SINGAPORE: Charlie scores 198 for his primary school leaving examination (PSLE). He barely makes it into the Express stream. Two decades later, he is the creative director of a popular media agency.
The day before the PSLE results are released, he writes in a Facebook post that grades don’t define him, because look where he is now. He is successful, and hence, he says, there is hope for anyone.
His post gets 25,000 reactions, 450 comments and 7,000 shares. Netizens riff off his anecdote by sharing their PSLE results alongside their level of success now.
Many of us know a Charlie – the quintessential late bloomer whose story is a permanent and predictable fixture in the social media news cycle around the time that the results of a national examination are released.
And when the PSLE results are released on Wednesday (Nov 25), we will read another story about another Charlie.
THE FLAWED ‘LATE BLOOMER’ NARRATIVE
Forgive my cynicism, there is nothing inherently wrong with the late bloomer narrative. In a depressing year like this, in fact, it could just add much-needed hope to our social media feed.
But while this innocuous narrative might intend to help some feel like they’re allowed to bloom in their own time and go against the norm, the problem arises when it ironically reinforces traditional definitions of success, from climbing the professional ladder to obtaining high social standing.
It inadvertently implies being a late bloomer is worth shouting about – if you eventually bounce back on track by achieving conventional success.
Take the Life Beyond Grades initiative that launched two years ago to much social media fanfare. It encapsulated the familiar late bloomer narrative by featuring working professionals, who had graduated from primary school decades ago. Many were doing relatively well in life despite having average to poor PSLE results.
The campaign aimed to remind youth and parents alike that PSLE results aren’t the be-all and end-all. After all, these people had made something of their lives.
Notwithstanding factors like family background, environment and inborn character traits, which play a part in helping someone bloom at all, albeit later in life, what underscored the campaign was the familiar, attractive idea of rising above the odds.
While several of the participants delved into the nuances of what success meant to them, and the campaign wasn’t insinuating that grades weren’t important at all, having won against the odds meant they were now considered successful – at least enough to dispense wisdom about not paying heed to the path dictated by their grades.
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Because of their feel-good nature and championing of the underdog, these social media posts tend to go viral, making it seem that doing well in life despite your PSLE results is a common occurrence.
In reality, that is likely the exception to the rule. Most of our journeys are far more nuanced.
For many of us, our PSLE scores – whether good, poor or average – were a blip in an adventure that might not conform to a conventional script of what economic success looks like, but nonetheless brought joy, perspective and that priceless sense of ownership of our own version of happiness.
Most of us exist on a whole other spectrum from the late bloomers and underdogs we extol, and are probably far more common.
But our comparatively ordinary lives don’t make headlines because we still don’t quite know how to divorce individual achievement from societal worth.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING AVERAGE?
Underpinning the narrative about late bloomers that praises them for aligning with society’s traditional ideas of success, after not having made the mark earlier in life, is our inability to accept being average, which we now equate with mediocrity.
The new PSLE grading system might be implemented next year, but it won’t be the silver bullet to alleviate the stress our children face, if we don’t also change the narratives around what we consider success.
The stories we tell ourselves matter.
For once, I would like to see attention given to folks, who scored, for instance, 270, for PSLE, sharing that they are now working at an unimpressive job, but that their professional and social status doesn’t bother them because they don’t pin their happiness to achievement.
Hearing someone explicitly talk about falling short of their supposed potential, but still be able to find a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life, would take the pressure off many kids, parents and even adults, regardless of those three digits once upon a time.
What if being a late bloomer didn’t mean finally meeting society’s narrow definition of success, but coming into our own and carving out our own expansive definition of success, regardless of whether anyone agrees? What if it simply meant finding our own stride and living up to the person we want to be, not who others expect us to be?
Yet, being able to shape a healthier, more holistic perspective of success in the long term begins with not looking at mediocrity as a moral failing.
HOW WE JUDGE SUCCESS
Personally, it is a lesson that would have saved me a lot of grief over the last two decades since I received my PSLE results.
I was never “meant” to score 253 for PSLE, nor have my name flashed on screen in my primary school’s assembly hall as one of the students who qualified for the gifted examination that would determine entrance into the gifted stream.
My teachers predicted I would score no more than 220. To date, I can still recall their look of shock when they revealed the list of top performers in my school.
My grades weren’t the most stellar, but I was supposedly on the path to success because I had far exceeded my teachers’ and parents’ expectations.
I did not realise it then, but getting a taste of conventional success at such a formative age was pivotal in shaping my high-achieving behaviour for the next two decades. Even when I opted out of the junior college route my parents and teachers had hoped for me to head into, in order to avoid the stress of cramming for a national exam within two years, there was immense pressure to excel in a polytechnic.
Not only did a teacher half-joke that I was “wasting” my potential, I could never fully escape my personal demons of needing to perform, so I could prove my PSLE score wasn’t a fluke, never mind that it had been five years since my PSLE by then.
All I wanted was to continue reaching for that same excellence and the sense of self-worth and pride that was intrinsically tied to success and achievement, even when it wore me down.
Without my surprise score, I wouldn’t have gotten the academic opportunities I did. But the flip side was that I was unable to truly embrace life in the middle without feeling like I would disappoint a parent or teacher who had high hopes for me.
In the famous hypothetical commencement speech Wear Sunscreen, writer Mary Schmich said:
The race is long, and in the end, it is only with yourself.
Even though I wish I had been taught this two decades ago when I received my PSLE results, it is not a lesson that could be learnt without the life experience over those two decades. And at 30, I have finally learnt it well.
A few months ago, a university student asked me how I would define career success in my industry. I don’t think I gave her the answer she was looking for, but I like to think it is the answer I needed to hear as a student.
I judge my success by whether I like myself. That is my only criteria.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.