It amazes me sometimes the kind of things I am still able to remember: Flashes from a past so distant it feels like a different lifetime. They come to me unbidden, like the stubborn tune of some random song.
I remember events from when I was 5 years old with remarkable vividness; events that are so inconsequential they might as well have never happened; and yet, I remember them.
As we go through life, things happen to us that shape the course of our lives; and yet, more often than not we fail to realize their impact until much later.
When I was in secondary school nearly 10 years ago, a senior who lived in the same hostel as I invited me over to take Math lessons from him one afternoon. He was sitting in a strategically conspicuous position so as to be visible to as many people in the hostel as possible.
I was not in the least interested in revising Math but out of respect for this senior, I went over to him for the lessons. My plan was to feign attention and interest until the whole ordeal was over.
All the while that I was with him, he made it a point to lecture at the top of his voice, raising his head every now and again to glance around as though to make sure that people saw that he was actually teaching somebody maths. His real motive, it would seem, was not a genuine interest in getting me to understand Algebra. He merely wanted to be thought of as smart by all the other neighbors who were around that day; he was using me to achieve that.
I didn’t pick up on this at the time, of course. I just sat there obediently, watching him move x and y around, negating the coefficient each time x or y changed sides in the equation.
It has taken me nearly a decade to realize that that Math lesson I got from that senior is perhaps the most important lesson I ever had up until that point in my school life. This is genuinely not an exaggeration and I will tell you why.
I was a bit of a truant in my early years of secondary school (F2 & F3). I boycotted classes for the silliest and laziest of excuses. If for instance I hadn’t done a teacher’s homework or didn’t have all their notes from the previous lessons, that teacher wasn’t going to see me in their class that day.
And the more lessons I missed, the more gaps I had in my understanding of the concepts that were being taught in my absence, and the more my confidence wavered. False assumptions soon set in.
Like the majority of people in secondary school, I was also vulnerable to groupthink when it came to smartness and mediocrity: It was commonly assumed that the people who knew maths were the smart ones and the rest were just getting by. The mediocre students shared a common hatred for Maths and regarded high performing Math students as absolute brainiacs.
So I had always considered myself one of the mediocre students. I assumed that maths was difficult; that looking for the value of x in an equation was the stuff of nightmares and that it was a waste of effort to try to understand it. We used to even have a sort of slang about it.
This all changed after the revision session I had with my senior. The concepts he covered were super easy (he probably chose them because he wasn’t confident enough to cover the slightly challenging ones) and the whole lesson of that day can be summarized in a single paragraph:
In a basic algebraic equation with one unknown, finding the answer simply entails moving all unknowns to one side of the equation and negating their coefficient. The rest is just basic arithmetic operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Simple and easy. I wondered why it had taken me so long to grasp something as easy as that.
It was a startling realization for me; a paradigm shift; a change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. That lesson made me challenge my assumptions about Math and difficult subjects in general.
In my subsequent math lessons in school, I actually paid attention to the lectures and was soon able to understand more challenging topics just as easily. Math became my favorite subject. My performance in other subjects soared. I soon secured a position among the top 3 students in the class for the rest of secondary and high school.
The math lesson was a huge defining moment for me and it didn’t even seem like it at the time. Just look at the highlights of the experience:
- I found it boring and uninteresting
- It was fuelled by my senior’s ego
- I didn’t think it was important at the time
Much of our experiences in life are like this. The truly exciting, ecstatic moments are few and far between and are sometimes forgotten the moment we finish experiencing them. On the other hand, the dull, tasteless, ordinary, grinding routines of everyday life such as work fill up the majority of our days; and yet they are no less important.
One absolutely exciting thing about life is that ordinary (even boring) moments like this can have such extraordinary impacts. Because of this experience, I have learned to attach due importance to ordinary experiences in everyday life. I have developed a reassurance about keeping on when things don't appear to have any immediate benefits.
I have learned to look beyond boredom and to do things that I don’t enjoy doing at the moment because I know that it will pay off in the future.
Also, I have seen the benefits of humility and the price of prejudice. If I had turned down my senior’s invitation to the lesson because I thought his motives were questionable or because I didn’t want to look dumb, I might have missed an important lesson that would continue to benefit me many years later.
Usually, when we judge others we only hurt ourselves.
Because moments like the one above are quite ordinary, I have come to believe that they are happening on a daily basis. This has made me keener on life and has increased my tolerance for boredom and my endurance for the daily grind.
Peter Dinklage said ‘The moments that define you have already happened, and they will already happen again.’
The moments that define you are happening whether you are paying attention or not; they’re happening whether you enjoy them or not; they can define you in a helpful or in a way that hurts you.
If you think that life is boring, consider the impact that your daily drudgery might be having on your life. Consider how significant the actions and decisions you make now can be in the future.
There is a tragic side to this story that I wanted to leave out but feel that I owe it to that senior to mention in conclusion. I have told the story to the best of my recollection in only a few words as befits a blog post of average length. I haven't told you about my relationship with this senior and what kind of person he was.
The keyword here is "was".
Yes, he lost his life few years ago; that is the tragic part. I do not mention this to mourn him again but to celebrate his memory and to do justice to the way that this story portrays the kind of person he was.
He wasn't exactly an extraordinary student but he never struggled to pass either. He was a friend of my brother's and we were very close. Outside of school, he had diverse and interesting skills. I found him highly charismatic and showing off was almost one of the trade marks of his charismatic personality. We used to even make light-hearted jokes about it.
I never got the chance to tell him my side of this story as I did today; I am sure he would have been happy to hear it. I'm sure it would have been fulfilling to know that his actions had such a huge positive impact on me.
Sometimes I wonder if my simple actions ever go on the produce an impact on such scale in other people's lives. And so I try to be careful because while some actions (like my senior's) can create positive impact, others can also influence people in a negative way.