“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness”

The video is an animated adaption of an excerpt from George Saunders’ convocation speech last year. His full speech is available here. I really like how he describes failures in kindness as being “those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” We always regret most the things that we didn’t do.

And if you get the chance to read his speech, his comments about the “very real danger that ‘succeeding’ will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended” are very thoughtful too.

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Down on luck

I passed a woman on the street last week while walking home from work. She looked to be in her early 30s and she held out a cardboard sign to the street with a messy scribble that read: “Sometimes, women need help too”. The sign struck me because the woman described her need as being not for money or for food – although that was what she was asking for – but for help. And every person will, at some stage in their life, need to ask for help.

As a society, we too readily jump to conclusions about who a person is and how they came to be where they are. We assume that we know and understand circumstances that are a far stretch from the range of our own life experiences. We make judgments about their lifestyles and their behaviour.

I remember reading an article about the logic of stupid poor people, in which the author was writing to explain why poor people will often purchase expensive but “useless” status symbols. The middle and upper classes are quick to point out the contradiction: if you are poor, why would you spend money buying expensive stuff? From their point of view the behaviour is completely illogical, and so they come to conclude that maybe the poor deserve to be poor through their own stupid decisions. The point that the author makes at the end is hard-hitting:

You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

I grew up in a household where part-time jobs making coffee and teaching piano meant that I was the only employed person in the family.  I have sat, numerous times, in a WINZ office with my mother, wondering whether the fridge might be empty for another week. And yet it is so easy to forget that past and to be blind to those experiences, as the woman on the street reminded me, when we are not part of the “inherently poor” “them” but are instead part of middle class “us”.

Certain experiences growing up have made me particularly sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of those who are down on luck. But every now and then, I think we all need to put ourselves into the shoes of those who are struggling – often due to no fault of their own – and to remind ourselves of how human it is to need help.

This week, the reminder came from Sue Townsend, who described her experiences as a struggling single mother of three in a 1989 piece on “how the welfare state left me and my kids scouring the streets for pennies”. The entire piece is worth reading, but part of it is reproduced below.

“Haven’t you got any relatives who’ll lend you some money?” said the young man behind the desk. It is impossible to convey to somebody who has money and no children the nightmare of having children and no money. I knew nobody who was on the telephone at that time. I couldn’t even reverse the charges and ask for help.

I couldn’t face walking the five miles home. I begged the young man for 50p, but he wouldn’t relent. The staff in the back office started to put their coats on and tidy their desks. Half-past five arrived. Most of the people in the waiting room were ushered out. Others, desperate like me, stayed – explaining – some in tears, others shouting, that they hadn’t eaten, had nowhere to stay. It was bedlam. My children were hot and thirsty. Could I give them a glass of water? “No,” the office was now closed.

“You lend me 50p – as a person, you’ll get it back,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Where would it end if I started to do that?”

I wanted to tell him that I was a literate and intelligent person, not just the young mother of those crying children – for Christ’s sake, I had read every page of War and Peace. When I could afford it I read the Guardian. I was a Bessie Smith fan. I had won several prizes for verse speaking. I could read a menu in French. A poet had been in love with me. I knew how to spell and pronounce Dostoevsky. I had worked hard since I was 15. I had paid my taxes and my national insurance. I had never broken the law and all I wanted from the welfare state was a stinking, lousy, sodding 50p. I didn’t get it.

It is a terrible thing to see your mother crying. I tried very hard, I contorted my face this way and that but eventually, when we were out on the street, the tears came. The four of us walked along – a quartet of cry-babies.

I was too proud to stop passers-by and ask for help. I scanned the pavements looking for money. Instead I found lemonade bottles, Corona brand. There was a returnable deposit of 4p on each bottle. My eldest son cheered up; he knew that these bottles represented hard cash. My pride vanished, I looked in litter bins, I looked over walls and behind fences. Soon we had enough for my bus fare, and then we had enough for four ice lollies – don’t anybody dare to even think that those children should have been given something healthy to eat.

When we got home I bathed the children, and, when they were clean and shining in their pyjamas, I said we were going to have a special treat for dinner. I emptied the food cupboard of its contents. It didn’t take long. There was a packet of beef suet, a tin of golden syrup, a tin of peas and one Oxo cube. For dinner we had pea soup (put another pea in the soup, Mother) and the golden roly-poly. My eldest child still remembers this meal. We laid a tablecloth on the living-room floor and ate in picnic fashion.

Breaking the ceiling

My younger days as an aspiring classical pianist taught me two unexpected lessons about life. The first lesson was about grit and how to ‘stick’ with something when things became difficult, frustrating or – worst – boring. I learnt very early on that you cannot cheat your way around hard work and practice, and that there was no magic or secret to learning the piano. It was simply hard work, persistence and more hard work.

The second lesson was about confidence, and how confidence could often be more important than competence when it comes to the moments that really count. It doesn’t matter that you might have played a piece perfectly a million times before, if you cannot nail it on the day of the performance. Performance anxiety is cruel, but the blessing and curse of being a performer is the fact that constantly confronting self-doubt enables you to eventually come to terms with fear.

I had a conversation with a friend recently about why some people end up more successful than others. I’ve been thinking a lot about the determinants of success since then, and particularly success in the context of “ceilings”. These ceilings, that are said to unfairly impede certain groups of people from progressing in their careers, include the “bamboo” ceiling (Asians), the “glass” ceiling (women) and the “class” ceiling (underprivileged backgrounds).

There are various explanations offered for why these ceilings exist, but the common theme throughout is the understanding that being technically proficient – that is, having good grades or the relevant qualifications and experience – is not enough.

In the same way that mental toughness is often cited in sport as being what separates the good from the great, I think confidence and grit is what separates those who are seen to “break” the ceiling from those who remain trapped underneath. Our education system is designed to focus on teaching the things that are easily tested and measurable. The “soft” skills (or, what could equally be called “life” skills) tend to be forgotten and abandoned. Yet it is often the education that occurs outside the classroom that really matters.

Confidence and resilience are two sides of the same coin. You need to first believe that what you want to do is possible, and then to push on despite failure, pressure and set-backs in order to achieve it. Confidence and resilience is the difference between someone who has the courage to ask and to take opportunities when they come knocking, and the person who never dares to raise their hand and who will give up at the slightest glimpse of failure. As a mentor once reminded me, you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

The problem is, however, that a lack of confidence can quickly lead to a negative cycle of disengagement – and that’s a very difficult thing to recover from.

It’s a shame that our schools and universities don’t teach students to become confident and mentally resilient individuals because many people – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – often lack the resources at home to develop these skills on their own. I have a hunch that an important step in overcoming ceilings is to think harder about the education that young people need for the real world, and what we can do to ensure that all children – irrespective of their background and circumstances – have the opportunity to grow into confident and resilient individuals.

We, humanity

I recently stumbled upon the Humans of New York project, which is quickly becoming one of my favourite blogs. I love how an unpretentious photo and a simple caption can capture something so poignant about a person. Strangers suddenly become familiar and real through the small glimpse that we take into their lives, their struggles, their disappointments and their hopes.

Humans of New York resonates with the part of me that is curious about the world and each of the seven billion people that inhabit it. It reminds us that every person has a story that is perfect and unique. One story that stuck with me recently was this photo of a little girl with the caption: “Dad let go of her hand, but she never let go of dad’s hand”. The photo made me think hard about the importance of nurture, the way that we all resist being pushed outside our comfort zones, and how sometimes the people that we lose in our lives never truly leave us.

I have always been fascinated by the lives of other people and, unsurprisingly, I also adore people watching. I remember observing a frail, elderly woman sweep the floor of Hong Kong airport when I was about 13 years old and wondering who she was and what her life had been like. What was she like as a young girl? What is her family like? What does she think about when she wakes up each morning? It was a surreal moment to realise that this woman – one of the hundreds of people that I saw go past that day – had a story to tell and, despite her age, continues to struggle for something like everybody else.

One of the things that I love about projects like Humans of New York (and also Postsecret, which I have religiously checked every Sunday afternoon for the past ten years) is that it enables us to appreciate just how much we have in common with each other, regardless of who we are and where we have come from. Like the experience as a 13 year old in Hong Kong airport, it makes us – I hope – think twice before passing judgment about a stranger. It often only takes a small sliver of understanding between two people to create tolerance and compassion, and we could always do with more compassion in the world.

The art of writing

When I was about 14 years old, my (then) English teacher commented on my lack of “natural talent” in the subject.

I was four when my family moved to New Zealand, so I was as fluent as a child could be in English by the time I was eight or nine. But in the back of my young mind, there was always something about being a migrant – of never being able to tick the “native speaker” box – that made me feel like I was always going to be one step behind everyone else during English class.

I knew that the teacher meant well, hoping to encourage me to work a bit harder in class, but her remarks confirmed something that I had decided a long time ago: I was definitely not an “English” person, in the same way that my friends had declared themselves to not be “maths” or “sciencey” people.

Yesterday, an op-ed I wrote on international students was published in the NZ Herald. After reading the article, a few friends mentioned that I was “talented” at writing. It made me smile to think that, having banished this idea of being “talented” from my mind some ten or so years ago, others might now view me in that way.

Despite declaring myself to be a “Not-An-English-Person”, I absolutely adored the subject in high school. I remember writing extensive essays for fun because I was fascinated with how the stories and characters contained within books and movies could convey such timeless insights into human nature.

When I went to university, this interest overrode the conventional wisdom of choosing courses that I knew I would be good at – which is how I ended up in my first philosophy lecture. And, contrary to popular belief, I found my BA to be quite challenging. Coupled with the fact that I now have a law degree and enjoy writing (good or badly) for fun, I would have to say that I no longer associate myself with being (or, in my case, not being) an “English” person, in the sense that I no longer correlate “English” and “writing” with “hard” and “impossible”.

The hardest part about writing isn’t really the writing part at all. Like any other activity, the more that you do, the better you will get. The other assumption that prevents people from writing, myself included, is the idea that every story needs to be original and fresh. I consider my day-to-day life to be pretty mundane (I wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, go for a run, make dinner, check emails, sleep – repeat) but I think in every single mundane day is a new experience of some kind and an opportunity for change and growth, however small. The best stories are actually those that describe something quite ordinary in an extraordinary (by which I mean different) way, or where the author shares with the reader a glimpse into their soul, so to speak.

I don’t believe that people can be “talented” and, more importantly, “not talented” at writing, because the capacity to share ideas and to tell stories is a very innate human ability. You can always improve the way you pull your words and thoughts together, but that’s nothing that a bit of trial and error can’t fix. In some ways, I am grateful to my English teacher. Knowing that I wasn’t “talented” meant that I no longer tried hard to be. Instead, I spent my time on the things that interested me, without thinking too hard about who was going to read it and whether it was going to result in a good or bad mark.

And I am all the better for it.

Doing good

Two years ago, I travelled to Indonesia to learn about alternative methods of delivering education. Education – and its ability to empower – had captured my interest for a long time. From the high school teachers that instilled in me the confidence to pursue seemingly impossible dreams to the piano students I fondly watched grow up, I was convinced that education was the “way out” of a fettered life – and I wanted to be part of that liberation.

Armed with nobel intentions, I found myself at a school for underprivileged children on the outskirts of Yogyakarta. The classroom had no desks or chairs; only the stubborn curiosity of 30 children with an intense eagerness to learn. 

I went to the school under the guise of a teaching internship, but the reality was that I learnt and gained so much more from being with the students than what I suspect they collectively gained from me. The people making a true difference were the dedicated teachers who gave up comfortable salaries to give these children a chance at a better life. I felt mostly like novelty.

I came home from Yogyakarta changed yet unchanged at the same time. If I am brutally honest with myself, I went to Indonesia for pretty selfish reasons. I wanted to understand the unfamiliar. I wanted to see a different corner of the world. I wanted to experience what life is like for impoverished communities, but with the reality that I can and will go back to a home in the developed world. 

Sometimes I wonder what these kids would think if they could understand why foreign people come into their communities – only to disappear again. We eagerly thrust ourselves into exotic places seeking life changing experiences from the daily reality for millions – if not billions – of people. We flock to the developing world chasing this idea of self-actualisation, whilst so many around us struggle to meet the very basic of needs.

And so, in this strange way, we seek fulfilment from the unfulfilled, richness from the poor.

Moving mountains

Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.

Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.

Robert Macfarlane

I remember, very vividly, the first time I stood on top of Mount Ngauruhoe. I was fifteen, naive, and adventurous. I remember standing on the edge of the crater – a sheer drop on either side of my feet – to catch my breath after the exhausting hike up to the summit. The feeling of insignificance was overwhelming; the mountain was completely indifferent to my existence. I could fall and die, and the mountain would not weep. I could grow old and frail, and the mountain would remain just as rugged and staunch.

The wilderness played to rules of a different game, to which I was not an actor.

Being at the edge gave me an acute awareness of my own fragility. I could slip, my knees could buckle, the volcano could erupt. My vulnerability stood in stark contrast to the immutable permanence of the mountains. There was no sympathetic ear for me to tell my story and my fears. I was alone.

Last week I climbed Ngauruhoe’s brother, Mount Tongariro. A similar feeling of insignificance swept through me, except that this time – seven years on – I was a little less naive. A part of me was seeking that feeling of vulnerability and to question my fears and doubts. In such a deeply connected world – where things that are nice to have become things that you want to have, and things that you want to have become things that you need to have –  it can be hard to be truly honest with yourself.

Today marks the turning of a new year by the Chinese lunar calendar (Happy Chinese New Year!) and it also marks my last day in Auckland. Time is, just like the mountains, unyielding and indifferent. It does not care whether I am ready to move on or whether I am ready to confront the changes and challenges that await. Each and every day, however spent, will always come to an end. And, without fail, a new day – full of promise and possibility – will come to replace it.

And so I ask myself: does it matter that I am ready? Does it matter that I might fail? Of all the complexities in life, what more can we really do as fragile beings… except to find the thing(s) worth chasing, and to then chase them until our heart is content.

The year of putting one foot in front of the other

2013 was the year of putting one foot in front of the other – and not always doing a very good job at it. The days and weeks seemed so strenuously long when I was caught up in the midst of it that it feels bizarre how quickly the new year has come around.

Earlier this evening, I jogged past a cafe just around the corner that made me smile the entire way back home. It was at this cafe that I toiled over my Rhodes Scholarship application, one month after my mother passed away and each day discovering that yes, it is possible to feel more exhausted than the day before, despite sleeping 12 hours a day and otherwise doing very little with my time. All this made for a lot of frustration and some serious writer’s block. There were many days where I would sit in the cafe and leave after a few hours, with nothing to show for it. Only an empty cup and the assortment of scrunched up serviettes could testify to my presence.

2013 was the year of countless mornings where being asleep felt infinitely better than the reality of being awake. Yet some part of me knew that if I could pull myself out of bed and into that cafe, somehow things would all turn out okay. Showing up was the first step; the rest – however daunting – would follow.

A lot of people believe that success is achieved through possessing extraordinary talent or having a secret “formula” to getting things done. I’m convinced that it’s actually the complete opposite. Turning up to that cafe every day and giving myself the space and patience to stare out the window for however long it took to start writing makes for a rather uninspiring story, but it got the job done – and getting it done was enough. It’s funny to think that of all the experiences I’ve had this year, it is the rather mundane memories like these that I treasure the most.

The new year ushers in a new bundle of uncertainty and opportunity, which is exhilarating yet also quite frightening in equal measure. I’ll be moving bases twice – down to Wellington at the end of the month and then to Oxford (all the way to the other side of the world) in September. I’m hoping that 2014 will be slightly less eventful, but perhaps the universe will disagree with me!

When we say things like “People don’t change” it drives scientists crazy. Because change is literally the only constant in all of science. Energy, matter, it’s always changing. Morphing. Merging. Growing. Dying. It’s the way people try not to change that’s unnatural. The way we cling to what things were instead of letting them be what they are. The way we cling to old memories instead of forming new ones. The way we insist on believing, despite every scientific indication, that anything in this lifetime is permanent. Change is constant. How we experience change, that’s up to us. It can feel like death, or it can feel like a second chance at life. If we open our fingers, loosen our grips, go with it, it can feel like pure adrenaline.

The things you learn on the road

Over the past few years, I’ve spent what feels like a majority of my time being “on the road”. Whether it is being physically away from home, or dealing with the little (or sometimes very big) curveballs that life throws at you, life “on the road” has been an interesting journey of self-discovery.

You learn so much about who you are and the things that drive you when routine is stripped from under your feet and your day-to-day surroundings dramatically altered. Life as you know it is gone, and the only constant is you – your fears, passions.

You can never take all of your physical belongings with you everywhere, but you always take your resilience and capacity for change. A fresh pair of eyes, perhaps. The determination to keep on moving.

I recently spent the two weeks before Christmas exploring two very different parts of Asia: Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong. I decided to travel Hong Kong alone, which in hindsight turned out to be a wonderful experience (although I have learned that meals are much better when they are shared with others). Travelling alone gave me the opportunity to reassess my perceptions about the world around me, challenge my assumptions about the way things are, and to question the entrenched principles that we adopt in our lives. In doing so, I decided to try and live according to three “rules” that I hope will make my footprint on the world a more positive one moving forwards.

RULE #1: DO WHAT SCARES YOU

I am incredibly risk averse by nature. I was not, in the words of an entrepreneurial friend, “born with a faulty risk sensor”. My sensor is stuck on HIGH mode and there are few things that I find more paralysing than fear. This is both a curse and a blessing – a curse, because I (alone) am the creator of my own limitations, but also a blessing, because these limitations are things that I can do something about.

I often find myself too afraid to say hello to someone that I want to meet, too afraid to offer an opinion that might be shot down, and too afraid to commit to uncertainty. The turning point was coming to the realisation that the things that I’m scared to do are actually the things that I really want to do. If the thought of doing something triggers physical and mental inertia, then that’s a pretty good indication that I should probably go ahead and do it. 

The beauty of travelling alone is that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself. There is no one else to rely on, and nothing to hide behind. At some point you just have to crawl out of your shell and get on with it. 

RULE #2: FOCUS ON WHAT YOU HAVE TO GIVE

I always struggle with my moral obligation to help others in need as a tourist overseas. As a young girl visiting China with my parents, I was taught to ignore street beggars and charity collectors because they were likely to be “scams”. Although some degree of cynicism is helpful when you’re travelling through a foreign place, I now try to give to those who seem particularly vulnerable, and especially to the elderly. After years of walking past and ignoring (unless I really couldn’t bear the thought of not giving), my default position is now to try and help those in need unless there is a good reason why I shouldn’t.

My second dilemma, after getting over any initial distrust, arises when I walk past several beggars – equally needy in my mind – over the course of a single day. If I gave money to the first person I saw today, do I still need to help the others that I encounter? As a society I think we are taught to feel that we have discharged our moral obligation to give to the needy or to do the socially responsible thing when we think we have given “enough” or have done our “good deed of the day”.

Doing something good achieves the effect of letting people “off the hook”. But financial constraints aside, I now think that there’s a lot more to giving than just ticking off your good deed of the day (week/month/year) box. Instead, we should think about whether we are able to give each step of the way.

RULE #3: SHARE A SMILE AND A LITTLE KINDNESS

It’s easy when you’re passing through a place to think of people as being cogs in a machine. As someone who likes good customer service, I used to react quite badly to rudeness overseas. After a while, you realise that it’s just part of how things work and that it’s nothing personal. Swallow your pride and ego, and make sure to treat every single person that you come across with respect, whether or not you’re likely to ever encounter them again (and irrespective of how you’re feeling at that particular moment). Look people in the eye and say please and thank you. Smile.

Give people the benefit of the doubt and be slow to make assumptions, because we always think we know more than we actually do. Check your attitude at the door and don’t take yourself (or your culture or country) too seriously. The best friends that I have made on the road are those who know how to put asides differences and laugh together.

HK(Hong Kong, from Victoria Peak – 18 December 2013)

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

To create your own life’s meaning

I stumbled upon this wonderful post about Bill Watterson today, who is the genius and creator behind Calvin and Hobbes. I really love how his deceptively simple cartoons capture such powerful insights about the human condition.

calvinandhobbes6

(this one is my favourite)

There are two quotes from his speech that I love (although the entire thing is a worthy read).

The first quote is about creating your own version of what a successful (read: meaningful) life entails:

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

The second is about asking questions:

Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.

Last week, while travelling through Hong Kong after a week in Vietnam, I remember talking to a Dutch friend about the things that we learn while on the road. We came to the conclusion that the most important things that people learn over a lifetime are the things that we often already “know”. The problem is that it takes time, experience, and mistakes for us to truly understand their meaning and significance.

I suppose this is why parents always end up being “right”, why reading a book for the second time can still feel fresh, and why, reading Bill Watterson’s speech again two years after coming across it for the first time, his words can still provide so much guidance for the journey ahead.