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.