by Benjamin Loh, Alumnus, SMU School of Accountancy
Around the same time, four years back, I was in my graduation gown, donning my mortar board and hosting the Commencement Ceremony for my Class of 2012 at the SMU School of Accountancy.
Emotions ran high and the crowd was evidently jubilant—from what I recall—as I looked at the 400 to 500 warm bodies in the auditorium from my vantage point on stage, at Suntec Convention Hall.
Amidst cheesy scripted lines with my co-emcee, brilliant tear-jerking song and performances and the mandatory congratulatory speeches from important people, I couldn’t help but wonder… what’s ahead for me?
Of course, I wish I could have it easy—kind of like how I was following a “script” (of sorts) for the good part of my schooling years and all the way to hosting the commencement ceremony for my fellow graduating peers—where there are clear guidelines on what I need to say or do.
Four years down the road, I’m in the same venue again seeing the thousands of undergraduates from my alma mater.
In these four years, I’ve published a book, left my first job to do pursue my dream speaking and coaching career, gotten married, secured a Masters degree, and still mostly amazed with what life has to offer. It’s like I’m seeing myself in them again — all wide-eyed, visibly relieved that the academic hustle has come to an end, and not quite aware of what’s to come in this big unknown world.
If I could share some advice to myself four years ago (and to the current class of 2016), here’s what I’d share:
1. Seek to Discover Yourself, Not to Settle
At this point in time, you should have either secured your first job, decided on running that business you’ve been working on during university years (while skipping classes), or will be continuing to pursue further education. Or maybe, you are still frustrated with the job search process while being consumed with anxiety and doubt as to why you haven’t heard back from that recruiter.
Whatever the case is, I want you to know that the next few years ahead will not be as significant as the whole life ahead of you. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it right the first time round. Treat your first job (or course of study) as a process of discovery: What kind of work brings out the best in you? When are the moments you truly shine? Why will you willingly invest your whole self into an endeavour?
Don’t be complacent just because you’ve gotten that good corporate consulting/FMCG/banking brand name on your CV, or be conceited with that swanky title or some promised perks coming your way. Take a break when you need to, but don’t get too comfortable and settle.
All of these “achievements” will be fleeting but what you uncover and discover within and for yourself, will be yours to keep for life. That gift of self-awareness — people spend their whole lives searching from the outside, but never within.
2. Seek Deep Feedback, Not Meaningless Affirmation
You will probably, at some point, fail or fumble at your professional work or business. Hopefully, not in a spectacular or embarrassing fashion. And no, not on the wrong side of the law and ethics.
If, and when, you do make a mistake, have faith that your youth and experience (or lack thereof) are never your handicaps. But rather, the de facto license for you to experiment boldly, dive into new areas that school and your teachers never taught you, and truly embrace learning and personal growth with humility. Treat mistakes, the accompanying lessons, and the painful emotions as deep feedback to bring out the best version of you.
At the same time, don’t chase after meaningless affirmation. Don’t just seek to be in the good books of your bosses and clients but seek to be a person of value and worth, as defined in your own book. Don’t just swoon at those empty and cursory words of praises from pretentious people and filter out the critical but essential advice, which are often disguised as harsh and tough words, from people who truly care for your well-being. And of course, don’t just filter out those “failures”.
3. Seek Excellence From Yourself, Not Competition With Others
As the Chinese saying goes,
“There’s always another mountain higher.” (一山还有一山高）
No matter what work you do, you will be measured. You will be compared to and bench-marked against others. Accept this as a truth and nature of life and work. In this instant, you can choose to indulge in a senseless competition of who is wealthier, smarter, more connected, handsome or endowed. But this will almost mean that you will never really be satisfied. It’s like chasing after your own tail.
Researchers have shown that once you hit a certain income bracket, the increase in your happiness levels will be marginal.
I know it will be hard for you to stomach this but the most sustainable and meaningful way of getting ahead is not to compete against others, but to strive for excellence by competing with yourself. To always be better today than how you were yesterday.
When you compete with others, you may be momentarily satisfied when you win and devastated when you lose. But when you compete with yourself constantly and seek to better yourself in the spirit of excellence, you will win in the game of life.
Even if, you may not be the wealthiest, smartest and most adorned individual around.
4. Seek Mentors & Self Education, Not Grandiose Achievements
At every corner of your life, there will be a few “special” individuals planted into your life by some higher powers above.
They may be abrasive and unlikable, or even insignificant or unsightly at first. But it is through interacting with them, where you find that they sometimes bring out the best (and worst) in you. We call these ‘guardian angels’, your mentors. Mentors can be the first colleague you meet at work, a manager, CEO, client from hell, or they could also be that stranger you happen to sit next to at a conference, the security guard who greets you with the unceasing cheerfulness or the cleaning aunty who keeps your work space organized and clean with quiet dedication, never expecting more.
Whatever or whoever they are, they will be your best teachers in life. But as the saying goes,
“The teacher appears when the student is ready.”
So never, for a moment, think you’ve arrived or are above learning. Never think you’re too smart in the room — you shouldn’t be. Be a student for and of life.
You may have more “alphabets” in front of your name, but if you’ve never truly been open to introspection and sought education from mentors in your life with the propensity to learn and grow, those alphabets would make better sense in a can of soup.
At least, they keep you satiated for one good meal.
5. Seek the Richness of Life, Not the Riches of Life
Once you start work, it is so easy to get lured into the rat race, whether by choice or circumstance. The monthly paycheck, prestigious hi-so functions and events with the ultra-rich, and the climb to the top for more and more wealth. The swanky yacht trips (that have been as commonplace as brunches these days), fast cars, timepieces with 5-figures price tags, branded fashion wear and what have you… It’s as if, if you’re not in the “millionaire” or rich boys (or girls) club, there’s a severe #FOMO (fear of missing out).
As much as it’s easy to “upgrade” your lifestyle (think more luxurious holidays, shopping, cars and bigger houses) when the financial rewards come your way, you’ll realise that the richness of life does not always need to come at a hefty price tag.
Travel simply and see the world for its true beauty, go for that solo backpacking trip you’ve always dreamt about, write and give birth to that book of yours, make some (good) music, strike off items from your bucket list, mentor someone younger when you’re in the capacity to give, pick up a new craft and hobby, learn a new language, further your studies, keep a pet, cook up a storm, take a sabbatical, dedicate time for your meditation retreat, fall in love with someone….most importantly, fall in love with yourself.
There is so much richness that life can offer which ironically doesn’t require one to be filthy rich to enjoy. And yes, spend time with your ageing parents too. It’s part of that richness you may not always be able to afford.
Treasure life and truly seek the richness of it. However short it may be.
I wish you luck, love and lots of faith for your beautiful life ahead.
Benjamin Loh is an Executive Public Speaking Coach, TEDx Speaker, Author and Professional Speaker on Millennial Matters. As the youngest Associate Certified Coach in Singapore and possibly, Asia-Pacific, he has coached over 100 corporate executives and entrepreneurs individually with over 750 hours of direct coaching and trained over 3,000 clients in high impact mass trainings in public speaking, presentation skills and leading the multi-generational workforce and Millennials. His work in entrepreneurship and public speaking has been featured on over 60 occasions on both local and regional media platforms like Channel News Asia (CNA), Vietnam QKTV, BFM Malaysia, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), Straits Times (ST), Business Times (BT) and News938 Live. http://www.benjaminloh.sg
The original version of this article was published here