been an average student.

It wasn’t that I performed terribly at school. My results slips were peppered with Cs, Ds and the occasional B – making me never the worst student in class yet nowhere near the top.

Some of my peers seemed to attain exceptional grades without breaking a sweat. Others, at the very least, figured out their goals early on. They had a clear direction and knew what they wanted to pursue in life – and what subjects they should take to get them there. 

But not me. I had plenty of questions about my goals and purpose but few answers. All I knew was to follow the well-trodden paths laid out by society and the people around me, including my cousins and friends. Ask any student in my circle then on what success is, and their answers will surely not deviate far from “achieving good grades in school and entering university”.

It is a pragmatic route, where good grades open doors to qualifications that lead to good jobs. But I remember asking for a large part of my student life, “What if it is not for me? If we are all different, then isn’t there a different path I could carve out for myself?” 

Teenage, self-doubt and fears

For my rhetoric to work, however, it helps to be extraordinarily good at something. Not just good, but exceptional. If I were talented at sports, music, science, math or art, there were schools and courses for these things and I’d be setting my sights on getting a place there.

But I wasn’t. Neither did I have some hobby or talent I could do a big show-and-tell about.

What I did love, and I still do, was to read and write. I did better at English, and had an active imagination. Perhaps I could be a journalist, screenwriter, a novelist even – they all seemed like exciting and plausible careers. But who shouts about loving to read and write? Isn’t that like saying ‘I’m good at watching TV’?

At some point as I entered my teens, doubts started to creep in.

What am I good at?

Am I as good as I think I am?

Am I actually good at anything?

I carried these questions with me throughout my secondary school and junior college (JC) days, accepting the fact that if I wasn’t going to be extraordinary, I should just go through the motions and hope for the best.

On hindsight, these were unwarranted fears that existed outside my locus of control. There was no point chasing shadows or worrying about whether I would eventually achieve success, whatever success meant.

I am not sure at what point after my ho-hum adolescence that I could say with conviction that as individuals, we are all born with different aptitudes, hence everyone’s picture of personal success should be determined by how we utilise our own unique and inherent potential and work towards our goals.

Success shouldn’t be a formula or code we all need to crack.

Giving me the space to explore and grow

On the surface, my family is as cookie-cutter as they come. But my parents are far from typical.

Firstly, they never hovered.

Till this day, smack into my 20s, I am still not sure how but they just knew that I could be trusted to push myself to be a better person in anything I did. They let me set my own best standards, never comparing me to anyone else, and they gave me the breathing space that is needed with this degree of freedom.

Good character was what mattered; I was never made to feel that my worth to them was measured by how well I did at school nor which schools I attended.

It sounds easy but it is not. There were years when I must have looked lost, or brought home test papers with one too many red marks. When they signed me up for private tuition, they emphasised that it was for me to be able to clarify any doubts in my schoolwork, not to chase for higher grades.

Looking back, I am glad for their trust. They were realistic in their own expectations and gave me time to find my way. Underlying all that generosity was just one strong ask: There is room for failure, but only if I have tried my best.

As for me, I just had to be sure that no matter which paths in life I pursued, it would be one that I was sure of.

Newfound clarity and perspective

How did I land with all that youthful soul-searching? Not well.

During my Secondary 4 O-Level prelim examinations, I came in at just under 40 points for my L1R5 score. It wasn’t the failure that gave me clarity, it was the thought that my academic choices ahead could be so limited that I may have to spend the next few years doing something I had no interest in.

That fear got me to work harder. On top of fulfilling my parents’ expectations for me to always do my personal best, I told myself something that I live by even today – that if there is something I must do, even if it isn’t particularly enjoyable, I must do it right.

That checkpoint in my education journey was the wake-up call I needed. I went on to choose the Arts stream at JC because I did enjoy the Humanities, and met passionate teachers who helped me find purpose and joy in learning, even when I struggled at times.

When I majored in Communications at university, I jumped at the chance to take classes in sociology, art history and philosophy – simply because they were interesting to me. Where would those subjects take me? I didn’t have a clue at the time, but my vision of the future got clearer upon graduation: I wanted to create meaningful stories, in any shape and form.

So, at the end of 14 years, I did find what I wanted to do. I did take the traditional route to university with some doubts in my head. But I discovered that my early love for words and stories was what I was really about. This meant something to me and was a career that I’d be happy putting my efforts into. Was I still average? I’d say: I am at my personal best. 

What is success to you?

Something I also learned first-hand is that the things that we may dismiss as hobbies or silly interests might actually turn out to be undiscovered strengths. Of course, due effort and diligence must be put in as you pursue your goal, but trust me, you will find it a lot easier if you enjoy what you do.

The beauty about doing what you enjoy also means you’re more likely to be thrown together with like-minded people. Going to work for me now is a greater pleasure because my colleagues are word nerds like me; many of them also didn’t know what would come out of their simple pleasures when they were young.

Even now, I may not see clearly what my future has in store for me, but I am totally fine with that. I would like to continue on this process of self-discovery, to be constantly inspired by my experiences and to work on just being the best version of myself.

At the end of the day, that sounds like a life of fulfilment – to me. 

For a parent’s perspective on what success means to her child, check out Tee Hun Ching’s commentary

Lim Jun Kang is a writer with MOE’s Communications and Engagement Group.