The Myth of Ambition

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By Lynn Hong (18A13A)

In the centre of our school crest, there sits a double-headed eagle. One head draws insight from the past and the other peers into the future. It is a symbol of empire, but to me it also depicts crossroads. I find this fitting, because junior college seems to be less of an educational institute in its own right than a preparation for national exams and Life After Education – a journey involving many difficult decisions.

We’ve been told to study hard and work towards getting into a good university course, so we can find a “good job”. Following this linear progression of success, choosing the right subject combination or applying for the right Monday Enrichment Programme becomes decisive in well, our whole life’s trajectory. I say this only half in jest; in the educational rat race, every minute choice could well be the difference between rejection and a place at a prestigious university, so we are encouraged to make decisions with our larger ambitions in mind. The pressure is on us to, at the tender age of 17 or 18, have concrete plans for the future. But is this early preparation really crucial, or is the need for ambition right now just a myth?

A confluence of environmental and intrinsic factors work to perpetuate this myth of ambition. We’ve all heard about, or even met in person, prodigies endowed with exceptional skill in a particular area. We all know the typical success story: the person in question has often had a goal since young, which they then worked ceaselessly to achieve. Think Jake Andraka, who at 16, developed a cheap and accurate pancreatic cancer diagnostic test using open source information. He later won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2013. Or Rafflesian alum, Kenneth Chow (14S06I) who represented Singapore at the World Robocup at aged 12 and won team second in Year 3 without guidance. He then founded the Centre of Robotic Excellence before his A Levels. These accounts seem to push the time scale of preparation for “greatness” further back, necessitating commitment at an early age.

This notion is reinforced by this school environment. The student the school brands a model Rafflesian or the classmate you valorise is the student not only with stellar results, a leadership position and success in their CCA, but crucially, with a passion. It could be for a social cause, a sport, or an academic discipline. We put a premium on passion, and the direction and focus that comes with it. Surrounded by driven peers with concrete goals, in an institution claiming pioneers in almost every field, it is no surprise we feel the pressure to start laying out plans for the future.

These external pressures tend to prey on our innate desire for success, no matter how it is defined. Raised on a diet of success stories and an institutional doctrine of exceptionalism, seasoned with a healthy dose of our own pride, there lurks in the back of our minds the expectation that we should amount to something in the future. I therefore feel a niggling anxiety when I can only waffle a few platitudes about “keeping my options open” in response to the inescapable question about my future occupation or course of study.

In searching for our pathway to success, we look into the nooks and crannies of our past and into our hazy projections of our possible futures. Our decision-making calculuses can hardly begin to cope with the uncertainty of life beyond schooling. In the education system, our choices are more simplistic, with limited options. The goals of being a student are straightforward – do well in school, develop your skill sets, bide your time. Larger decisions about our lives and our larger purpose are deferred to adulthood.

We now find ourselves on the cusp of these more momentous, even existential, decisions. Here there exists a plethora of educational options, leading to innumerable career possibilities – some entirely divorced from your course of study, others not yet in existence. The number of options has expanded exponentially, defying simplistic cost-benefit analysis. We come from a background of studying to the test. What happens when there is no clear way to maximise opportunities and success, and no definitive picture of what that success looks like anyway?

The subjective and multi-faceted nature of success doesn’t stop us from trying to pin it down. Many of us resort to relying on buzzwords and awkwardly truncated understandings, pigeonholing our aspirations into a spread of typical careers. To many, a “meaningful” job is one serving the downtrodden in the social sector, or saving the world with healthcare and research, or becoming an artist articulating the human condition. These professions fall victim to our romantic imagination, the one and the same prompting us to scorn the perceived banality of other jobs. To think that we have to make an absolute commitment to a profession at this age is to run the risk of corralling our potential into archetypes, instead of being open to a range of options.

In the headlong rush of booth-hopping on Career and Scholarship Day, we tend to forget the times when it was serendipity piecing together our futures, not our careful orchestration ten years prior. Steve Jobs put it eloquently in his commencement speech at Stanford University: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward”. For every example of meticulously constructed plans bringing fulfilment and success, there is another of someone stumbling into their profession or passion. Stephen King’s moment of epiphany came as he chanced upon a H. P. Lovecraft collection of short stories belonging to his father. Local clothing brand Love, Bonito was started as a passion project between two friends. Sometimes, we find answers when we happen to be in the right place at the right time. Giving ourselves more opportunities to explore could be a strategy as valid as a concrete plan.

Our answers do not have to be absolute – this isn’t an exam, where you can’t change your answer after submitting the paper. I once asked the adults around me how they started in their current professions. While it was true that some professions were more impermeable past certain decision points, more often than not, their journeys were filled with trial and error. Stepping back, it seems vaguely laughable that we corner ourselves with the belief that the shape of a whole life is condensed into the decisions we make at 18. Perhaps “adulthood” is not just a contiguous block of time, but a period punctuated by jumping ships and discovery amidst changing circumstances. Steve Jobs started out selling illegal telephone hacking equipment after dropping out of college. Jason Lim (who founded Men-Tei, rated by food bloggers as amongst the best ramen restaurants in Singapore) started out in the police force. Though littered with obstacles, there are many roads to Rome and beyond.

We will never again have a fixed syllabus detailing assessment requirements, and will never again be able to predict the future by simply consulting a school-wide event calendar. The ability to make the “best” decision, or a way to identify the most promising opportunity with the highest probability of success, doesn’t exist. We can only hope to make decent decisions given our imperfect information, of ourselves and the world we live in, at this point in time. This is liberating, in a way. Knowing that it’s impossible to find a foolproof solution means accepting that the certainty of knowing past and future is only a myth. Like so many before us, we can only learn as we go to put more trust in our own field of vision.

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