Another End of Year Post

Are end-of-year notes still a thing? Even if they are not, I think it is good to write them, even though I plan to take a different approach to this. I don’t think you, as a reader, would appreciate a “year summary” very much. However, there is a central question I have for this year, which I shall write about. (If you see a casual mention about yourself in the note though, be glad!)

The average Singaporean male lives for about 82 years on average. While we cannot predict exactly when we die, we can use some rough figures to estimate how much time, on average, is gone. For me, about a third of my life has elapsed. It may be useful to look at reflections not just in 2019, but throughout my life journey.

Often, when quizzed about the amount of time we have, we never seem satisfied. For me, I always think I have too little time. But 28 years (my age, really) of time is incredibly long. At the least, it has allowed me to develop as an individual capable of sustenance at the very least. While I am not a polymath, I still have energy in me for further development. There appears to be a paradox. How can I complain about time, considering the long average lifespan in Singapore?

The apparent paradox is resolved by realising that the average lifespan of an individual means little. Despite the Chinese perceiving long lives as blessings, these wishes do not provide any insight about the quality of life, or capabilities said human may possess. Someone may live half a life in sickness or in low energy. In Singapore, we see much more provision for wheelchairs today because of an aging population. I personally dislike the thought of having my view restricted to wherever a wheelchair can bring me to.

Many friends in my age group think about how life shall be like. Some would like to earn plenty of money to travel to Machu Picchu or the Alps. Others foresee themselves setting up a creation they can call their own — a family. The wish-list is long, but mine is quite simple, once I start to strip it down into its basics. Almost every New Year, when I write resolutions, they somehow only revolve around these: being the best version of myself, being able to maintain the best version of myself, and being able to improve whatever that may be around me.

I will probably only write about “being the best version of myself” in this post. If you find this is helpful, and would like me to write on the other two aspects, let me know.

Being the best version of myself is translated to self-improvement. However, I find “self-improvement” too vague, and almost every resolution I set with “self-improvement” in mind turns out to be quite unfocused. This is because “self-improvement” comes in many forms. These can take on personal perspectives such as being loving and kind. These can be targetted at competencies, such as being good at what one claims as his or her profession. These can also be role-based, such as being the best parent, child or colleague. Usually, to push for a clearer resolution, I focus on specific skills I would like to improve on. After obtaining the OSCP certification last year, I finally had time this year to pursue a wider range of skills, such as setting up vulnerable training laboratory machines, dabbling in exploit development, more web application attacks and a little wireless attacks. Additionally, being able to communicate about a technical topic (in this case, understanding and constructing vulnerable training laboratory machines) allowed me a platform to improve technical communication with a wide audience.

However, self-improvement is important, not just for skill development. It is also important to understand that, as mere mortals, we simply cannot be master at everything. However, realising what we lack about many things is quite easy. To put this in perspective, I remembered my Physics lecturer saying this:

There are four stages to learning:

  1. First, you don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Next, you know what you don’t know. (Awareness)
  3. After which, you know what you know. (Competence)
  4. Finally, you don’t know what you know. (Subconscious Mastery)

Reaching subconscious mastery is difficult, but may be worthwhile. This is who you look up to as senpai, whose seemingly simple moves can be quite arcane. The senpai is one who has already mastered his or her craft through the dedication of thousands of hours to it. Anyone who has done a sport competitively would recount the rigour coaches put their students through, such that their basics become second nature. It would be nice to reach this stage of mastery, but this is difficult.

The stage which I would like to explain a little, vis a vis self-improvement, is the awareness stage. Awareness is not simply about “knowing the surface”. Often, it also means “being aware of what you don’t know”. This is arguably more important than simply knowing the surface because a good understanding of our lack of knowledge helps us avoid the over-confidence trap we see in the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we can loosely place the “awareness” stage slightly past the fairly overconfident stickman in blue. As we begin to realise our lack of deep knowledge in a certain field of expertise, our confidence level drops. This is quite normal, and should not be disheartening. Often, this is the phase where we humble ourselves, recollect our thoughts, and think deeply about whether we should advance further. In some cases, we do not, because we appreciate that our limitations may not be worth the investment in trying harder.

Bringing this back to the “self-improvement” mantra I have each year, I prefer to divide this vague term into a few categories.

  • Building a breadth of understanding, so that I understand what I know and what I don’t know. This usually takes the form of “exposure classes” to many things. Exposure classes need not merely be limited to what sparks joy. Sometimes, one takes an exposure class primarily for awareness. For instance, it would be a good idea to understand what cryptocurrencies are, and what they are not, so as to be able to detect and mitigate potential “scams”, even though one may never ever dabble in the cryptocurrency market.
  • In areas where I find interest and competency in, develop deeper skills. This can arise from “exposure classes”. Sometimes I find that I am good at certain things, and that I could go further. This is typically where the try harder mentality comes in. I generally find a few opportunities to break out of “awareness” into “competence”. A few opportunities per year to try harder, I find, is quite good. Especially with a world everyone describes as “changing rapidly”, the ability to pick up new skills quickly and effectively is important.
  • In areas where I do not find interest, but I must know, I need to find a coach, mentor, or a guide, to pull me through. It is unrealistic to expect that I will enjoy everything. However, there are a range of skills, some of which survivalist, that I need to be good at. A good example over the years would be the Scouting experiences I picked up over my secondary school days. I would not claim to be an enthusiast at knot-tying or map-reading, but knowing such skills can turn out be quite useful outside Scouts.

While I shall not reveal any specific New Year resolutions for next year, my “self-improvement” chart every year does not differ too much from looking at it from these three angles. It is also timely to return to the beginning discussion where I had an apparent paradox of time. Why do I feel that I never have enough time? That is because I have no guarantee that said time exists, in the form I would like. Can I guarantee that I will be healthy ten years later? I cannot tell you for sure with any known probabilities. With such murky propositions, my best guess is really nothing more than, “Based on how I feel today, I think I should be fine next year, but ten years is a little hard to predict.” Because of the lack of certainty, we must always make plans, push for them to work out wherever possible, yet acknowledge that they can fail catastrophically through no fault of our own. Is this not yet another paradox?

Well, the apparent paradox can simply be resolved by the fact that short milestones are far less likely to be deviated from than long milestones. This lends well to the timeframe of a “new year resolution”, which really means we should take advantage of this trend: plan something at the start of the year and stocktake at the end of the year. Statistically we are likely to succeed than five-year plans most governments plan for. For those who find difficulty planning yearly, try this trick: think of a lofty dream one has, and then break it down into as many parts deemed necessary, and digestible in year plans. While we may never end up achieving the exact same lofty dream we wanted, we might, in our journey, discover a different lofty dream that may wind up being more appealing than what we first started out with. However, at the very least, on one’s deathbed, one can say that one tried harder to make something happen.

Life can be quite unpredictable, but the end of the year is a good time to stocktake, think about what went wrong and what went right, but do not take too much time to mull over this. It’s a great time to think about next year. Amidst the fireworks and festive cheer each new year, would you not hope to similarly sparkle and dazzle as well? Surely we can all try to aim to be the best version of ourselves, and it is not that hard to do so. Try harder.

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