Instead of falling in with what others think we should be, we should create our own destiny
Writing has never come easily to me. My words do not flow onto the page or screen in a steady stream. It has taken me years to find my voice as a writer, and I am not done yet.
But this past week, I felt grateful for the long struggle because it came in useful when I stood before 18 of my colleagues in a classroom and tried to pass on to them what I had learnt about commentary writing. Since it is not possible for anyone to learn how to write commentaries, or any other form of opinion, in just two days, I decided to try a new approach and focus not on the desired product - namely a commentary fit to be published - but on writing as a process and how one can get better at it.
What inspired me was a short article written by Donald M. Murray entitled "Teach writing as process not product". In it, the late writing teacher at the University of New Hampshire and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Boston Globe penned a searing critique of how writing was taught in many classrooms, comparing the approach to an autopsy and arguing that such dissection was no way to make language live:
"Most of us are trained as English teachers by studying a product: writing. Our critical skills are honed by examining literature, which is finished writing; language as it has been used by authors. And then, fully trained in the autopsy, we go out and are assigned to teach our students to write, to make language live.
"Naturally we try to use our training. It's an investment and so we teach writing as a product, focusing our critical attentions on what our students have done, as if they had passed literature in to us. It isn't literature, of course, and we use our skills, with which we can dissect and sometimes almost destroy Shakespeare or Robert Lowell to prove it.
"Our students knew it wasn't literature when they passed it in, and the attack usually does little more than confirm their lack of self-respect for their work and for themselves; we are as frustrated as our students, for conscientious, doggedly responsible, repetitive autopsying doesn't give birth to live writing."
This critique applies not just to writing but also to how we approach other aspects of living. We are results-oriented and live life from the outside in, seizing first on the outcome we want and then working backwards to fit the person to the task.
Consider how many of us go about choosing a career. That seems an apt area to focus on, given the worry over slowing economic and job growth, and the threat of artificial intelligence making redundant many types of human intelligence. Yet, parents and youth making career choices still tend to focus on occupations and their prospects, dissecting the pluses and minuses of each in terms of pay, job security, status and other measures of social success.
That is a practical and valid approach but it involves taking a big bet on a future that is growing ever more difficult to read. You win big if you settle on an occupation that remains in demand and high-paying. You lose big if you end up in an industry disrupted by new technology and and face pay and job cuts.
But there is another way to approach careers, and it involves thinking about work from the inside out. An essential part of a job search is an individual's search within, but that process of growing in self-awareness is often overlooked. It involves learning to listen to what our hearts and minds have to tell us about our abilities and inabilities, our loves and hates, what we value and find compelling, and what makes us come alive.
It is like a writer struggling to find his or her voice, for choosing a career is about figuring out what each of us wants to say with our lives through our work. It is not just a practical endeavour but a creative one as well. As writer Rebecca Solnit put it: "The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings."
I think that was also what Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was trying to get at when he spoke on the theme of social culture and how the rewards in the global economy may well come down to a society's innovative culture. In a December 2013 speech to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy, he asked: "What will create more of an innovative and risk-taking culture in our societies? It probably starts from young. I would suggest three things.
An essential part of a job search is an individual's search within but that process of growing in self-awareness is often overlooked. It involves learning to listen to what our hearts and minds have to tell us about our abilities and disabilities, our loves and hates, what we value and find compelling, and what makes us come alive. It is like a writer struggling to find his or her voice, for choosing a career is about figuring out what each of us wants to say with our lives through our work.
"We need to engender amongst our young a strong sense of their own personality, and a stronger desire to do their own things. We need more people who grow up to be obsessive individuals, as many entrepreneurs are.
"Second, we should encourage more questioning, starting from a young age. This has to be in the culture of the classroom, of the home, and as they grow up, in society.
"Third, provide more room for kids to do things outside the classroom, outside the academic - to provide a whole range of activities, as we are seeking to do as we broaden our education system."
I find some similarities between those suggestions and how Don Murray, the writing teacher, describes writing as a process of "discovery through language", of "exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know", of learning about the world, evaluating what we learn and communicating what we learn.
He also exhorts writers to glory in the unfinishedness of their writing as each of us should glory in the unfinishedness of our journey of self-discovery, for each of us is a work in action and our search is rich with "the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, of searching for the one true word", or should I say the one true way.
Of course, just as the writer has to work within the real and pressing constraints of deadlines and word counts, so every job-seeker has to balance his desire to do the work he loves with the need to earn a living.
Ideally, as in the case of J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, or the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, the world ends up loving your creations and you not only get to pursue your passion but also become very rich doing so.
That will not be the case for most of us. Still, I believe it is worth struggling to live life from the inside out if only because we want to be creators of our destiny, not mere consumers of what others think we should be.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Learning to live life from the inside out'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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