Last time I discussed how certain failures and mishaps were good for us and that even though it might have felt terrible at the time, the seemingly overwhelming backward motion could well be propelling us forward towards new heights. Sounds paradoxical, but fascinating as well. There have been three experiences in my life that have puzzled me, but upon further reflection from hindsight I have come to the conclusion that what I thought was a disaster actually ended up helping me to achieve something that I never expected or thought possible. The first episode happened to me in my first year at boarding school. It was a strange year for me as I had to adapt to a completely different environment and system, and academically I did OK but not outstanding. It might be funny thinking about it now, but one of my worst subjects then was Physics, in which I came 70th (out of 110 or so) in our final year exam (contrast this to my results in Chemistry and Biology, in which I came 8th and 3rd respectively). Things went on as usual, and I didn’t pay much attention to it, since I had other things to worry about (more on this below). At the end of my Fifth Form (two years later), I was notified that I was the recipient of the Junior School ‘Paddy Whelan’ Physics Prize, which was completely unexpected. I had no idea where that had come from, so I approached my Physics teacher (who may be reading this right now, and if so, please feel free to say hi…!) and asked him about it. He told me that I was awarded the prize because I had made the most significant improvement in Physics in my year group, since I had gone from 70th in my first year to what he would rank as one of the top five physicists in my year two years later, so even if I may not have necessarily been the best in Physics in my year (though I probably was not far off), the vast improvement I made through the Junior School was the main reason for my award.
The second episode was to do with my appointment as Prefect in my last year at school, which surprised me as much as it surprised many (though not all) people in my year. I was a shy kid at school, and I didn’t really go out much, being mainly a geek who would lock himself away and devote most of his time studying. I also suffered from social peer pressure, which led to some tensions and conflicts between me and my fellow schoolmates. Things gradually got better, and by the time I reached the Sixth Form (Senior School), much of the social pressure dissipated and I was finally able to interact comfortably with my peers. At the end of my penultimate year at school, I was informed by my Housemaster that I had been appointed Prefect for my last year. Again, I was perplexed by this decision, and when I asked my Housemaster about this, he gave me a response which was quite similar to my Physics teacher’s cited above, namely that he was impressed by how far I had come in improving my social relations and that I was able to turn over the leaf in my previously complicated relationship with my peers. This, he said, was the main reason for why he thought I would be an ideal candidate for being a Prefect, since it showed patience and maturity in how I dealt with people. Again, a disastrous situation in my early years turned out to be the determining factor for a later achievement, which was totally unexpected.
The last episode has to do with my music education, which played a huge part in my time at school and which I took seriously in my younger years. I was never a natural musician, since I have vivid and painful memories of struggling with music when I first started learning musical instruments. I also had immense trouble reading Western music, which further hindered my musical development. Music was one of those things which I really had to work hard in order to get a grasp on, and when I reached secondary school, I decided to take it seriously and make something out of my musical instruments. I hence enrolled myself for the Associated Board Music exams, which were (and still are) the international benchmark for instrumental training. In my second year at school, I took Grade 7 violin. I spent hours and hours practicing in hopes of getting a good mark (i.e. a distinction), but due to a combination of conceptual misunderstanding and bad training (due in large part to my then violin teacher, who was beyond trash), all my practice was in vain and I came nowhere near my objective. That was a bitter blow to me, since not only was I greatly disappointed, I was also very daunted by the prospect of reaching Grade 8, which was the holy grail for all students of musical instruments, since Grade 8 was a significant leap above Grade 7 and if I could not even handle Grade 7, Grade 8 seemed like a totally insuperable goal for me. The following years, however, were quite remarkable, since I met some really good people in the profession who gave me their expert advice and guidance on the art of music-making and numerous instrumental techniques which radically changed my approach towards music. This fed into hours and hours of practice and eventually I achieved my goal in getting distinctions in all three instruments (violin, viola, piano) in my last two years at school. This was one of the most uplifting educational and spiritual transitions in my life, since I went from being utterly dejected to triumphant through a remarkable journey of perseverance and enlightenment. It might not seem a big deal now (indeed, who cares about music exams in the real world?), but at the time those were the biggest rewards for me as a child and I shall always hold them dearly in my mind and heart.
I have mentioned before that it is usually in difficult situations that our best qualities shine through, since it is only through pressure and desperation that we start to act and think, which always leads to a steep learning curve that can only do us enormous good. In my life (so far), I have had some pretty disappointing experiences which gave me a totally bleak perspective for my future but somehow ended up being the key catalyst for sealing future success. This is an amazing paradox, and one which continues to hold true in my life. As we embark on a new year, I’d like to wish all my readers a happy 2018 in which there will inevitably be challenges and failures but also perseverance and success. See you all on the other side!