The Discomfort of The Edge

I wrote this piece for a book project that is soon to be published. When I met Vern last week, she asked me when my next (promised) blog post is coming up. I had a few lined up but when I saw this, I believe this is worth sharing. At least to kickstart 2018.

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I’ve always believed that you can only grow when you are pushed to the edge and feel extremely uncomfortable. If I look back at the incidents that shaped my life, I’ve usually had to face discomfort, fears and doubts.

And I haven’t always been a risk taker. I haven’t always been brave, optimistic, confident or assertive.

In fact, I grew up introverted and shy. Whenever my parents’ friends visited, I’ll be the first to run and hide in my room. When people spoke to me, I couldn’t even make eye contact and I had to brave myself to speak up.

It wasn’t for a lack of ideas – I was a bookworm since I was 6 – but I was self-conscious.
Everyone says they were shy as children but I was more so with my short sightedness, awful hair and skinny frame. I hated being in the spotlight even though I often was, as my dad was the school’s discipline teacher. In fact, I was just another mediocre girl in school!

When I was 10 years old, I decided to put some effort into my school work after almost failing my Math test. I had cringed when I showed dad my Math results and wished the earth would swallow me up then and there.

The acute embarrassment and discomfort made me promise myself never to be caught in such a situation again. I started to systematically organize information so that I didn’t have to memorize facts like the rest of my friends. I came up with my own system of writing notes. With my own mind maps, I could recall vast amounts of information and I could write, explain and expound my points of view. When I discovered I could be good at my studies and ace exams, I felt confidence seeping into my life.

Admittedly, when we’re more confident, we start to explore other areas of life. When I started getting A’s, I felt more capable and I started braving myself to do other things in school – I disliked public speaking but I signed up for the school debate team. When my best friends and I started representing our school in inter-district debates and started to win, I found myself relishing the idea of standing up and speaking in front of an audience.

Interestingly, sports was still an area that I feared. With that little spot of confidence that I had, I tried out for the school hockey team. I wasn’t good at it and I despised running around in the scorching sun but I wanted to give myself a chance to see if I could do well in it. And so it is with many things in my life.

That’s how I ended up in business. I always tell friends that I have never even considered being an entrepreneur – I was always going to climb the corporate ladder. But life has an odd way of turning inside out.

When I was bored with my corporate communications career, I returned to my alma mater, USM, to do my Master’s degree. But sitting still has never been my strong point. I ended up helping my husband in his web design business (which eventually became mine as I became his business partner).

Initially, I had no idea what web design was. I had no design nor programming knowledge but I am an optimist. Whatever I didn’t know, I read. I googled things up. I figured it out on my own. I started becoming interested in all things web design and I learnt how to market our business.

A friend said that she could see I was passionate about marketing. I said I had to learn how to market because I had to sell our web design services and I had to be faster and smarter so that I could help our clients.

That’s the same “can do” attitude that I had when I co-founded a women entrepreneur association called WomenBizSENSE with Josephine Yoong back in 2006. We both laugh now when we think about our naivete but it is precisely our naivete that enabled us to start something that has endured until today.

We had both been looking for a women entrepreneur group to join but we didn’t find one that suited our inclinations! Instead of bemoaning the fact that all the interesting women’s groups were in KL, we decided we’d start one based on the criteria that we wanted.

On many levels, it has been challenging. I was its president for 4 years and in that span of time, I’ve had to lead a disciplinary committee, manage conflict within the organisation and engage in the most unpleasant tasks (such as removing a member from our organisation due to integrity issues). Again, it’s being pushed to the edge that makes me stronger and more resourceful!

When my mentees come to me, I often throw them this question – “What’s the worst that could happen if you made this decision?” If the consequences aren’t going to be deadly, just take the leap. You’ll learn to swim when you hit the deep end.

Many of us will always have doubts about ourselves. We fear what others will think of us. We want people to be happy with us but sometimes, this fear holds us back from doing what we truly are meant to do.

When I quit my corporate communications job, my dad was worried about me. He had never known anyone to quit a well-paying job only to leap into the unknown (he had always been a teacher and being in business was as risky as not having a job!). If I didn’t take the risk back then, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now (or have the adventures that I have had!).

Inevitably, I try to be the voice of courage for my mentees and constantly push them to excel beyond what they think they are capable of. I was so proud of Janice, my mentee when she managed to connect her CEO to someone from The Star. The Star then invited her CEO to speak at their business event and she was the catalyst that made this happen. This wouldn’t have happened if Janice didn’t push herself.

The previous Janice would have thought, who am I to bring together my CEO with The Star? I encouraged her to think bigger and ask, what if good things happen as a result of the introduction? And good things did happen. And her CEO now looks at her in a totally different light. He realises that Janice is not just any ordinary employee.

Too often, we don’t have enough cheerleaders and we don’t believe in ourselves. And too many people are pessimistic (think Eeyore the blue, sad donkey in Winnie The Pooh) and think of all the ways things can go wrong which is why many people often have dreams but don’t go after them.

All of us have this ability to go beyond who we are today. Sometimes we need someone by our side to keep pushing us forward and to keep reminding us when we get lazy or slow down.

I was fortunate that I had many mentors in my life. Mrs Prema, my English language teacher when I was in Form 1, believed in me and told me to continue excelling in English. Mr Raju, my English tuition teacher, encouraged me to write more.

Mr Kana, my Math teacher, was tough love but he rooted for me even though I thought Math was the death of me in Form 3.

My dad, who quietly encouraged my writing and essays throughout my teenage years and who even helped me type up my stories for contest submissions!

My best friends, Tammy and Jana, who thought I was the smartest and funniest girl in class when I felt otherwise.

My late mum, who always thought her eldest daughter could do anything even when I vacillated between wanting to study law (no doubt influenced by LA Law on TV) and wanting to be a copywriter (no one knew what it entailed!).

It takes a village of cheerleaders to help you realize your potential. I had been fortunate because I had the right people around me.

But what if all you have are critics and naysayers? What if you had an Eeyore in your life?

I had a Geography teacher in Form 1 called Mrs Teoh who disliked me intensely. Do you know how devastating it is to find out your teacher disliked you as a teenager? But I used her dislike of me to prove that I could do so much more.

There is nothing like hate to spur me on. The more someone says I can’t do something, the more I’d take it on as a challenge and prove the person wrong.

Until today, I keep challenging myself.

I have always wanted to publish a book. I put my persistence to the test in 2016 when I co-authored a book with my husband on web design and marketing (what a long way from not knowing anything about web design to writing a book on this topic!).

This year, I want to write another book – one that’s non-fiction but one that’s about advice and strategies for people like my mentees. I also want to start a podcast. I have many personal projects lined up and I need to carve out time to do them all.

I also took on mentees despite having a busy schedule because I know how important it is to encourage women and help them fulfil their potential and then get them to pay this forward by imbuing others with this confidence.

I also started a project of saving books and creating opportunities for people to do charity because I felt that there must be a way to prevent books from going to the landfill. I do all these things because I like seeing how far I can go, how creative I can be and how resourceful I can become.

And of course, I also took on the task of producing a book together with Emi and Josephine (we hope it gets published by March this year) – we volunteered our personal time to interview and write stories of women leaders because we believe Asian women have their own perspectives on “leaning in”. We met up and spoke to a number of fantastic women leaders in Penang. Their stories are inspiring as well as emotional.

Was it a tough project? Yes. Was it agonizing? For sure.

The discomfort is real but each time I face my fears, my fear monster shrinks a little bit more.

In my life, the more I do, the more I know I can do. I just need to try my best. Not all things work in my favour (if it did, I’d be invincible or Wonder Woman, both of which I am certainly not). I am terrible at some things – I can’t moderate a forum if I don’t have a rapport with the panellists, I am hopeless at logic puzzles, I can’t sew a straight line and I am bad at following up.

But I stopped bashing myself and what I am bad at, I either get help or eliminate them from my life. Plus it always helps to have a sense of humour.

Marianne Williamson says it best (and I love this paragraph – it always lifts me up!):

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

And now go out and do that badass thing that you do so well.

3 thoughts on “The Discomfort of The Edge

  1. I read this earlier, shared it around, and came back to read it once more. Echoing what you said, I’m fortunate to have met you and have you as a mentor too, even though it felt unintentional (and that’s probably the best kind!). Thank you for being a part of my life, for writing (and always encouraging me to do the same), and for always inspiring me. It’s always the toughest stuff that scare us sh*tless that usually amounts to something bigger, something wonderful. I’d take standing at the edge with folks like you over mulling in the center of meaningless comfort any day.

  2. You know, sometimes I think I write for me and I write for you. I remember what we both told each other and tell ourselves all the time – the blog is a sacred space to collect our thoughts and months and years from now, we come back to our own blog and re-read what we wrote and wonder, is this the same person that I am now? Most likely, no. I took heart to what you said about blogging. It’s about writing something worth sharing. It’s not reporting (too many “bloggers” do that these days) and it’s not a recap of what happened on such and such a day. It’s a way of asking myself, what did I learn from my mistakes? In my 20s, I always felt I had to be the big sister to everyone else and show up all the time. Nowadays, I have more of me to take care of. And I take care of me by cultivating my own growth so that I can take care of others. I think you did a great scary thing and came out even more brave – going to the UK for a year and completing your Master’s. I think it’s a fab day when we can get more people to stand at the edge and not be afraid of falling but to be excited by soaring. (Did I tell you that I’m learning Spanish on Duolingo, just for fun and to keep the brain working in a different way?)

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