Learning to go with the flow

I've always been extremely detail- and goal-oriented. Take a poll among my family or friends. Some might call me organised, others (more candid) might say "anal-retentive".

Fact: One of my earliest memories as a child was arranging a series of toys and objects on a new desk according to an invisible grid, making sure each item was in its place.

While I think a lot of this is due to my genetic make-up in the nature-versus-nurture scheme of things, my civil engineer dad might have, uh, given me a nudge when he taught my sister and me the basics of project management when I was in Secondary 1.

About two months before major examinations, he would sit down with us with a calendar and we would map out our entire revision process. He would ask us how many chapters we had for, say, mathematics - which areas we found especially difficult and always had problems with, and weigh what we should review first and what should be left closer to the examination date so it was fresher in our minds.

We would spread out the revision - usually a different subject on each day - and he always told us to allocate more time to each topic than we thought we needed. Because most people, he said, tend to underestimate how much time it takes to complete a task. He was right. After about a year of this "training", we could do it well enough independently.

I still do that today. I map out all my assignments and deadlines with checklists and I give myself more time than I think I need. One of my former editors remarked, with some incredulity, that I was somehow always able to deliver long features on time even if a lot of breaking news happened in-between.

Then, I met my husband.

My husband is a true globetrotter. Until we got married, he had been moving around for most of his life - whether due to circumstance or choice. He's had to adapt quickly to difficult situations or sudden changes in plans. He comes from Myanmar, a country that had little political stability when he was growing up - his parents moved to Singapore shortly after the bloody 1988 student pro-democracy protests in Yangon - they were conditioned to expect that anything could happen.

What I discovered, in the early period of our marriage, was that his versatility and flexibility drove me absolutely crazy. He hardly planned anything (well, now he does, because his job involves a fair amount of management). He was spontaneous, relaxed and curious about the various paths that life could take. No, we did not have to hang the laundry in a highly specific order, he would tell me, or imagine that our friends would hate us forever because we were 14.5 minutes late for a dinner appointment.

While I had mapped out my entire life from the age of 13, he had spent his life exploring exciting options, turning over possibilities and learning how to duck when life threw curveballs his way.

This openness frustrated me until I realised that he still pretty much managed to finish everything he needed to do. And he worried less.

When I went to Myanmar for the first time four years ago, I didn't quite realise how highly strung I was. I would freak out when we were caught in a traffic jam an hour long: What if we were late? What if this messed up our plans? What if things didn't turn out exactly as I wanted them to be? And then sulk bitterly in a corner over my lack of control.

Then as I grew to know the language and the culture, I discovered a saying in Burmese called "ya ba deh". It roughly translates to: "it's all good". Stuck in a two-hour traffic jam? The taxi driver will cut the engine, open his newspaper, grin at you with betel-stained teeth and say: "Ya ba deh." No worries. It's all going to be just fine.

There's a fine balance, I've learnt, between being a zealous planner who is conscientious about work - and being too rigid, unable to adapt to new circumstances.

A few months after I got married, my relaxed, bubbly mother - who has been happily married to my meticulous, driven father for more than 32 years - gave me a hug and said, "You know, Corrie, marriage makes you a better person. It sands away both your rough edges."

Later, she sent me a text: "Dad used to say the floor was clean enough to eat from because I was always fussy about that. Now, he is more concerned about orderliness than me - the beauty of marriage!"

So, yes. I've learnt how to mix my judicious planning with a bit of the laidback, open attitude my husband has towards life. Ya ba deh, I tell myself. It's all good. It's going to be okay.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Learning to go with the flow'. Print Edition | Subscribe