Learning about what really matters

I would like to follow up a little on my previous post on sensitivity analysis. Writing on sensitivity analysis wasn’t quite my aim in writing that piece; I was actually hoping to get down on paper (or screen) something I’ve long felt but didn’t quite express before: the tug-of-war between striving for achievement and going with the flow.

Striving for achievement is something I picked up pretty late in life, somewhere between my last year of secondary school when I was 15, and my first year of junior college/polytechnic education (at the age of 16). Before then, I was a very happy-go-lucky person, and had, according to one teacher of mine, a “cheerful and pleasant disposition”.

That’s, of course, not to say that I’m no longer of a cheerful or pleasant disposition — I sure would like to think that I still am. But at the age of about 15, I read my first self-help book (it was, for the record, called “Talking to Ducks, by James Kitchens), and it ignited a fire in me that I never thought I had or would have had.

Throughout my polytechnic years, I had a decent amount of fire in me, though it was sputtering and did go out at least a couple of times. I remember in the first semester of the second year in TP (Temasek Polytechnic) I had purposely did badly on my exams so that others years would look better in comparison!

Still, this achievement-orientation never really took hold on me, and I didn’t really care much if I “succeeded” (whatever your definition of success) or not.

Enlisting into the Army

After going into the army, however, things changed. About a month into my BMT (basic military training phase), I suddenly had this burning desire to be an officer. I suppose it wasn’t helped by the fact that the bunk I was sleeping in was made up of mostly Type-A, achieve-at-most-costs type of people (about half of them made it to OCS (officer cadet school) — a lot higher than the average), and they often gave me quite a bit of stick for not being as gung-ho about the army as they were.

The Bunk I Should Have Been In

Although I was sleeping in the same bunk as these people, I was actually supposed to be in a different bunk. I belonged to a different “section” (sections, made up of ten people, are supposed to sleep in the same bunk), but due to some logistical hiccup I was placed in the bunk I was in as there weren’t enough cupboards in the one I was assigned to.

This section that I supposedly belonged to were made up mostly of Type-C, happy-go-lucky people. I do not believe anyone of them actually made it to be an officer, not that they’d cared anyways, and were a lot of fun to be with.

Type C or Type A; or Type B?

This example actually serves well to illustrate what was going on in my mind — I was being transformed from a type-C (well, sort of) into a type-A (again, sort of).

So, if I was a type-C transforming into a type-A, would I not be a type-B? Well, yes and no. I suppose I did achieve some sort of balance; but what I found was that I was more frequently jumping from a type-A to a type-C and vice-versa more than I ever was displaying personality traits that a type-B would have.


Just the other day I was thinking about my examinations. I had just gotten back my results thus far (meaning my grades up till now without the final exam, which is in a couple of days). I realised that in order for me to get a high distinction (and average of 80% and above), I would be required to get a little above 82% in the final exam.

This bothered me a little, as most times I simply needed 70+ in the final examinations to secure a high distinction. My type-A personality came through, and I was put off studying for a while, as I contemplated what I had done wrong, and what I would have to do next semester in order not to be in such a predicament again.

But I realised that I had actually done just about all that I should have done, and that there really wasn’t much else I could have done. Sure, I might have done more practice questions, probably helping me a little in the mid-semester’s; or spoke up more in class, helping me gain a better class participation mark.

But that was about it.

Down the drain?

I started thinking about how one whole semester’s work was going to go down the drain just like that. I wanted this high distinction so bad, and had been expecting it for so long, that just the thought of losing it at the final hurdle got me horribly unmotivated.

Academia and the real world

But then it hit me: should I really be this concerned about these marks? What do these marks mean when I go out to get a job? How much do marks matter in the real world? And in the scheme of my life, would having a distinction really be that different from having a high distinction?

I wanted to know. I thought about it for a while, and realised that no, the difference in practical terms is not much, and in the bigger scheme of things it’s even less; and in terms of a job, it wouldn’t even matter if I decided to go out on my own and start my own business.

Thinking about my exams, I realised how odd it was for me — the cheerful boy with the pleasant disposition — to get so bogged down and overwhelmed by the thought of not achieving a high distinction, achieving instead, just a distinction.

I stopped my thoughts in its tracks, read some poetry, and got back to my studying.

With a smile on my face.


Because that’s what really matters.

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