Within my circle of (younger) close friends, I am jokingly referred to as the ‘Big Potato’ because of my days of being a high flier in Singapore Airlines. But few know about my humble origins as a ‘Small Potato’. In fact, I was not born into a wealthy family, but grew up in one of Kuala Lumpur’s many kampongs during the 1950s and 60s. Here are some stories from my childhood that illustrate how I grew up optimistic and resilient. I hope that they will inspire my new friends – both young and old!
1. Find Joy in Little Things
I like to tell people that when I was growing up, I had many things and I also had nothing… Then I usually have to explain what I mean!
I grew up on a two-hectare plot of land owned by my Dad’s boss. And while we were not wealthy, I never felt poor when I counted my blessings.
I had a curious mind, a healthy body, parents to look after us, siblings to play with, neighbours to play football with, food to enjoy, space to run around, Nature as a teacher, clothes to wear, books to read, an education, a university scholarship, a bed to sleep on and a roof over my head. What more does a boy need?
Yes, I grew up not having these things: running tap water, electricity, a family car, toys, comics and magazines, TV, tuition, help with homework, family holidays, domestic help, lots of pocket money, and the list goes on…
I wore old clothes of the hand-me-down kind (thank you, older siblings!) and the text books were something else altogether. When I was in Primary 3, the teacher once asked the class to turn to “page 17” and to read together. The words they read were nowhere on my book because they were on “page 15” of my textbook (also a hand-me-down item). After that lesson, I painstakingly ‘refreshed’ the pages by copying chunks out of a classmate’s (new) textbook.
But I learnt not to sigh or grumble and accept what I have. And perhaps, that ‘updating’ of my textbook manually may have helped in my memory of the textbook material.
It is this resilient attitude towards being solution-oriented that has proven to be of great help in my life.
2. If You Don’t Have A Private Tutor, Teach Yourself
My family did not have spare cash to engage a tutor for me. It is interesting how few children go through Singapore’s education system without private tuition. It was recently reported in the papers that some tutors are even hired for the sole purpose of helping kids to complete their homework!
Many children these days also have to endure many hours of “enrichment classes”.
When I was in Primary 4, a piece of English homework stumped me! I asked my sitting-next-to-me classmate for help, but his reply to me was “Cannot copy!”
I solved my predicament by asking my mother for $4.50 to buy a medium-sized Oxford English dictionary. I then studied my dictionary.
I seem to hear your question coming: How does one STUDY a dictionary? How does reading a dictionary help with your homework?
Perhaps I should reveal a bit more of my state of affairs then. I was the first child in my family to attend an English-speaking school. My neighbours went to Chinese-speaking schools and they tended to drop out after Primary Six.
The challenge that I faced was simple – finish homework in class (most classmates did help) or face a no-help situation back home.
By studying my dictionary, I built up my vocabulary, learnt the various forms of a word and the antonyms and synonyms of certain words. I put myself in a better position to self-help in my English homework. With a better command of vocabulary, I understood the questions better in the other subjects as well.
If you find that I speak or write well today, well, I remember that classmate who refused to let me copy, and thank him silently.
Years later, I chanced upon Einstein’s quote and it made a great deal of sense:
“I am thankful to all those who said NO to me.
It’s because of them I did it myself.”
~ Albert Einstein
In the papers a few years ago, it was reported that some students from China had attributed their success in learning English by studying the dictionary. This is social proof for my method!
3. Develop A Love For Lifelong Learning
I had a close friend (a classmate) whom I respected because he was a know-it-all who read widely and knew a lot. I wanted to be like him, clever and full of knowledge! He was probably my first role model.
Again, I asked Mom for some money and bought a condensed single-volume encyclopedia from which I derived hours of pleasure in reading. I came to know about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, Newton, Einstein, the Incas, Machu Picchu, the Vikings, Kublai Khan, Byron and oh-so-many other things. Back then, the encyclopedia was my handheld Google search engine.
Upon my retirement from corporate life, I continued my journey in learning. This time I learnt alongside my newfound friends – learning how to use the Internet, social media, and of course blogging. These new subjects, more than ever, demanded that I carry on and not give in. My resilient attitude once again sustained me and saw me through the next level.
I confided in my blog’s About Page that I never wanted to ‘RETIRE’ — and that like many of you, I’m a born optimist. And I conquered my fears to learn new things, especially inspired by this quote:
“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”
~ Stewart Brand
Now – Your Turn To Go For Big Potato Status
I hope that my childhood stories convey this message: Don’t moan about the lack of resources in your life (whether it be money, luck, the right people, or circumstances). Instead, focus on resourcefulness, ask yourself the right questions, and you’ll be able to find the best solutions for any problem.
We know that things don’t work or issues get resolved the first time round. Persist until resilience bring success. Always…
If you’d like to know how I became a “Big Potato”, read this blog post: Resilience | My Journey To Becoming A Big Potato.