Dear 6-year-old Nicholas,
I am you from the future, specifically 24-year-old Nic. It must be freaky and overwhelming to receive this letter. In fact, the contents of this letter may be a little challenging to understand at your age, so don’t be afraid to ask Dad and Mom to help explain some of its contents to you. It’s the first time I’m writing a letter to my past self, and despite it only working on the first paragraph so far, I can’t help but feel what a cathartic experience it’s going to be.
24 years old. Yes. Can you believe it? You do actually become an adult eventually – taller, bespectacled, and certainly not as chubby as you currently are.
A full-fledged adult (though you’d not have started working yet as you would still be in medical school). I know how much you are looking forward to becoming an adult – having greater autonomy, being taller, etc. People aren’t kidding when they tell you to enjoy yourself while you were in primary school though. You’d eventually progress to secondary school, junior college, enlistment, and university. At all these stages, numerous people would tell you to enjoy and be appreciative of where you are currently at, and there’s a reason for it.
While we adults do finally possess the things we so looked forward to as a child, we also do end up having to adopt responsibilities and deal with matters that are entirely foreign to your current world. It’s not something you simply could have fathomed. I’m sure you have heard of adults use terms such as “DSA, university, portfolio, CV, resume, BTO, marriage, citizenship status, insurance, and migration” in their conversations. Dad and Mom may have explained to you roughly what these terms mean, but they are still probably too abstract.
At this point, the burning question you have is probably a general “So how would I be like 18 years from now?” Let me jump straight to it. You are very privileged to be born in the family that you are born in. 18 years later, assuming things proceed as normal and that you do not sincerely apply what you will learn from the contents of this letter, then you will at least find yourself as a third-year medical student in NUS (as a 6yo boy reading this in 2004, it might feel superfluous to have the state the name of the university given that medicine can only be done locally at NUS; nevertheless, there will eventually be two other local medical schools in Singapore).
I know you are starting to hear the words of countless people who are older than you: they constantly ask you to study hard for the sake of your future. It must feel annoying to constantly have to hear that, and this is before primary school has even started for you. All you want to do is go to the playground to play catching, and you wonder why there is a need to be so caught up with this notion of ‘studying’ that adults keep talking about. Trust me, you’ll keep hearing such advice, and it’s only going to get more prevalent as the PSLE draws near (the examination might feel distant but it will come soon enough). I used to find such advice annoying too (you are me after all hahaha), but it was only as I got older that I realised that it was indeed so critical all this while. Grades truly are so paramount in this society which places such a great emphasis on one’s academic history.
If you really do receive this letter, please take it seriously. This isn’t Uncle Ronson, or Uncle Eric. This is not a random adult who is giving you the same old generic advice. This is me – Nic. You. You from the future. I know how you felt at 6yo. I know all the thoughts that you had (and will soon come to have).
As I reflect on my life and where I’m at, I can’t help but feel there was just so much unrealised potential. So I’m writing this letter to you from a position of “here’s all the things you can do so that you would become so much more than what you would be if you just let things course the way they would”.
And if (and when, hopefully) you do take my words in this letter seriously, do continuously re-read this letter as you trudge through the arduous journey of life. Read this before each major exam in primary school (CA1, SA1, CA2, SA2). Read it two months before the PSLE. Read it after the death of your maternal grandmother in 2006. Read it before each piano exam.
With all this being said, let me launch into the advice that can be categorised as general, specific dos, and specific don’ts:
- Be grateful for your background. Nic, you have no idea how fortunate you are to be born in Singapore. Seriously. Of all the regions in the world that you could have born in (e.g. South Sudan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea), God has mercifully and graciously allowed you to be born in Singapore as a Singapore citizen, into a family with wonderful parents. Dad and Mom are both intelligent, educated, fiscally comfortable, and enjoy a good marriage. Unfortunately, this is not the norm at all for families worldwide. Our parents and their circle of friends do not constitute a representative sample of society. You are also ethnic Chinese, the majority ethnicity in this city-state. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on whose perspective you’re adopting), this is a privilege that you have, and it would be a shame if you did not capitalise on it. Statistically, and based on historical data, your family background allows you to take advantage of many opportunities that some of your peers simply will not have. Be grateful.
- Take your academic performance seriously. Amount of studying done = Time spent studying * Intensity of Focus. In all that you do regarding your academic work, you can work on those two components – time spent, and focus intensity. The former is self-evident. You need to put in the hours on something that is cognitively demanding and involves deliberate practice. What’s more tricky is the latter component. To focus intensely on something means to avoid distractions and concentrate solely on the task as much as possible for the duration of focus. This means working alone, and not even leaving your seat to grab a glass of water at an extreme. Do not have distracting toys, games, or other items on your study table when you are trying to focus. You most certainly shouldn’t try to do your homework while trying to watch television at the same time. One concept that I’ll emphasise over and over again is how we as human beings simply aren’t wired to multitask and still deliver at peak cognitive performance. Whenever we are distracted and do something else, we suffer a decrease in cognitive performance, and it takes a while for us to recover from such context-switching. When this happens multiple times (e.g. checking one’s phone or email every six minutes, even if it’s just for 10-15 seconds each time) over what would otherwise be a study/learning session of intense focus, the value of the session is lower than what it would otherwise be. People drastically underestimate the adverse effects of multitasking on one’s cognitive performance. If you are able to do this consistently: getting your study duration up, and having intense focus on an activity that is cognitively demanding and involves deliberate practice, you will then be one of the top performers in primary school and beyond.
- Have proper eyecare habits. Go outdoors more and get more sunlight! If you have to do near work, ensure that the time spent is purposeful and that you still have good practices such as adhering to the 20-20-20 rule (i.e. every twenty minutes, glance at something twenty feet away for about twenty seconds). Work on the modifiable risk factors of myopia. If you are fortunate enough, you may not have to wear glasses if everything goes alright. Nevertheless, given that our parents have myopia, and that myopia is partially hereditary, some degree of myopia is to be expected. At the very least, change what you can, and I’m almost certain that the severity of your myopia can be minimised.
- Start exercising! If all the benefits of an arbitrary duration of exercise could somehow be replicated by the consumption of a single drug, a single pill, a chemical substance, I have no doubt that it will go on to be the best-selling pill of all time. It’s good to start exercising early. Start training for the 5-station NAPFA tests that you will start to undergo in P3 (I think). It would be fantastic if you could consistently get ‘Gold’ each time you do the test.
- Be kind to others. There is a difference between being assertive and being unkind. Appreciate the difference, and you will go further in life.
- Take learning of the piano seriously. Seriously, Nic, you don’t know how fortunate and blessed you are to have Teacher Helen as your piano teacher. For goodness’ sake, she has two grands in her house – a Steinway and a Kawai. Piano lessons with her aren’t cheap. Dad and Mom have done their part in accepting your initial request to begin piano lessons and have gone the extra mile to engage such a fantastic piano teacher. Do your part by practising diligently. You could become a concert pianist if you start taking piano seriously.
- Take the learning of Mandarin Chinese seriously. You are disadvantaged in the sense that none of your family members communicate via Mandarin Chinese at home. The only exposure you have will therefore be your Mandarin classes in school and the Chinese tuition classes that your parents will make you undergo. During the limited time you have in these classes, focus on the material and ensure that you do any required pre-reading, preparation, and homework to get the most out of the learning opportunity.
- Read The Straits Times and more books (especially Chinese literature). Books, in theory, represent the accumulated wisdom of the author, and everyone who has preceded him. A book is an incredible source of knowledge. For something to be published in the form of a book, you can be sure that it would need to add (at least from the perspective of the author) value to the lives of its reader. It would have to undergo many iterations of edits and revisions before the published work finally ends up in your hand. Books are wonderful. As you read books, you can potentially avoid making the same painful mistakes as others by reading about others’ lessons and what they learnt from it. You can learn about what to do and what to avoid. But most importantly, as an incoming primary school student, reading the newspapers and books enable you to have a firmer grasp of language. Your vocabulary will become more sophisticated. With the positive effects of reading compounded over a long stretch of time, you will be glad you started this. You vocabulary will become incredibly robust and versatile, and you will become far more articulate than I even currently am. A fantastic English teacher, Mrs Ivy Lee, will start recommending you to read the papers in Primary Six. Her advice is great. But you don’t have to wait till P6 starts to begin it. Start now. Read the books at home. Don’t just leave them on the bookshelf.
- Ask Dad to make a Gmail account for you in a few months. Gmail is going to be open to the general public on 1 April 2004, a few months after you start primary school. Get Dad to teach you how to access the Internet, and make a Gmail account for you, and ask him to register “email@example.com”, or “firstname.lastname@example.org” ASAP. If you don’t make the email accounts fast enough, these emails are just going to be registered by other people around the world. If those two emails aren’t available for registration, then just do “email@example.com”.
- Start establishing positive daily habits. Wake up early in the morning and do not engage in any kind of alarm-snoozing. Sleep early. Be consistent with your morning and evening routine.
- Take CCA in primary school seriously. Try to get involved in a CCA where you can represent the school in competitions and events. Attain some kind of award or do some kind of volunteering activity so that you can have something to show for the time and effort that you have put into the CCA. If the achievements are significant enough, it might even help in getting into certain choice secondary schools via the DSA if your PSLE score isn’t good enough (but of course, this shouldn’t be an issue if you seriously take the advice of studying).
- Have excellent conduct and try to get the gold ‘Model Student’ badge consistently. Seriously. It’s all part of that quest to be that ideal student – one who excels academically, excels in conduct, and excels in physical fitness. Do everything well. One of the ways I suspect people are able to get the gold ‘Model Student’ badge is by having a track record of leadership appointments in primary school. So whenever an opportunity arises, do express your interest to be a class monitor, carry books to the staff room, and be a prefect. Pick the front row seats and be engaged in the class activity as much as possible. Yeah, you will soon come to realise that there will be primary school students who will wear neck ties. They are prefects.
- Treat Aunty Yati, your current domestic helper, and all subsequently employed domestic helpers with respect. They are human beings too, not your personal servants. Get a glass of water yourself. Have meaningful conversations with them, and you might even be able to pick up the basics of Bahasa Indonesia.
- Ask Dad to help you create a fresh Word document on a piece of software known as Microsoft Word. Start documenting all your achievements and accomplishments (to come). It will be useful when you need to submit applications for various scholarships, awards, appointments, bursaries throughout your education journey.
- Make extensive use of the homework diary or the daily planner that is issued by the school at the start of each academic year. They are incredibly helpful for keeping track of things.
- Make use of the tennis racquets and tennis balls we have at home; use the tennis courts at the condominium, and learn it well. It’s good to have at least one sport that one engages in. Tennis is a great way to socialise with one’s peers and keep fit.
- Make use of the swimming pools we have at home. Get good at swimming. Don’t just play in the pool and have fun in the water. Practise the swimming strokes that you will be taught by Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Francis, who are swimming teachers that Dad will soon engage.
- Whatever you do, put your mind to it, and focus intensely. As a follow up to the earlier point on academic performance, this advice of focussing intensely applies not just to academic work, but virtually any activity you engage in. The way to get the most out of something is to focus on it intensely.
- Don’t ask your parents to get you a phone just because many of your peers will start having one in P3-P5. There’s simply no good reason for a primary school student to have a phone in the mid-2000s. Life was much simpler then. Delay getting a phone as much as possible. Why sign yourself up for a great potential source of distraction after all? Once again, focus on your studies.
- Avoid the television (except the evening news on Channel Five) as if it were the plague. Watching television is such a passive activity, and there is little learning value in that, particularly if one is watching cartoons for entertainment. In time to come, Mrs Ivy Lee (if you do get her as your English teacher) will ask you to watch the evening news on Channel Five. This should be the only time you watch television. For this specific news programme, pay attention to how the news anchor pronounces and enunciates his words. Use the news anchor as your role model for how you should speak in your everyday conversations. This will all pay off at the PSLE English and beyond. Apart from this English evening news programme, please avoid watching the television.
- Don’t create a Facebook account when you are P5 even though it will seem like a cool thing to do. At P5, you technically aren’t allowed to make a Facebook account anyway. For most people, the cons associated with social media use far outweigh the benefits. Even if you do find yourself having to use it eventually, please ensure that you use it intentionally (e.g. for communicating on a class group page) instead of squandering your time on Facebook games such as Mafia Wars, Backyard Monsters, etc.
- Do not associate with the negative influences in your class. It is commonly said that you will be the average of the five people you most associate yourself with. Choose the people whom you associate with judiciously.
- Do not do silly and foolish things in class. Don’t make those paper pellets to be shot with rubber bands, catapults, ‘G2 guns’, stapled erasers, or even those satay sticks that can be shot dangerously with a stapler. Don’t participate in the activity of passing chain letters around. It’s not going to do you any good. You’re just asking for trouble. Pay attention in class, focus on learning the content well, and excelling in your studies.
- Don’t make fun of or bully anyone.
- Don’t play video games. Don’t even start! They are not a productive use of your time. Practise the piano, do tennis, swimming, running, read books, or study instead.
- Don’t slouch in your seat. Adopt a good posture as much as possible.
- Don’t read books in a dimly-lit environment. This would likely accelerate any myopia progression.
- Don’t bother with the various Chicken Essence and Bird’s Nest concoctions. Tell Dad and Mom to save their money. You will see advertisements of these products at the various bus stops: with top students posing with these substances. There will be these words in a huge font: “My Choice!” In retrospect, these advertisements were so predatory and certainly preyed on many parents’ insecurities regarding their children’s academic performance to the extent it must have compelled these parents to purchase such products. Singaporeans would do the most ridiculous of things – anything which superficially seems to offer a glimmer of hope of getting their children’s grades up. I’m glad such advertisements eventually disappeared for good.
- Avoid unhealthy food and drinks. It’s unhealthy to munch on Sour Cream & Onion potato chips straight from the packet while watching ‘Cartoon Network’ and lying sideways on the sofa like a sloth. Please don’t let that become you. Also, don’t ever start the daily routine of getting 500-ml sugared drinks at the end of each recess period in school. Never consume those 500-ml POKKA Green Tea, Ice Lemon Tea, and Chrysanthemum Tea bottled drinks.
Well, I suppose that’s a decent amount of stuff for now.
I wonder how you are feeling right now, Nic. Perhaps a little bit of assurance that despite all the uncertainty that you’re imagining (two, three, or even four years from now), you would still end up as a student – in a course which society happily labels as safe, stable, and prestigious? You have no idea how willing I am to seize an opportunity to relive my life from the start of primary school given what I currently know. I don’t have that opportunity. However, if this letter somehow reaches you, then you do. Though you don’t have my vivid experiences and memories of the events that occurred from 6yo onwards, you nevertheless have the next best thing – the opportunity to vicariously experience what I did through the words of this letter.
Do not let the knowledge that you will be a third-year medical student at NUS at the age of 24 make you complacent. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for you to neglect doing your homework or neglect your responsibilities in primary school and the years to come. On the contrary, I urge you to consider how much more you could be if you would just internalise all the general and specific points of advice I have listed. Superficially, just letting things go as normal (as though you’ve never encountered this letter) and constantly succumbing to instant gratification seems to be a reasonable alternative given that you know where you’d be in about 18 years. However, there have been many bends, kinks, and painful moments, and consequences, and I wouldn’t want you to have to undergo what I did.
If you follow my advice in this letter down to a T, I am certain that when you actually turn 24, you will be absolutely superior to me in every conceivable way – a more filial son, a more proficient musician, a healthier individual, a better runner, a more academically brilliant individual, a more articulate person, a kinder person, a person who gets along more easily with others.
For now, you have the benefit of youth. Please don’t lend further credence to the notion that youth is wasted on the young. You have the opportunity to change things, and I hope to be your beacon. You are at the age where people still ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I suspect that’s why people love interacting with children so much, and why I am quite keen on having children of my own in the future, God willing. Children represent potential and possibilities – a mould that can be shaped, a malleable metal. It’s almost like having a second shot at life – a chance to restart a game that wasn’t well played the first time.
I’d probably write another letter to an older you soon (perhaps to 12-year-old Nicholas who has just received his PSLE results). But either way, if you do receive this letter, please know that I’ve put so much thought into crafting this, and I hope you would live each day meaningfully, intentionally, and purposefully in order to maximise your potential.
24-year-old Nic from the future 🙂