‘Mom, I think I want to quit uni,’ I told my mother.
At 21, I began to feel the dullness of uni. I was a third-year student in chemical engineering with an idea of doing something else with my life.
I felt bored with the dry and impractical topics in class. While my classmates paid attention, I daydreamed. As soon as I could get away from class, I would put on my gears for my thrice-weekly karate classes.
At one point, I was spending more than half my time in uni doing something other than studying.
I had worked hard to be in uni but I no longer wanted to be there.
The drive that pushed the teenaged Lu Wee to get straight A’s in A levels had disappeared. I cared little about doing well in class or even getting a degree.
By the time I shared them with my mother, six weeks had passed since my feelings of despair first surfaced. There were only two weeks left in my fourth semester.
By the end of those two weeks, I had to make a decision.
‘So Lu Wee, if you didn’t like uni, why did you work so hard to get there?’
There are no direct answers to this question, so let me first take you through a thought experiment.
Imagine hearing about a magical place where only the chosen can enter. Of course, you want to go there, so you do everything you to get picked.
Out of luck and perseverance, you do get picked.
Off you go with your packed bags and a heart full of excitement. To get there, you jump on the vehicle that promises to take you there fastest.
As you move along, your excitement grows. You can’t wait. You notice there are already people in front of you. You want to hear what it’s like closer to the destination.
So you shout to them, ‘How is your journey so far!’ You expect them to reply with enthusiasm.
But asking this question is where your trouble begins.
Soon enough, you find out, even without a word spoken, that the journey has been bad.
They don’t have to say a word. You see it on their faces. They’re telling you, ‘It’s not worth it.’
The question now: Do you trust their message and turn around, or do you push on?
The problem with us…
…is that we are often horrible at predicting the future. What we think will make us happy usually do not, and what we think would make us unhappy, ends up not doing so.
As a teenager, that happy future for me was to become a research scientist. Thoughts of surrounding myself in scientific discoveries aroused me.
I spent many days dreaming about my future job as a scientist. I imagined spending whole days reading and writing and making new discoveries. I loved the idea of scientific pursuit.
The fantasy of this scholastic life kept me going through the toughest academic challenges.
That was, until one day, I realized that my fantasy would always remain that: a fantasy.
‘So what is it like to have a PhD?’ I asked a lecturer I admired. Elegant, young and smart, she was who I wanted to be when I was her age.
Her mind focused on marking papers, she did not hear me at first. So I asked her again, ‘So what is it like to have a PhD?’
This time she looked up from her papers, scanned my face to see if I was serious and then asked me, ‘You want to do it?’
‘It’s been a dream,’ I told her.
With that, she set her papers down and took a good look at me. I could see her hesitate for a few seconds before speaking.
‘Lu Wee, PhD is not what you imagine. The first thing you must ask yourself is, “Do I want to be an academic my entire life?”
Because that is where you will end up. And what does an academic do?’ she asked, then pointed to the screen next to her.
‘Research, sometimes – most of the times – on things you don’t even care about. If you ask me, I would tell you to do something else – work for a few years, then decide.’
* * *
People have said that the collision between fantasy and reality is most painful of all.
That day, I felt it, the pain of my fantasy giving way to reality. And I lost my direction in life.
Have you ever asked yourself ‘Why?’
There is one lesson I learned in my journey of realizing that I did not want to be a scientist. And that is this:
Do not begin a journey without looking ahead to see how people who are actually in it are doing.
My biggest mistake about a scholastic career was using fiction as my reference. I looked to movies and books when I should have talked to scientists and shadowed them.
If I did, I would have found out that I did not like earning a small salary for endless work. And that I did not enjoy working on topics that were boring but well-funded.
My second mistake was talking to people who were too early on their journey. Excited as they were, they had not seen enough of the journey.
To have the most realistic view, I needed to talk to people far along in their journey. Far enough to reduce every bit of their naive enthusiasm to nothing.
I realized that a good journey is one where, even after the early enthusiasm has disappeared, people can still enjoy themselves.
Like falling in love with a person’s soul, rather than skin. So even when the exterior beauty fades away, you still love them as much, or even more.
So, let’s get back to today’s question: Have you ever asked yourself ‘Why?’
Why did you do what you did today from the moment you woke to the moment you lied down to rest?
Why do you have the routines you have?
Why do you hang out with the people you hang out with?
Why do you make sacrifices that you make?
* * *
After reading this entire article, you might have the mistake of thinking I was talking to you. Actually, I was talking to myself.
Lu Wee, why are you doing what you are doing now?
If your answers do not fit your long-term goals, perhaps it is time to stop doing some of those things.