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Blog: When “arrival” is a moving target

My team and I have achieved a milestone with a project recently and I was told by a former schoolmate that I have “arrived”. But have I really?

This 40th year anniversary coffee table book is not quite the confidence- booster at first

Recently my junior college celebrated its 40th year anniversary. I would have had no part to play in it if not for a former client who is also an alumna of the college. My team and I served this former client on numerous public relations, advertising and other communications projects for over two years. She recommended us to the school’s management committee, made up entirely of alumni, who were toying with the idea of producing a 40th year anniversary coffee table book. This coffee table book was supposed to be a high-quality, visually-arresting and well-written product; in short a huge step above and a milestone in the history of all the school’s publications put together. It was to be given to every guest at the 40th year anniversary gala dinner — or 1200 guests in total — which included not only the interviewed luminaries but my own peers.

The contract was awarded to my team. The finished product comprised a compilation of interviews with notable alumni as well as an account of the school’s history with photos illustrating its milestones through the years.

This book has been a labour of love for the team in spite of the hours of multiple textual, pagination and layout changes and investigative work which involved identifying former students and teachers in decade-old photos. It felt like I was reconnecting with the school and the two short years that I had sat within its walls as a student grappling with “critical thinking” and “SJI boys” and “literature teachers with thick foreign accents” before I was (forcefully) thrust out to take on university life. These were probably the most disorienting, bewildering, intense and yet in so many ways delightful years of my youth.

Two months before the book was sent to print I was confident that we were doing a good enough job on the book that we purchased a table at the dinner. I reminded my team — but myself mostly — that being at the gala dinner meant that I was subjecting myself and the team to BOTH bouquets AND brickbats. As an experienced writer and editor, I knew there might still be errors and inconsistencies in the finished product in spite of the numerous man hours of sub-editing and proof-reading. Somebody might not like a picture or a quote in the book or worse still, we might have misspelled the name of someone very very very important! Yet we were all excited to be part of the dinner; I planned my outfit in advance and was even brave enough to invite a potential client to the dinner who turned out to be a former student of the college.

Some of the people that I have worked with on the coffee table book project

The alumni, event guests and even my former college principal were generous with their compliments. At one point I actually felt overwhelmed. There had only been one reported incident of a factual error but it was a “flattering” one; I had put an interviewee’s graduation year as 1996 (which was wrong) instead of 1997. At the dinner, the team thought of reconnecting with those who said good things about the book, in the distant yet constant hope that we would be considered for another similar project in the near future. Just before I left, I ran into another schoolmate who said to me, “Wow, congrats, you have arrived.”

Which instantly cast a shadow onto the spotlight of my success.

The word “arriving” means different things to different people and certainly I set pretty high but not altogether unattainable standards for myself. To me, “arriving” means being an owner of a reasonably-sized HDB flat (none of the half-baked China-made BTO flats for me). It means surpassing my annual sales target effortlessly. It means spending three weeks a year in Bali knowing in that time business will run as usual as there will be a team holding the fort and catching my slack back home.

I realise that making an impression on my peers and those at the gala dinner means very little to me unless it converts into one of the three things I mentioned above. If I had to choose, I’d rather be the successful and rich recluse in shorts and T-shirt rather than the one to be dressing up to hobnob for new business at dinners. And I realise that many of my peers would have achieved the abovementioned things a year or even five years ago as middle managers, successors of family businesses or as flight attendants even.

“So no,” I think to myself. I have not “arrived”.

I haven’t even bought myself a flat because last year I misread the rules about HDB applications so I sent in an application which didn’t make the cut for the loan amount I wanted. Soon after that, I had to channel some of my savings meant for the house to the business. Hitting a sales target is always hard work. Even after we have done a good job for a client in a previous engagement, there’s no guarantee that the client will engage us again. If I’m lucky I could manage 10 days a year in Bali, if that, and even then I would be working for at least an hour daily while I’m there.

It seems to me in Singapore at least, that “arriving” is only reserved for those with a lot of freedom to do what they like, and that usually means having a lot of money. Which for a business owner like me, is constantly in flux in spite of whatever successes I have enjoyed in the past. I wonder if I will ever again have the opportunity to do a similar project like what I have done for the school. Coffee table books tend to be a rare one-off thing celebrated for a short time before they are left on the shelf in the library’s reference section.  How many organisations, businesses or schools would want to spend at least $100,000 on something like that at any given time? There are likely to be many more publishing firms out there who are more connected, established and experienced in such projects than we are.

I have only begun reading a book called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes and it’s easy to see how I was attracted to reading it in the first place. In a world of constant and sometimes even overwhelming change, we face constant uncertainty; this book talks about the upside of uncertainty and ambiguity and how it can inspire learning, creativity and even empathy if properly harnessed. Being comfortable with rather than averse to ambiguity is not only the key to survival, it is the key to thriving.

So how can I “arrive” when my target is constantly on the move? I realise that it’s not about looking out at the moving target on the horizon and speculating when and how it is going to move, but looking back and appreciating what targets I have successfully accomplished in the past. So in retrospect, I have actually “arrived” at least once based on my definitions of “arrival” at that point in time.

You can take the girl out of the convent but not the convent out of the girl

I am reminded to be grateful for whatever opportunities that have been presented to me; I was lucky to have been given an education in the mission school system from primary school right through to junior college which has given me the confidence and to some extent the know-how to delve into the work that I currently do and enjoy.

Secondly and most importantly I must remember to pat myself on the back for every little success that I have enjoyed in the past that gave me confidence to take on the loaded task that was the coffee table book. I sent love and appreciation to my 23-year-old self writing press releases and health and beauty articles from a  shophouse cubby hole and to my 28-year old self when she received a grant from the National Arts Council for her first novel, even though the book is currently still undergoing editing and far from being published!

And so I allow myself to bask in the gala dinner compliments a little bit more, not because I am allowing them to get to my head but because I know the next milestone will be even more challenging, and it is the appreciation of small previous successes that would put me in a good place to embrace and excel at bigger ones.

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