2015: My year of writing

Now I know there is no value in sitting about wishing and hoping. If I’m daydreaming about something, it’s down to me to make it happen.

– Daisy Buchanan, ‘Lessons in life that online dating taught me’, The Guardian

2014 was the year of meeting more men. I wrote about it in my article ‘The art of conversation’ for Together magazine. I realised that if I wanted to meet the right person for me, I had to have a good idea about what I was looking for and then get out there and look for it. I learnt that my love life is in my hands.

It has been over two years since I started Living room philosophy. Thanks to the blog, I got the opportunity to write for Together magazine: my very own personal development column. Thanks to the magazine, I did my first interview: it was with Ratna Osman, from Sisters in Islam, an NGO fighting for equality and justice for muslim women in Malaysia. I will post the interview on the blog soon.

I am so thankful that my writing is gaining traction, although I admit I’d like to do more and I guess I am looking for that lucky break: the opportunity to write full-time on the topics that really interest me. The freedom to choose and still be able to make a decent living.

Earning a living is for me what makes writing as a career so scary. I hear a lot about how journalism doesn’t pay, it’s all about free content, and it’s best to find other lucrative channels to support your writing. Yet, I can’t help but feel that earning a living in the arts has always been tough and always will be. Plus, I hear that some people do earn a good living: a journalist recently told me that he’s faring very well. In Margaret Atwood’s book ‘Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing’, she accepted that when she started out in late 1950s Canada as a poet, she definitely wasn’t going to earn money. But she did.

For making the transition into writing, the most sensible advice I’ve read (and heard) is to start building it up slowly and then make the leap when I have the resources to. As the Guardian journalist George Monbiot says in his article about career advice, “Work hard, but don’t rush. Build your reputation slowly and steadily.” And he thinks specialisation, instead of what journalism school (and actually many schools) thinks is a trap, is actually the key to escaping the trap: “You can become the person editors think of when they need to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs.”

So 2015 is going to be my year of more writing: more blog posts and more published articles. And just like my love life, my career is in my hands.

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Saying Yes

“Take the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. At least it’s done. It’s over. It’s gone. We can all learn from our mistakes and heal and move on. But it’s harder to learn or heal or move on from something that hasn’t happened; something we don’t know and is therefore indefinable; something which could very easily have been the best thing in our lives, if only we’d taken the plunge, if only we’d held our breath and stood up and done it, if only we’d said yes.”

– Danny Wallace, ‘Yes Man’

Something wasn’t right. It was the second weekend of January and at around 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday I got weepy. I had lost my phone earlier that week and had made no plans for the weekend, in an attempt to be spontaneous. However, being without a phone and leaving my weekend social life up to chance had not paid off. I spent the whole weekend in my flat, venturing out only to go to the supermarket.

Spending a weekend in on my own hadn’t really bothered me before. I have enjoyed it – sometimes even relished in it – and I freely admit that I have spent quite a few Saturday nights in. So why had this particular weekend affected me so much?

First, I put it down to the January blues. I soothed myself thinking that everyone gets them. Then I piled the fact that I couldn’t call or text on top of the January blues. I flung another excuse on the pile: I recently got a bit of disappointing news concerning someone I had a crush on. “That’s it!” yelped my eureka moment, “It’s January, I’m phoneless and my crush is unavailable! Yes, three very good reasons for feeling down in the dumps.”

And once that downward spiral started, there was really no stopping it. Pity-party Peter, Johnny no-mates and Sally self-loathing invited themselves round to my flat, parked themselves on my comfy couch and long out-stayed their welcome. Over the next couple of days I told a few friends about my depressing weekend in. I didn’t quite understand it: I love my own company. I have a lovely life here: a lovely flat; a lovely job; lovely friends; a lovely social life. Weekends are supposed to be a light relief to the working week. Why was I longing for the weekend to be over?

I was determined not to repeat the experience, but it wasn’t until I had lunch with a friend did this scary thought finally dawn on me: by spending my weekends in, my life was passing me by. I had my weekdays evenings booked with various activities but my weekend pursuits were a bit meagre. Take for example my knowledge of Brussel’s nightlife: I didn’t really know where the good nightspots were and I had only been clubbing less than a handful of times (I’ve lived here nearly three years). Dude.

I had no excuses: I couldn’t blame the commute to city centre – I live 15 minutes away by metro. I couldn’t blame my finances – I earn a decent salary. There is no language difficulty, there is always some event going on. No, I was being rubbish and hiding behind something.

About seven or eight years ago, my brother lent me Yes Man by the English author Danny Wallace. Danny Wallace was coming out of a long-term relationship and saying no a lot – mostly when it came to socialising. He met a man on the bus one night who simply told him to ‘say yes more’ and he decided from then on to do so. What ensued were wild adventures and finding the love of his life, not to mention getting a book and film deal out of it. Not bad going for saying yes.

I was reminded of this book when I came across the advice of dating guru Matthew Hussey on how to find my ideal man. One of his suggestions was to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself during the month of January.

I didn’t say yes to everything, but I said yes to a lot. I said yes to drinks, to parties, to exhibitions, to brunch, to coffees. I said yes to social events with complete strangers. I said yes to spontaneous adventures and trips, I said yes to going after crazy dreams. Most importantly, I said yes to not being in my flat on a Saturday night. If I only manage to stick to one Yes this year, it will be the last one.

Of course, sometimes by saying no, I am saying yes to myself. For instance, on occasion I do need to just relax, enjoy being idle, and slow down. The key – with everything in life – is balance. But what Danny Wallace makes really clear is that if you don’t say yes, things just stay the same. I think it’s ok for things to stay the same,  until you start feeling stuck.

That weekend was a turning point for me. So far, I’ve been out every Saturday night since. For Danny Wallace, saying yes changed his life: “The fact is saying yes hadn’t been a pointless exercise at all. It had been pointful. It had the power to change lives and set people free… It had the power of adventure. Sometimes the little opportunities that fly at us each day can have the biggest impact.” Matthew Hussey talks about how the smallest shifts in our dating lives can yield the biggest results. Saying yes is a small shift.

I challenge you to say, “Yes”.

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.

January

A year from now, you’re gonna weigh more or less than what you do right now.”

– Dr Phil

For the last seven years or so, I have written in my journal on New Year’s day, or as close to it as possible. I start this ritual by reading what I wrote on the previous New Year’s day. I then take stock of what has happened over the past year and compare it to the previous year. In my journal I reflect on this process and I then make resolutions for the New Year. Except for last year; that journal entry ended up being some irrational rant about the trials and tribulations of romantic love – the subject for a future blog post.

So I actually did no stock-taking, no comparing and no resolution-listing. I began 2013 with no expectations of the coming year.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Because I made no resolutions, I had no demands or targets to meet. I put no pressure on myself to be a better person, to be more loving and charitable, to strive in my career or even to be in a relationship. I did not reminisce about happier times or ruminate about regrets, which is something I would often do in my stock-taking – comparing – listing ritual. The first of January 2013 was very much another ordinary day.

The F**k It philosophy talks about how plans and goals can be troublesome. One reason for this is that they can keep you too rigid and inflexible, and – to an extreme – chained to something which instead of bringing you satisfaction, may end up bringing you the opposite. In her book ‘Flourishing’, clinical and academic psychologist Maureen Gaffney states that a key element to living a flourishing life – that is a life that has meaning, that brings out our best selves, that makes us happy and positive – is to have three life projects, preferably one that relates to work, the other to family or friends and the remainder to a personal interest. A life project is bigger than a mere goal, it has to be something that fits with our values and emotions, and is something that we freely choose to do, rather than it being an obligation. Gaffney advises that life projects do not need to be big, noble nor public.

In order to choose a life project, Gaffney sets out the following criteria:
– It must be freely chosen;
– It must have meaning to us;
– We must believe that it is achievable;
– We must set goals in relation to it;
– We must dedicate enough time and effort to achieve these goals;
– We must have adequate resources to pursue it (like commitment and drive);
– There must be a reasonable chance that we can achieve the goals in the specified time.

Last New Year’s day, I made no goals, not to mention life projects. And what resulted was a year where I achieved many things, some of which I have spoken about on this blog. I began reading Gaffney’s book a year ago and was extremely put off by the idea of having life projects. I much preferred the F**k It philosophy, it seemed to work for me.

I returned to ‘Flourishing’ again during this Christmas. I was less daunted by the thought of having life projects, probably because I had already started some unwittingly: writing this blog is a life project for instance. Another life project was my decision to eat more healthily and lose weight, thus prompting me into learning how to cook well.

To me, the F**k It philosophy and ‘Flourishing’ are not mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to leave space to be flexible and open to new ideas, as ideas of life projects may not come to mind straight away and neither should they be forced. I guess however the two can be contrary to one another – having a life project is about having a sense of control whereas the F**k it philosophy is about giving up control and going with the flow.

In the end, we must work out the best way to provide meaning in our lives. And I think that if we do set ourselves goals or projects or resolutions we must do so from a healthy starting point. Giving up chocolate or signing up to the gym because of guilt or feeling bad about ourselves should never be the driving force for achieving any of the above. This is because the motivation is focussed on the negative, rather than the positive. We are doing things out of punishment, not love. And because of this, the likelihood of us accomplishing our goals, resolutions, targets or projects are small, hence making us feel worse about ourselves.

Resolutions don’t have to start this week just because it’s the New Year. They can start whenever it feels like a good idea. Or like me last year, you don’t have to have any and you can just see where each day takes you. If there are things that you would like to do or achieve towards the good life, I encourage you to go for it! But go easy on yourself, take your time, leave lots of space and listen to yourself.

I wish you a wonderful start to 2014.