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Culture Vulture

Time to embrace spontaneity and interact

Striking up conversations with strangers, instead of just sticking to carefully curated events, may lead to something meaningful

One of my friends said to me as we paced the streets of our British university town one winter's evening this year: "If you think about it, we've got only around 15 good years left to achieve something great before we settle down by 40."

How depressing, I thought, feeling a bit like the mayfly which has only a day to live - and pass on its genes - before dropping dead.

As you might expect, I spent quite a bit of time at university tormented by a fear of missing out and an equally strong fear of failure. The result? Cautious toe-dipping alternating with a desperate, half-crazed pursuit of "perfection" or having it all.

I was always on the lookout for that one play, film or novel that might change my life and became afraid of missing it.

Social events were carefully selected in hopes that they would make way for a "spontaneous" encounter that might radically alter my perspective on life. As one might expect, this hardly ever happened.

Back in Singapore, hungry for new experiences, I signed up for two film therapy sessions at The Substation last month.

The idea: share your woes with a Singapore film director dressed in a lab coat, who then "prescribes" a film for your problem. Before this, you selected your "doctors" based on the particular ailments you were suffering from - ranging from "Suffering from persistent ennui" to "Feeling heart-sick".

"(Afraid of) a life of mediocrity," I wrote in the online form as I described my symptoms.

"And listening to too much Morrissey."

No one, I'm sure, was under any illusions that a prescription based on 15 minutes of chit-chat could seriously do much to solve anyone's problems - although it well might be a start.

I learnt a thing or two from the experience, encountering films I wouldn't otherwise have seen, some of which I liked more than others. While I was moved by The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, I found Love Letter (1995) by Japanese director Shunji Iwai a bit too sentimental.

One of the therapists helpfully noted that it might be better to address a problem indirectly rather than tackle it head-on. Another offered the intriguing suggestion that keeping secrets from loved ones might be a good thing.

In October, I took part in Human Library, a community initiative where you book the company of humans you wouldn't otherwise speak to and do so for 25 minutes.

These human "books" seemed catered to a certain sort of Singaporean. It felt somewhat odd looking at the list of "books" on offer, crudely reduced to types such as "person living with HIV", "former sex worker", "person with dwarfism". Somewhat surprisingly, "Muslim woman" and "ITE student" also made the list.

Spontaneity may be overrated, but I felt frustrated by how the books' replies often seemed a bit too well-rehearsed, making it difficult to dig beneath the surface during these short group conversations.

I was also struck by how many people who had signed up for the event chose to fiddle with their smartphones while waiting to enter the building rather than strike up conversations with their neighbours.

Are we becoming increasingly incapable of interacting with one another without a "valid" excuse or platform?

In September, the Guardian published an article about a Los Angeles man who "walks" humans for a living, offering conversation and a listening ear at US$7 (S$10) a mile.

That same month in London, "Tube Chat badges" were rolled out to encourage people to talk to one another on public transport.

I wonder how well these initiatives would do in Singapore - we aren't a very trusting bunch, after all.

Still, we are being prescribed things that should be more readily available than they are. Perhaps one day we'll walk into stores and grab "mood packages" the way Beijing-ers buy bottles of clean air. Twenty dollars for a dose of inspiration, maybe $50 for half a day of unadulterated joy.

Then again, spend any amount of time on the Internet watching Korean woman Park Seo Yeon make a living from eating in front of a webcam (for netizens hungry for companionship), or hour-long cat videos on YouTube (for those who want a mood-lift), and you realise we're getting there.

The age of Tinder and TripAdvisor is upon us: Events, products and people are customised and compartmentalised, followed by a kind of compulsive "select-all" as we feel pressured to - in the words of the theme song from Zootopia (2016) - "try everything".

The things we end up trying more often than not have been rated favourably by others online. The so-called millennial generation has often been described as risk-averse, perhaps for good reason.

But we put on blinkers when we micromanage our lives in this way. I'm not sure if I would exist today if people had been using Google Maps in the 1990s.

My parents were complete strangers with no mutual friends who met at a bus interchange when one of them asked the other for directions.

Maybe I ought to spend more time wandering around without a smartphone. Then again, maybe not: Everyone else would still be glued to theirs.

It's a new day and age. Life's short, I'm a busy millennial - so I'll just sign up for that next carefully curated event and hope something unexpected comes out of it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'Time to embrace spontaneity and interact'. Print Edition | Subscribe