(Photo Source: Takashi)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
For most of us, the final SPM paper we took marked the end of secondary school education and it marked a turning point in our lives where we moved from studying together to embarking upon vastly different pathways. It marks the beginning of numerous decisions that we have to make and includes getting a lot of advice from school counselors, worried parents and knowledgeable seniors, counsel from helpful relatives, visits to campus open day sessions, mountainous stacks of college brochures and reading the education sections in local newspapers and websites trying to figure out what to do in the next phase of life.
Exactly one year after my SPM exams, I read ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ and remembered thinking to myself how apt this description was of my current state of affairs. My story after SPM is filled with joyous and fun moments coupled with anger, confusion, fear and frustration.
My moments of joy and happiness begin the moment I completed the last SPM paper and left my school till the day my SPM results came out. The moment my SPM results came out, was when my world turned upside down.
Well, to be fair, I was also somewhat frustrated after my SPM exams as I was the only person from my school batch who didn’t have a girlfriend, while all my other friends used to lug around their new-found “love of their lives” every time we met up. But that never bothered me too much as I was involving myself in some many wonderful things including starting my own business, helping out in youth camps, working for an NGO. And I felt so powerful, yet so foolish, so impetuous and spontaneous, yet so resolved to ‘change the world.’
Then my SPM results came out. And then the world changed suddenly. For me at least. The funny thing is I really did well for my SPM. I scored 7A1s and 1C3 in the old days where we were limited to 8 or so subjects. I was not surprised as I somewhat knew I would do well but my relatives and friends were probably extremely surprised as they wondered when I found time to study as I spent the majority of my secondary school life playing football and trying to ‘change the world’. But study I did (when my friends were out looking for girlfriends or wasting their time looking for their “trophies”).
Nevertheless, having good results really complicated matters. I decided deep down that I did not want to study in a local university and wanted to get one of those scholarships that were awarded. So, together with all my friends (who similarly resolved to escape Malaysia for the supposedly greener ‘academic’ shores elsewhere), we started to apply for every scholarship under the sun — from the JPA, Petronas, Renong and whatever else that was available back then. One by one, my friends, most of whom had lesser results than me, started to get scholarship to various countries, universities and prep schools. I went for interviews after interviews, but nothing came about.
I soon realised that I was a hopeless interviewee. I tended to ‘tell the truth’ during the interviews and that was not apparently what the interviewer wanted to hear, especially on my fine act of balancing ‘changing the world’, sports and life with studies thrown in to the fray occasionally. And so as the months ticked away, nothing came about. And then I had to face the inevitable — I had to go to FORM 6!
I could not believe it. It was a horrible time. I saw all my friends flying off or going to some private college or being prepped at some institution to be flown off to some exotic countries like the UK, Australia, the US and France (well, for a person who had only travelled to 2 places outside of Malaysia all my life, everything was exotic outside the country!).
But I had to go back to the Methodist Boys School in Kuala Lumpur (MBS) and be part of the Form 6 class. The only consolation I had was the fact that at least in Form 6 there would be girls in the class (unlike the previous 5 years) so maybe there was some hope of filling up the ‘lack of a girlfriend’ void which was perpetuated by my friends now breaking up with their first girlfriends and having their 2nd and 3rd girlfriends.
So, to Form 6 I trod along, dreading the fact that I was the only one in my group of friends actually going back to MBS. And so, the exciting months since the end of SPM suddenly turned into a depressing set of months that followed. I went to school but my heart and mind were jealously thinking of how ‘lucky’ my friends were while I was so unlucky and such a victim.
But this sad state of being a ‘victim’ didn’t last long. My headmaster, a very strict disciplinarian, had taught me in my previous years as a student leader in MBS striving to ‘change the world’ that you must never be taken victim by circumstances. This was further reinforced numerous times by my former football coach at MBS, the legendary Mokhtar Dahari.
He believed that bad things (in my case ‘being stuck in MBS’ !!) happened to everyone but our reaction to these circumstances defines great leaders. And watching Mokhtar Dahari as he battled the deadly disease that finally took his life, convinced me that I needed to take charge of my life and not be taken victim to whatever conditions surrounding me.
So, with this new resolve, I decided to dedicate the next few months of my life to ‘getting out of Malaysia’ somehow. I knew that I had to keep trying, as Mokhtar Dahari kept repeating to us, “everything requires hard work and perseverance .” And so I worked tirelessly day and night to get into a foreign university.
And so I started getting university application forms, doing up my ‘resume’ and writing passionate letters to various universities on why they need to admit me into their school and pay for my education, food, lodging and everything else. I think I possibly spent my entire saving and earning (did I mention that I had mini businesses doing tuition, and other stuff!) and the cash I received for getting good results (my father worked in the government and they have various cooperatives that reward government employees whose kids do well in their studies) on stamps and posting more than 1000 letters to universities all over the world.
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Surprisingly, I got answers from many of the big universities. Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown said come join us but only offered paltry scholarships which only covered 25% of the fees. As I knew my parents had no means to pay the rest (and little did I know that the government would actually pay for me if I ACTUALLY got into the top universities), I kept tirelessly applying to others.
Finally, a small university (well not so small!) in Connecticut, sent me a letter accepting me into their university, with a full scholarship covering everything from food, lodging, tuition and the works. All I had to do was to fly over there. I still remember receiving the letter on December 18, 1992. By January 3rd, 1993, I was on a plane (where I met my future wife on board) ready to start school in Connecticut. My perseverance and diligence had paid off and I was off to start my new adventure in this exotic new place in New England!
When I arrived at the University of Bridgeport, I met the President of the university (as apparently I was one of the first students given this full scholarship) and then off I went to see my student advisor. His first question to me was “why are you at this university?” as he showed me that he knew about the fact that I had gained entrance to a few other ‘better’ universities. That question I answered with ease. Then he posed a second question, “so what do you want to study?”
I was stuck. I had no idea what I wanted to study or what career I wanted to pursue. I think my parents wanted me to be an engineer, others suggested being an accountant, and a whole host of ‘hot’ jobs that will make me successful. I looked at my student advisor, a man by the name of Professor Greenspan, and asked him a question instead, “tell me Professor, which is the easier course out there– something I can breeze through?” He looked back at me almost in anger and then composed himself and said, “Business – international business is easy.” And I looked back at him and said, “ok, I’ll do that then!”
And that settled it. I was going to study business. (A few days later I realised that Prof Greenspan was a business professor and hence his recommendations. )
After studying business and even after I graduated and got a job at General Electric (GE), I still had no idea what I wanted to do. In fact, my first boss decided that I was not good at finance so he insisted I take on finance roles for the first part of my career at GE and hence I became a finance leader and later a CFO at GE. But even then I struggled to figure out what I really wanted to do and finally after my 7th role at GE, I finally figured out my passion and what I truly wanted to do in life.
Finding one’s passion is never easy. Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple, dropped out of college, disappointing his parents in the process because he “had no idea what [he] wanted to do with life and no idea how college was going to help [him] figure it out.” Steve worked at Atari briefly to save enough money to go to India to “find his passion and calling.” In India, Steve spent time with the surroundings and the Creator discovering his “calling.” In fact, when Steve gives out this advice to everyone after they finish their secondary school:
I think you should go get a job as a busboy or something until you find something you are really passionate. I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure PERSEVERANCE. It is so hard. You put so much of your life into this thing. There are such rough moments in time that I think most people give up. Unless you have a lot of passion about this, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give up. So, you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you are passionate about, otherwise you are not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that’s half the battle right there.
And he is right. You have got to find what you love and are passionate about first. This is an important part of what you need to do after SPM. Once you discover what you are passionate about, you will be energised to greatness.
As I talk to young people all over the world, a clear pattern emerges. Just like me, many young Malaysians similarly struggles after SPM. Like me, many did not know if they should study or not, where to study, what to study, what jobs to take on and what career choices to make. Yet, the end of SPM is an important landmark. It was important for Steve Jobs and it is important for you.
For many, it may be going off to Form 6 and STPM or A-Levels and then deciding on your careers. For others they may be forced to decide earlier. Yet, we all struggle with this decision as we know not what excites us or what makes us passionate. Finding out what makes you tick and what energises you is the key to life after SPM.
So, my encouragement to you is don’t worry. Try different routes. It took me many years to find my passion but when I did, I never looked back. But looking back, I would not change my past. Each experience I had, good or bad, helped me learn about myself and developed me. And all these experiences helped me find out what I didn’t want to do and what I was truly passionate about. So, my take is, enjoy life after SPM. Don’t fret. But keep exploring and keep experiencing and you will surely find your passion in life.