butter; lessons from thin-spreading

Among many things, I am a collector. A collector of quotes and advice, to be exact; you could say it’s my very version of ‘Q&A’. Like all things, quotes and advice can be shelved into a multitude of categories, one such example being pain.

It hurts, but it will all be for the better.
No pressure, no diamonds.
Grow through the pain, wade through the storm.
No pain, no gain.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

It doesn’t take the brightest bulb to notice that all the above quotes and advice boil down to convey the same message: that if you are struggling through the pain and hurting while doing something, you must be on your merry way to success. Or are you?

Let me begin with an anecdote:

Skies in Manchester are finally brightening with minimal heat; yet, a dark cloud of gloom remained over our heads as examination season loomed near. It goes without saying we, my friends and I, were all a quarter inch away from a collective mental breakdown. University, while coming with its specially curated package of highlights and fun, is ultimately still a test of academic rigor. The clock displayed a nearing of twelve in the ungodly morning just as my friend and I swiped our cards before the turnstile and entered the packed library. We tip-toed around the levels like mice and located the rest of our cohort, slaving away under the warm yet haunting lights. Tables were fixed together like puzzle pieces, books and devices were scattered around unceremoniously; you had to be careful not to trip over the dozen cables snaking the carpet floor. Moments later, someone sighs, slams their book shut, and lets the sluggish words roll off their tongue: “I haven’t slept in two days.”

A groan. A grunt. A pat on the back. A ‘poor you’. Then, it begins.

“Same; I haven’t gotten enough sleep in, like, two weeks.”
“I have three weeks’ worth of material to cover tonight.”
“Dude, a fifteen-hundred-word assignment due in two days—can you imagine?”
“Guys, I’ve been in this library chair since noon, and I haven’t eaten anything.”

Hushed tones and murmurs rush into the air around us, entrapping us in this never-ending cycle of comparing sufferings. It wasn’t a competition; no, everyone had their own boats to keep afloat in university. Alas, it was a form of self-validation. Just as a driver has to validate his parking ticket in exchange for a building exit, we were compelled to validate our sufferings to exchange them as a token of effort. The question is: why?

Why is it that we allow pain to be the primary definition of ourselves? Why is it that the volume of pain we put ourselves through (or someone else has put us through, be that ‘someone else’ a human entity or nature) translates finely into our volume of success?

I am in no way criticizing those around me for equating pain to effort as this habit is all-too-well embedded into my own life. Let’s single out my first year of university, and perform some retrospective reflection:

I like to think of the complete university experience (i.e. the societies you can possibly join, the knowledge you can possibly learn, the experience you can possibly gain, etc.) as a piece of bread. My tank of time, effort, skills, and capabilities, then, is a cube of butter. For reasons undisclosed, I made it my mission to stretch myself to the fullest during my first year of university. I sent in applications to everything I could be a part of and further develop myself through, all while struggling to ease myself into a new life in a new city.

Perhaps my initial intention was to drown myself in work so I wouldn’t have the spare time to miss home and be a crybaby about it, but eventually, this habit of mine morphed into something more consuming. I didn’t stop at the initial stage of applying for things. It was as if this cube of butter would not stop gliding until it had spread across every nook and cranny of the bread and then some. A friend coined the term ‘resume-stacking’ when he had heard of my self-taught misery, joking about how I was trying to stack experience and extra-curricular on my resume, and I suppose he was right.

Let’s begin with what I carried with me into university: this blog, Getting It Strait, and my YouTube channel. If you’ve followed my work for a while, you know how much I adore content creation above all else. And I would have loved to devote all my time outside of classes to just that, but these activities were more hobbies than bullet points that could sprinkle flair onto my resume or impressions that would grab the attention of an employer sifting through tens of thousands of CVs.

And so, through a storm of application forms, interview questions, and manifestos, I applied and got into two Malaysian student societies as an executive councillor and publicity secretary respectively, each having their own shares of events and flagships that I have to contribute toward. For any sane university student with at least three functioning brain cells and a slither of common sense, right here would have been a good place to stop. Unfortunately, the wires in my brain committed mutiny and collectively agreed that I should apply for more. And thus begin my merry adventure of resume-stacking.

As an international student, it never hurts to pick up gigs that pocket extra allowance. I began looking for extra-curricular that aligned with my interests but also paid decently, bringing me to the positions of student and content ambassador for the university. The best part about these two positions was their zero-hour contracts, meaning I had the freedom to work only when I had the time to. After a while, however, I sought something more routine to forecast a steady flow of income; which brought me to work part-time at a bubble tea store for at least two four-hour shifts a week.

Then, one fateful night midway through second semester, I was sitting in Archie’s having dinner with a friend. Within the span of an hour, I was bamboozled and cast in the annual theatrical production overseen by my Malaysian society. The kicker is, while the rest of the cast and crew had had five months to ease into their roles, I had one month to memorize three acts.

I think it was under the pink Archie’s awning when the pressure of everything began to sink in. At first, it was this overwhelming falsity of productivity, of giving myself a pat on the back for biting off more than I can chew. After all, if I’m stressed out and have to be working every waking moment, it has to account for something, right? If I have to sacrifice my sleep to write reports and articles, it will eventually pay off, right? If I can’t afford to go out with my friends because I’m occupied by editing and rehearsing, it has to add points to my metric of success, right?

The worst part is admitting that I am actively measuring my success via a pain metric isn’t making things better. For some reason, I am not seeking to stop. I am not looking to shave weight off my plate. Even now when I am back home for summer, my daily schedule is still overwhelmed by back-to-back meetings and non-stop responsibilities. Deep down, I wish I were just back home with my family, watching some nonsensical TV show and eating the food Penang has to offer. Instead, I am a glass half-full of misery, at home but not quite home, trying to convince myself that I am happy with the opportunities I currently have, that the sacrifices I am throwing into the flame will ultimately help me burn brighter. I am caught at a crossroads with nowhere to go.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m ungrateful for these chances or that working in these organizations is not worth it. The point I’m trying to make is that I have signed my name away on so many registration sheets, given my hundred percent so many times, that I don’t really know who I am anymore. I don’t have anything left to give to just me. The easy solution is to simply let go of some responsibilities, but I am afraid of being seen as someone who can’t take the pressure, someone who can’t weather the storm, someone who can’t endure the pain.

This masochistic practice is deeply ingrained in our work culture (I say ‘our’ in reference to the Asian work culture, unsure if the same can be said for the West’s). The concept of “if we have always done it this way, it has to be right” has blinded us from seeing exactly how detrimental this mindset is. Does something still worth the same if you’re only doing it as a means to an end?

The best way to sum up why we succumb to this mindset is this verbatim paragraph from Radimentary‘s blog post:

"If there is a single common virtue shared by all these protagonists, it is their superhuman pain tolerance. Protagonists routinely and often voluntarily dunk themselves in vats of lava, have all their bones broken, shattered, and reforged, get trapped inside alternate dimensions of freezing cold for millennia, and overdose on level-up pills right up to the brink of death, all in the name of becoming stronger. Oftentimes the defining difference between the protagonist and the antagonist is that the antagonist did not have enough pain tolerance and allowed the (unbearable physical) suffering in his life to drive him mad."

The author of the blog post goes on to conclude the article as such: “You’re not trying your best if you’re not happy,” a statement I have yet to fully accept simply because of the idea that not everyone is after happiness. I’d modify the conclusion to replace ‘happy’ with ‘peaceful’. There are people who are content with their state of life knowing they might never be able to achieve the level of happiness they would like to in an ideal world. Instead, what they long for is peace.

The difference between happiness and peace is that the former might not be readily available to all but the latter will always be. This simple replacement of words works because peace and suffering cannot coexist; if we continue to equate pain to effort, it is a blatant admittance that we are, in fact, not at peace.

In summary, I suppose—butter doesn’t taste any better spread thin.