defragment.me

This is it: The genius who wanted to change the world but couldn’t save himself

*This post may contain spoilers if you didn't watch the movie.*

I just watched "This is it" at the movies. I was teary from the beginning, amazed during the middle and totally in tears at the end. I hope to pen down my thoughts about Michael Jackson and the movie when the after-thoughts are still fresh as there was many a time that I had very much wanted to write but just couldn't remember enough when I had time to do so. So, this may end up being totally unstructured but it is the thought that counts right?

My personal review

The movie was better than expected, though I did hope to see more of his personal side. You will see that undeniable brilliance of Michael Jackson. His genius. How he has that innate artistic ability to direct his crew at his concert. Little details like pauses longer here and there, requests for the musical beats to be simpler, how he always had to attain perfection on stage. I was blown away. Now we all know he was in such poor health and spirit, yet he was able to dance and sing for hours. He could have just gone through the motions, but no, he fussed over details, made sure his crew knew that he appreciated them, and gave them a chance to shine on stage.

I am very grateful for the chance to experience his genius by watching the movie. How he knew every inch and note of his music. How he could detect the slightest, most subtle change in the music arrangement or alter the entire effect of the choreography by moving a few seconds. How he showed his very generous and humane side by asking his female guitarist to make good use of her chance to display her own genius. He even knew how to direct in specifics for the videos to be shown during the concert. I just don't know how someone can be so extremely talented.

Watching the concert redefined the concept of "hard-work" for me. I feel sorry about all the times I complain about working hard when a quite literally broken man like MJ could work so hard.

Concert that was never to be, deserved to be shown live

I feel upset because the entire production deserved to be shown live. Seriously. To me, the world missed an amazing concert. The band and dancers were the cream of the crop, the stage production was just too good for words to describe, everyone was just putting in their best effort and talent on show. I felt very, very sorry for the crew, really. So much planning, hard work, anticipation that went into the preparation, that would never see the light of the day if not for the movie.

I don't care whether it is an attempt to cash-in on his death, it is just something that is very worth experiencing. The concert that never was did not belong to MJ alone, it is only fair that the amount of work and the come-together of all these talent get shown to the world. I really hope that many people will get to watch it, not only for the concert itself, but for all the messages MJ wanted to carry to us but never had the chance to. I cannot help the tears that come to my eyes each time I think how heartbroken and devastated the crew was because they clearly adore him and put in so much just to be able to share the stage with the great man.

On Michael's death

I actually penned half a post a few months ago after MJ passed away. To be really honest, I was never a huge fan of him and I thought he was just about snazzy dance moves and feel-good music. However, being the curious info-junkie I am, I read up quite a bit of him after his passing and was particularly moved by a tribute penned by Deepak Chopra. I was very much intrigued that the well-known spiritual teacher was a good friend of MJ and his intricate, expressive writing shed a lot of light on the sensitive, kind, soul that MJ had.

One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was re-listening to his music, pouring over his lyrics and reading up whatever that would give a little more information on the mystery of the greatly talented but visibly broken soul.

Then, I poured my thoughts and emotions into that post, but I never got to finishing it. It was too personally empathetic and I did not want anybody to perceive that I was comparing myself to the great man. I will never understand how much burden (neither will anyone else) it was to bear that sheer amount of talent but I can personally identify with the pain, self-torture and the isolation. Not to that extent of course, but that is precisely the point. What I feel on a personal level is already enough to drive me to the brink at times, what about the scale he had to endure?

A blessing & a curse

I have two theories on why so many talented artistes die young. One, is that there are not enough highly talented souls to go by on this earth so they will need to do short lifespans in order to reincarnate quickly enough to inspire generation after generation (yes I can picture you rolling your eyes now). Two, is that the burden of immense talent is just so difficult to bear that they either kill themselves (Leslie Cheung), or die of drug overdose in an attempt to nullify the pain (Heath Ledger, MJ).

I mean, can you imagine doing one mind-blowing hit or performance and the entire world expects you to churn that out on a regular basis? And if you don't, they automatically assume you're finished. The public is impatient, cruel and does not possess much empathy. Right now, I am just referring to expectations from people and I have not even started on self-expectations yet.

The one that makes you breaks you.

Apart from having to cope with the public glare, they have themselves to cope with. I am not sure which is worse. They expect themselves to out-do their previous efforts every single time. This is ironically what makes them great. The relentless pursuit of greater heights. It is also the same thing that breaks them.

It is a constant nightmare having to face the fears of regressing in terms of the quality of the work. The fear of having that sick feeling when they cannot produce something that at least matches their previous successes. Or the fear of never experiencing the feeling you get when you are at the brink of greatness, again. Or when the look of adulation and admiration in people's eyes become disappointment and distaste.

I can totally empathise why they may need substances to help them sleep or to numb their pain. I am not saying that it is the right thing to do, but I can feel why they will do anything just to shut that part of them out. That inner-critic that refuses to let go. Who repeatedly tells them that they're never good enough. The one who mocks them at being done.

I believe that artistes in general have a particularly strong sensitive nature to them and it enables them to infuse this sensitivity into their work. One who is able to be extra sensitive towards emotions, sounds, sights, sub-liminal stimulation, will be able to get inspired and project these during the creation process. I have learnt that everything is a double-edged sword. It is also the same sensitivity that makes these people prone to depression because they take everything (especially criticism or failure) personally and/or they cannot differentiate their own feelings from people's feelings.

He probably loved everything but himself

MJ was exceptionally sensitive and empathetic, you don't have to know him to know that because you can already feel it in his songs. He shows awareness singing "Man in the Mirror",  love penning the lyrics for "We are the World" and "Heal the World", sadness for the state of the world writing "Earth Song". I would feel that he is very much spiritually aware. In the movie you would see him telling his crew that "love is very important and you must love each other", and significantly, that "we are all one". Anyone with heart can feel that he genuinely cares and it is not some attempt at a publicity stunt.

It is extremely heartbreaking and ironic because he clearly felt that he had a mission to spread the message of loving the planet and people should love one another; but he couldn't love himself. He couldn't love himself enough to appreciate his natural good looks, he didn't love himself enough to overcome all the negative criticisms, he didn't love himself enough to tell himself that he was already perfect enough being himself and he didn't have to be better looking or to keep on achieving greater heights just to prove to himself and the world that – he deserved being loved.

It certainly didn't help that the world is particularly harsh and judgmental. He was different, he was an unique individual who was so severely misunderstood as being weird and he had to pay the price for it. He was meant to be nurtured and protected, but all we did was to expose it to abuse and judgment, like we tend to do to everything that does not feel similar or familiar to us.

Before anyone should want to criticise him, they should consider that they will never be able to understand the internal and external pressure he had to face; so what makes them feel that they will do better in his shoes?

Creating my own reality

I've spent most of my life doing two things – escaping from reality & trying to live in it. I alternate between the two, trying my best to run away from everything that is real and feeling miserable trying to cope with what is real. It was not a very happy existence.

They say when you hit the bottom of the pit, there is no where else to go except upwards.  I was feeling totally miserable with my existence, feeling that nobody ever understood me, almost resigned that my life was just destined to be a crappy one. I have tried everything I could to make things work for me, to make people who care for me happy, to survive in reality.

Surrendering

One day, I simply gave up.

The honest truth was that, I have reached my bottom of the pit, decided that my life was never going to get better, and the only reason why I did not take my life then was because I was a believer of karma and I really did not think it was a good idea to repeat what I have gone through this lifetime in my next life. That was a horrible thought, to go through all that pain and suffering once again – ironically this kept me alive.

I had decided that since my existence was already going to be totally screwed up, then I might as well just play along with it. Since I have already been through a pile of shit, it would not make much difference to go through more. From that moment of realisation, I made the conscious decision to stop trying to make people happy by living my life the way they want and to live my life the way I want, since the worst that could happen to me was to screw it up further, which by then I was already somewhat used to it. The people that care for me, can continue to remain unhappy, as I have given my best and they did not seem much happier, in fact, I was only making them feel worse.

It was like a mathematical equation. One person being happy (myself) > all of us being unhappy together.

Redefining reality

I quit my job, went on a month's long backpacking trip with my partner, which opened my eyes to the possibility of me being truly happy. During the trip we had met different people. There was the guesthouse owner who made her fortune selling rice, and was excitedly pointing out to us which property belonged to her. We were strangers, but she simply offered her help when I mentioned that we needed to extend my visa. She was rich, but unfamilarly real. She cried when we left, oafter spending only 2 days with us.

There was another lady we met staying at another guesthouse. She taught us how to ride a motorbike (for free), we gave her plenty of smiles and she gave us plenty of laughter. There were other backpackers who did not seem to be bothered by the outer-reality of the world, choosing to travel and live in the moment. There were plenty of people who did not bother with having a job and climbing social/corporate ladders. I have finally found that part of the world, the world that was contented with simple pleasures of life and did not equate success with having a life-long iron ricebowl.

I have actually learnt rather retardedly, that having nomadic tendencies was not wrong, trying to be happy was not wrong, and not being interested in the material world was not wrong. There were other people like me, I was just blinded by the reality that exists in my own country.

That was my first step to that knowledge that reality is relative.

What is reality?

It is only defined by your own experience, along with the experiences of people around you. For me, I had to live in the reality created by the people who were with me. That cold, harsh reality that they painted for me. That I must have a job, I must live my life the way 'everyone' else seems to be living, or else I will not survive. I had to listen to countless "...but this is reality!". It is their reality that they have to be stuck in jobs they do not love, because everyone else's reality says so, or your survival will be threatened. I was sucked into their reality, living in a life I felt that did not fit me. I was made to feel like it was a crime to not want to be in that reality.

I had to listen to countless "...but this is reality!".

I was their idealist, their escapist, to them I was in denial of reality. If I had a dollar for every shake of the head I've encountered so far in my life, I would have been a millionaire.

To people living in rural areas, planting their vegetable, leading a really simplistic life everyday, was their reality. I came across old couples, young children, living in really poor conditions. Yet, they had the sparkle in their eyes.

It gave me a lot to ponder. I began asking myself a lot of questions.

  • We're all individuals, we're all unique. How come there's so many of us try to live like the majority of the others?
  • If everyone of us is unique, why is it so unacceptable that some people are happy to be tied to their iron ricebowls, and some people are better off being a floater?
  • Why do we try so hard to disown our individuality when it should be protected and celebrated?

For my whole life I've been consciously trying to disown that unique self of mine, and I have developed a low self-esteem for all the criticism I received by trying to be myself. I felt unloved, and I thought I did not deserved to be loved, because I was creating so much unhappiness for the people who loves me.  I hated myself for being the person I was, I hated myself for not being able to 'face reality', for not being like the rest of the world I know.

Discovering that reality is relative was the key turning point in my life.

After so many years of conditioning to believe otherwise, it was not easy. Even till today I still get the little niggles of self-doubt, but I started to learn how to love myself and appreciate my own individuality. I am who I am, and I am also what I believe.

It is so simple, yet very few people realise that:

  • Why should anybody believe in you if you don't believe in yourself?
  • Same goes for self-love. One does not find true love unless you accept and love yourself for who you are.

The moment I gave up on reality, I discovered and created my own.

My own designed reality now consists of:

  • Waking up whenever I want
  • Doing the work that I love
  • People that love me finally accepting me for the person I am, once they saw me truly happy (which occured because I started to live for myself)
  • Still not having a job
  • On my way to being a global nomad – traveling and working wherever and whenever I want
  • Finding and being with my true love (which will only happen if you believe true love exists)

You can create your own reality, if only you believe in it in the first place.

The pain of swimming against the flow

Many people go out of their way to be unique. They spend tons of money to buy that item nobody has, or to make themselves look better than others. Work their entire lives to be at the top, or to be at the center of attention. I have actually spent most of my life trying to be like others, to fit in, to stick out less like a sore thumb.

The childhood

I am not sure when was the exact moment in my life when I discovered I was unlike most, or at least, most of the people around me. A vivid recollection was of myself when I was 5, looking out of a window of a 10th floor apartment, wondering how it feels like to die. I was contemplating life, wondering what was the meaning, why do people want to live, when at the end of the day, no matter how you lived your life, it comes to naught. I was wondering why do I have to spend 70 years living to die.

I did not know at that point, that 5 year old kids shouldn't be thinking about life and death.

The education

I did not enjoy school very much, I could not talk to my peers. I tried very hard to be part of cliques, to feel that I belong somewhere. While the other girls are talking about shopping and boys, I was more intrigued with computers and design. The other kids tried to outdo each other academically, and I just wanted either my life or my education to end. I never liked to study, when the definition of the term equated to storing as much information as you can in your memory in order to excel in school. I was criticized endlessly for being lazy and complacent, when all I wanted was for someone to ask me whether I was even interested in what was being taught. Not that we had much of a choice when it comes to education in our system.

At 18 I made a huge decision to stand up against my parents and drop out of the diploma course I was studying for 1.5 years. The irony was I was in the course in the first place to try to please them, to be like the rest. What I really wanted to do was design, but it was deemed as the course with not much of a future, so I opted for the 'safe' compromise, a course in Information Technology. It did not take me long to learn that enjoying fixing computers was not the same as trying to comprehend data structures and algorithms. I excelled only in the soft programming modules and failed miserably at the rest. It was not about the tough work needed to complete the course, it was about being stuck in the industry after graduation for the rest of my life.

For quitting the course, my mom asked me what did she do to deserve a daughter like me. Again, the pain of being different.

For quitting the course, my mom asked me what did she do to deserve a daughter like me.

The career

I entered the workforce at age 19, filled with hope and idealism, thinking that finally am able to do what I love to do. I have chosen this path myself and I would be happy on it. I was wrong. I did not anticipate the employers taking advantage of my youth and naiveity, I was willing to work for very little money just to be able to do what I love to do. I was underpaid, overworked, and mis-managed. That I could accept.

I was underpaid, overworked, and mis-managed. That I could accept.

I could not accept the employer who told me to copy an idea directly from an award annual, or the employer who was evading debt which made the suppliers hound me endlessly, or the job when I spent 6 months doing nothing, or the partners of the firm who could not stand each other and ended up using the employees to spite one another, or the one who allowed the clients to art-direct, even if it meant that the work came out looking worse than crap. Seriously and honestly, these were what I went through job after job, still trying to find that one company which is passionate about the work, the company whose beliefs are aligned with mine.

I had spent seven years trying to be like others, because the society looked down on those who cannot keep a job. In between jobs I was once so disillusioned that I took on a temp job with an insurance company as an administrative assistant, just to avoid having my heart broken again.

It was a very simple wish, and perhaps its simplicity made it even more difficult. I simply wished for a firm that does good work, a firm that believed in its people and would treat them right.  I did not care about the money, the hype or the benefits. I just wanted to grow as a designer and do good work, and if possible, find a mentor.

I just wanted to grow as a designer and do good work, and if possible, find a mentor.

The harsh reality is, in Singapore's small and very competitive economy, it is difficult for a firm to stand firm in their beliefs and not end up boot-licking clients just to survive. There are a few, but only the very best worked for these. I was not good enough to be one of the very best, or would not be considered because of the lack of big names in my resume or the lack of a formal design education.

My desire to be a good designer was so intense that I wrote several cold letters to carefully chosen design studios for an internship, at the point of my career when I can comfortably take a senior position in a mid-sized firm. I consciously chose not to apply for work in big firms because I knew I would be pigeon-holed to work on a single client account. In all honesty I do not think I can be really creative staring at the same products for the length of my tenure.

Eventually one of the firms responded, but the situation did not last long, due to one of the human-related reasons mentioned above.

Time after time, I had my heart broken, and the people around me never failed to show me their disappointment. I loved my work, and because of trying to stay true to my own beliefs, I ended up disappointing those who love me. In their minds they are probably wondering why I cannot be like the rest that went to universities to get any degree, gotten a stable job, and settled down. I simply cannot stay in a job for the sake of staying in a job. Once, I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to find a job that I love, and she laughed in my face, saying that it does not exist. I would have been a very different person today if I had taken her seriously.

I simply cannot stay in a job for the sake of staying in a job.

The struggle

It is not easy to be different, to swim away from the mainstream. People misunderstand, people get let down when you don't fulfill society's expectations. When the people involved are the people you love, it is of no wonder that I have spent many years of my life trying to follow the rest and struggling with my heart. I went into a vicious cycle, whereby I would try to make a compromise, make a safe decision, and I would be unhappy, which was a matter of time that I would listen to my heart and bail out. I would tell myself not to repeat the same mistake, and I must be true to myself, but I would succumb to people's expectations again.

Deep in my heart, I just wanted to make the people who love me proud of me.

Deep in my heart, I just wanted to make the people who love me proud of me. However, in trying to do so, in attempting to live my life the way people wanted me to, I became really unhappy, and when I can no longer accept the situation, these people get disappointed again.

I realised I have ended up hurting them more by trying to be the person they want me to be.

In my next post I will write about why I gave up employment, how a series of epiphanies made me realise that I should take ownership of my own life and be proud of my individuality.

Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play it safers, the creatures of the common place, the slaves of the ordinary

Cecil Beaton, cited from To Dare, KR Connect

If two people think alike all the time, one of them is redundant.

Jim Avery, cited from Cholesterol, Airbag Industries