Late bloomers

“The fashion in recent times has been for the young to hold centre stage as if they were the only important form of human being.”
– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

For the February 2015 issue of Together magazine, I wrote about “Late Bloomers”.

I consider myself a bit of a late bloomer. My love of writing, reading and philosophy only came to me later in life. I certainly recall hating reading as a child and the only writing I enjoyed was doodling a few poems here and there on the back cover of my exercise books. As for philosophy, well that involved reading so enough said. I did, however, have an inquisitive mind.

I was (and am) particularly struck by very talented people who also happen to be very young. Unfortunately, it is more out of envy rather than awe or admiration. To appease my jealousy and reassure me that it’s ok to be one, I embarked upon a quest to discover late bloomers. I learnt about many a late bloomer, some to my surprise and perhaps to yours.

Although it’s wonderful to marvel at the great, late bloomers, we should just as well welcome the lesser known ones: those who flourished in adversity; or those that found joy in finally finding something they enjoy doing and became good at, e.g. cooking, aromatherapy, mentoring, DIY.

Here’s a short excerpt to entice you with the link to the magazine. It’s on page 29 of the magazine (p. 15 of the Pdf). Alternatively you can read a shortened online version. But to get a good sense of what I’m talking about, read the full magazine version.

Enjoy and do leave me a comment. Are you a late bloomer? I would love to hear from you.

Late bloomers : Gemma Rose writes in praise of those whose talent bloomed later in life

At last year’s TEDxBrussels, I was particularly struck by one of the speakers, Lina Colucci, who spoke about health hackathons. Health hackathons bring together specialists from different disciplines as well as consumer groups to respond innovatively to medical problems. At the age of 16, Lina began redesigning the ballet shoe so as to limit the pain and deformity done to the ballerina’s foot. This award-winning idea led her towards collaborating with Nike in updating the pointe shoe. Currently, she is a PhD student on a joint MIT and Harvard programme, dances ballet with the Harvard Ballet company and is an accomplished clarinetist. Judging by her CV and her appearance, she could not have been any older than 25.

Society tends to place a lot of value on youth. We often hear of the meteoric rise of actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs and inspirational leaders in their twenties, sometimes even in their teens. Forbes magazine does an annual “30 under 30” with movers and shakers in several domains including law and policy, education, entertainment and social entrepreneurship. This phenomenon is nothing new. Some of the greatest artists, composers, writers and scientists were so notable in part due to their youth – Picasso became well-known at 26, Mozart at 21, Orson Welles at 25 and Einstein at 26.

Read more… (pp. 15 – 16 on the Pdf)

cezanne-gardanne

Gardanne (1885 – 86) by Paul Cézanne, a late bloomer.

References

Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker

Interview with Uncle Yee, Lite FM

The Meaning of Things, A.C. Grayling

Why we should all hack medicine, Lina Colucci, Tedx Brussels 2014

It’s not too late to make a difference, Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, Tedx Brussels 2014

Going grey gracefully

I have my second living room letter!

Dear Gemma Rose,

I am a woman in my mid thirties and I’m starting to go quite grey. I’m wondering whether I should dye my hair or not. My mother keeps nagging me to do it, but I quite like my grey hair. I think it makes me look distinguished. Yet dying it would probably make me look a lot younger. What do the philosophers say on grey hair? Should I resort to dying it for the sake of looking young, and pleasing my mother?

Love the blog by the way.

– K

Dear K,

I feel honoured that you should bestow such a request for advice on me. As someone who is similar in age and going grey herself, it too is something that I’ve been reflecting on for a while. I have very dark hair, so my greys (or are they white?) really are on show. I must say that I sometimes grieve at seeing more and more grey, and I try to hide the strands by changing my quiff or cut. I guess for me it’s like grieving my youth, that I’m not a “youngin'” anymore and that I am sort of approaching middle age.

There has been a double standard with going grey between the sexes. George Clooney is your typical salt and pepper (although he seems pretty much salt these days) hearthrob, or silver fox. Today, it’s pretty much accepted in society that men don’t feel the pressure or need to dye their hair, in comparison to the nineties when the use of ‘Just For Men‘ was rife. I definitely notice it with colleagues: the male ones revel in their grey, whereas the female ones tend to get the dye out.

However, there seems to a revolution going on: a grey one. ‘Grey is the new black! Blondies, it’s quiet for y’all!’ tweeted the fashionista Rihanna back in 2013. Young people who probably don’t have grey yet are flocking to colour the hair grey to be “on trend”. A Kardashian clan member even spent 11 hours for the privilege!

So grey is cool in the celeb world. But the difference seems to be that these are celebs who are dying their hair, not celebs who have bitten the silver bullet (I couldn’t resist) and decided to let nature do the talking, instead of Clairol. As you know, naturally grey hair is coarse and can have a life of its own, so to look good with grey, a bit of haircare and a good cut is needed. The tendency is that if you are going grey, better to go short too but I’ve seen some women who look fantastic with long, grey hair and I’ve seem some women who look like they have a bird’s nest on their head.

What do the philosophers say? Well, I reckon a few them were grey. For instance, Socrates was grey by the end of his life. As was Jeremy Bentham, David Hume and Michael Sandel. What about the women? Well Simone de Beauvoir looked like she might have only stopped dyeing her hair when she was well into her third act, same goes for Ayn Rand. I am no academic, but I’m not sure if hair colour was on the agenda. Hannah Arendt was kept occupied fleeing the Nazis and then covering Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Simone de Beauvoir was probably way-laid writing that feminism can never be achieved as long as women are considered a “deviation” of the male norm. Susan Haack is most likely spending a lot of her time writing about “foundherentism”. Not sure if philosophising about going grey is on her to-do list.

In a 2007 Time article about going grey in showbiz, political, business and even in the healthcare circles, this was practically unheard of and frowned upon. One doctor said she would be taken less seriously, viewed as an “alternative” practitioner, for going grey. One business woman admitted that her career success depended on not going grey. But that was 8 years ago, I think times have changed.

If you do decide to dye, according to the Guardian’s fashion expert Hadley Freeman, once you start, you can’t stop. And your bank balance won’t thank you for it.

Whatever decision you make, make sure that you feel good about it. If letting nature take its course displeases your Mum, I’m sure she will get over it. Of course, you can always suggest that she foots the bill every time you get your hair done. She might soon change her mind.

Getting comfortable with discomfort

Dear All,

My next article for Together magazine out. As I’ve tried to become more open, put myself out there more, and express a more authentic self, I’ve definitely felt the discomfort and felt like retreating. Read how I deal with it. It’s on page 13 & 14 of the PdF version. Enjoy and let me know what you think!

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Know your value, know your self

Hi All,

I hope to be back posting on a regular basis. I have spent the month of March travelling and spending time with family. I managed to get another article published with Together magazine, entitled ‘Know your value, know your self’. It’s on p. 15 of the pdf link to this month’s issue. We often hear experts telling us to “know our value”, “appreciate our worth” etc., but I wonder what these phrases actually mean. I hope to shed more light on the subject in the article. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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On my 24th birthday, my Dad quoted part of the poem Nosce Teipsum (“Know Thyself”) by the Elizabethan poet (also a lawyer and politician) Sir John Davies in my birthday card. My Dad dedicated the following lines to help me in my journey throughout life:

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.

These lines inspired me to write this article. If we are ever to truly know our value, we first must know who we are.

Thank you Dad for providing such inspiration.

See you all soon,

Gemma

My first magazine publication

This week, a Brussels’ lifestyle magazine Together published my article ‘Three deep breaths’. It is about how leaving space in our lives can help us make more positive and healthier choices. Just click on the image below and it will take you straight to a Pdf version of this month’s issue. My article is on pp.15-16 of the Pdf version.

Together magazine

I hope you enjoy reading my first ever magazine publication and do let me know what you think!

Higher Pleasures

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

– Oscar Wilde

I am trying to live within my means as of late. I went on such a crazy spending spree in January that I was very close to reaching my credit card limit. I am now feeling ever so slightly guilty at my over-indulgence; my poor will-power and absolute lack of discipline in saving money.

I was in a real pickle last week about whether to go to a Jazz concert. I have always been a bit of a Jazz fan – and my Dad and I are currently doing an online Jazz appreciation course – so I was extremely excited when I recently picked up a flyer for this concert. I naively thought that there would still be cheap tickets available. But no, only the expensive ones were left.

I agonised about whether it was worth buying a ticket. I had already dipped into my savings to pay off last month’s credit card bill and it didn’t seem like I would manage to save this month either. Could I really afford to go to a concert? “A penny saved is a penny earned” said founding father of the US and polymath Benjamin Franklin. My guilty conscience was telling me to save the money.

I ignored it all the same and bought the ticket. Over the following days, I attempted to rationalise and justify my decision as being a good one. My first justification was that it was my hard-earned cash and I could do whatever I like with it. Unfortunately, this reasoning is very superficial, and its sparkle soon faded. My Mum’s words of wisdom came next: “You have to spend money to make money”. My spending was helping the local economy make money – I skilfully argued with myself – and you never know who I could meet there or what opportunity may come out of going. This reasoning was more plausible, but I was still yet to be fully convinced.

It was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (also a polymath), who assured me that my purchase was justified. Mill developed Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle to incorporate the idea of assessing happiness on its value and desirability. Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism was non-judgemental: it was not the quality of the thing that made you happy which counted because all preferences were rated equally. What only mattered was whether this thing also made most people happy too. To Bentham, the enjoyment of watching reality TV shows would be of the same value as the enjoyment of watching Shakespeare.

However, the idea of all preferences being equal raised moral questions: surely it would still be morally wrong for society to allow horrible goods e.g blood sports even if this pleased the greatest number in society? Mill tried to rectify such an outcome occurring in his essay Utilitarianism (1861) by developing the happiness principle on the basis of “higher and lower pleasures”: society does value one good over another, and that the higher pleasures are the ones which contribute to society’s greater good. Thus “higher pleasures” are goods which are more valuable or desirable; they appeal to our higher senses and faculties. Perhaps they are harder or more difficult to acquire, comprehend or grasp, but we know intrinsically that they raise the quality of our being.

To me, watching a Jazz concert is a higher pleasure, and ever since I started the Jazz appreciation course, I have begun to understand how technically difficult Jazz is and how creatively ingenious its musicians are. I think John Stuart Mill provides an excellent moral justification for me forking out more than I would expect to for a Jazz concert.

When caught in a position of living on a budget and trying to save for a rainy day, it is natural to give ourselves a hard time about spending money on a pleasure that may seem like a waste. Nevertheless, if this is a pleasure that cultivates our mind, which adds to our character and nobility (and in the grand of scheme of things, it is affordable), then we should be reluctant to deny ourselves such a pleasure.

Comparing ourselves: an exercise in futility

“We do not deserve our place of distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part on fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I often compared myself to others, in looks and in intelligence. I am mixed race – Malaysian and Irish – yet I’m told that I don’t look very “Asian”. I have fair skin, I go red very easily, my hair is thick and curly. The few things that give away my Asian heritage are the shape of my eyes and my black hair.

I had a friend who was like me – half Asian and half Caucasian. She was perhaps what one would expect a mixed race woman of South East Asian and European origins to look like: very delicate features – almost feline – high cheekbones, straight dark hair, a slender figure. Everyone would comment on how exotic and beautiful she was. I always felt inadequate next to her. Plus, I was chubby so I was always known as the “fat one” and she the “pretty one”.

When I was studying to become a barrister, I constantly felt stupid next to my class mates. They seemed to understand the mechanics of the law so much quicker and better than I ever could. They could articulate complicated reasoning with such simplicity; they were able to excel in exams and competitions whilst at the same time landing themselves the top jobs.

Looks and intelligence were the areas where I compared myself to others the most. And I would say that most of us do the same.

I tried affirmations in the hope of eliminating my entrenched beliefs. But as I did so, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling any better about myself. I wasn’t ‘brighter and better‘ every day. In the morning, I didn’t ‘look in the mirror and see nothing but pure beauty‘ staring back at me. I felt less attractive and more stupid.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman cites a study by the psychologist Joanne Wood. Wood had an inkling that people who use positive affirmations tend to be those with low-self esteem. She was also under the impression that since affirmations were at odds with what these people really felt about themselves, repeating them would make them feel worse. The study proved her inkling right: that for those people with low self-esteem, positive affirmations produced the opposite effect.

Nonetheless, I carried on regardless: making more of an effort with my appearance; studying harder for my classes. I did not necessarily feel better; I just got on with it.

The nail was finally hit on the (my) head last year, when I did an online course on political philosophy with my Dad. In one particular lecture we learnt about the American philosopher John Rawls’ theory on moral desert and justice. He asserted that we cannot claim credit for our talents, it just so happens to be our good luck that we were born in good circumstances and that society at that moment places a high value on them. As he states, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society.”

What John Rawls had said was liberating. The way that I am – my talents, how I look – are not my doing and whether they are prized or not are dependent on how society tends to value them at any given moment. This is the same for people who I thought were better looking or smarter than me: they were born that way, through no fault or doing of their own, and society just happened to appreciate more their attributes.

It was from this point that I could finally and fully accept my flaws and deficiencies for what they are. I stopped comparing myself to others because it appears to me that life is just one big lottery. I cannot change what I perceive to be are my limitations. Instead I can focus on how to maximise the attributes that I believe I have.

John Rawls believes that we should allow our talents to flourish. Yet, he powerfully asserts that justice and the good life lie not in whether we deserve the rewards for our talents, but rather in how we use them to help those less fortunate than us. The American philosopher Michael J. Sandel sums up perfectly in his book ‘Justice‘ the truth upon which Rawls’ theory of justice relies: “The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be.”

Let’s not forget it.