I grew up in a traditional Chinese family with my grandmother being my main caregiver. This was a family where boys were often favoured over girls, where being book-smart is more important than being street-smart and where reasoning your way out with elders would only be rewarded with a slap. There were so many rules to follow as a kid, with more rules coming your way each time you break one. I found it extremely hard to follow all these restrictive rules until one day my mum spoke to me when I was about twelve years old.
Possibly the worst three words coming from my mum because there was just so much anticipation over what the conversation would entail.
The conversation turned out way better than I thought. No more rules for the budding teenager. Except for one:
Do anything you want, just don’t break the law.
It was a huge relief for me to be free from all the restriction but at the same time, it wasn’t easy to follow this one rule. As I grew older, I realized that the sole purpose of this rule was to keep me safe (at least from the hands of the law) but it didn’t help me thrive. Nevertheless, I was glad I had that conversation with my mum and that one rule had since become a guiding principle for the way I lead my life.
As I build my own family now, I start to think about the values I can impart to my kids. Besides just inculcating the right moral values, I felt the importance of helping them thrive too. Balancing between giving them the freedom to lead their lives and ensuring that they stay on the right track is a delicate act. So with my limited life experience, here are 3 life lessons that I’d want my kids to remember:
. . .
1. Everything in life is relative
When I was younger, I was lucky that I was slightly more book-smart than my peers. I wasn’t the smartest kid but at least I was the smarter one. During Chinese New Year gatherings, there was always an impetus for families to compare everything from their kids’ grades to how much they spent on their latest vacation. My family didn’t fare that well when it came to spending because we were from the lower-middle income. But because I had slightly better grades than the rest of the kids, I was considered the smartest and brightest. What the uncles and aunties didn’t know was that there were only a few classes in my school and in hindsight, probably made it easier for me to top the class. There’s a Chinese saying, 一山还有一山高 which roughly translates to there’s always a higher mountain higher than this one. Understanding this fact made me realize this:
You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be better.
The same concept applies in a working environment. Imagine a job interview where there are three candidates including you. Even if you’re not a perfect fit for the job, you’ll only have to be better than the other two in order to get selected. Putting it in the context of school, most schools grade according to a normal distribution (which is why many students pray to the bell-curve god nowadays). This means that even if you score a 90, you are still last in class if everyone else scores a 95.
Recently, I attended this course by Yale University: The Science of Well-Being and that gave me the science behind why everything is relative. One annoying feature of our minds is that it doesn’t think in terms of absolutes. We all have ever-changing reference points that we compare ourselves or others with. Be it good grades, good pay, perfect body or perfect relationships, we already are constantly comparing ourselves to see if we’re better.
The key takeaway I want my kids to learn is that it’s okay to not be the best. It is good enough if you can be better than most people around you. Having said that, it’s also important to constantly push yourself to be around better people so that you can improve further.
. . .
2. Pick your battles
Like I said earlier, I wasn’t very good with following the plethora of rules set in my family. This led to a lot of punishment and back then, respectful parenting wasn’t quite a thing yet. I used to reason as much as I could and fight back if I needed to but that often led to more punishment. Fighting back every single time not only was tiring but was highly ineffective. Over time, I started to accept the fact that I just couldn’t win against the almighty authoritative figures in the household who could set rules like this:
After being tame for a while and accepting whatever punishment that came along, it suddenly struck me that I shouldn’t be accepting my fate as it is. The next time I “broke a rule”, I fought hard for it and managed to get my point heard. It was this out of the norm behaviour that made my parents stop and think that maybe it was time to hear me out.
Lose a battle, win the war
We all have limited physical and mental resources. Fighting battles require a lot of energy and it is important that we understand what we are fighting for. Sometimes we get hung up about winning that we forget what the whole fight is about. As we grow older, the number of battles increase drastically (whether it is at the workplace or at home or with friends) and knowing which battles to fight and which to leave for another day is critical to being successful in life.
The three considerations that I have for choosing which battles to fight for are:
- will the outcome of this fight have a huge enough impact on my life?
- will I have another chance to address this issue again if the outcome is unfavourable?
- how important is winning this fight (compared to the other pending fights that I may have) Read: life lesson 1 above about reference points
While my strategy may not be the best and different people would have different ways of choosing their battles, I’d still want my kids to understand that in life,
Just win those that matter.
. . .
3. C’est La Vie
I came across this phrase in Fish Leong’s song back in 2007 and was curious about what it meant.
A better and more meaning definition is that certain things in life happen and you just have to move on. While this may seem like a nonchalant response to everything that happens in life, it helped me get through many difficult situations.
I was an avid basketballer and if hashtags were popular back in the days, mine would be #ballislife. About ten years ago, I suffered a devastating ACL tear to my knee that would keep me off competitive basketball forever. It wasn’t a life-threatening injury and proper rehabilitation would probably allow me to play competitively again. After my surgery, I had to go through a long and expensive physiotherapy process which I gave up halfway due to the lack of funds. There were also more important priorities like school that I had to focus on so spending too much time and money on rehabilitation wasn’t an option. I was really sad when I realised I could not go back to playing at the level I was used to and that all of these start becoming faded memories. It was also around the same time when I got hooked to the song C’est La Vie and that kept me going on in life.
Sometimes you don’t realise how certain things are just meant to be. In a recent conversation with my wife, we talked about how life for each of us would turn out if we didn’t meet each other. That made me realise that if I didn’t injure my knee, I wouldn’t have joined a community service club and I wouldn’t have met her, the love of my life.
In the same wellbeing course that I attended recently, we learned about hedonic adaptation. This means that we humans are more resilient than we think and we can adjust to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major negative or positive life events. Think of a time where you’ve scored badly in an exam. When we receive bad results, we think that we would be sad for a long time. However, this feeling doesn’t last as long as we think and we go back to feeling normal again very quickly.
The key lesson I want my kids to take away from this is that
Life goes on, with or without you
After a negative event in life, life goes on. They can choose to be frozen in time and wallow in self-pity but, life goes on. They can also choose to pick themselves up and channel that energy into building a better future because, life goes on. Make the best out of everything that they have so that life goes on better for them.
. . .
These three life lessons have guided me well throughout my life so far and I hope they will be a shining beacon for my children too.
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Caleb Tan