Full text of poet Aaron Maniam’s talk: We grow into the stories we tell ourselves at TEDxSingapore conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Aaron Maniam – Poet
What’s your earliest memory? Think about it. Don’t tell anyone. I know, usually we ask people to talk to their neighbor at this point but don’t do that this time; keep it to yourself. Hold it quiet and precious.
I’ll ask you again about it later. My earliest memories are of being read to by my parents, when I was very young, of going on long adventures with them; being told stories and being taken to places I hadn’t seen before.
Later on, I started creating stories of my own. Sometimes I drew them, not very well, but every now and then I would find words for them. And eventually I realized that creating stories was something that was going to string together every part of my life.
And initially, I thought that I was alone in this. Well, perhaps me and a small number of other eccentric Mavericks who dare to call themselves writers. But recently, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in it.
And the reason I’ve realized I’m not alone, it’s this young lady. Amelia is my niece. She’s going on two years old. And in the last few months, she’s got much more interested in active play. She’s been playing with blocks, trains, dolls; all manner of things.
And what I’ve noticed in the last few months is that she has started, as she plays, to say things. She puts the blocks together and says bird, cat, dog, purple, pink, Grover. And I didn’t think that she’s telling stories to herself.
Because at heart, all of us, from earliest memory onwards, are fundamentally narrative creatures. We are storied beings, and stories are what make us who we are.
That applies to countries as well, to societies, to groups of people. And I think, in discovering the new Singapore, right? That undiscovered places full of possibilities and promise, one of the first things we will need to do is ask ourselves, “What are the new stories of this place?”
But of course, before we talk about new stories, we have to figure out what the old stories are. Anyone who studied Singapore or looked at a map will know that we are small. Anyone who’s attended class in any of our schools would have gone through a process of learning that we have no natural resources, and our only natural resource is our people.
We also know that we are, as various speakers have alluded to in the last couple of days, a little red dot. But these aren’t the only stories that we can tell ourselves.
I’d like to suggest a set of new stories that I think we can consider. New ways of seeing the world, and new ways of defining who and what we are.
The first of these is what I like to think of, as having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. And what that means is, we don’t have to accept that what we are today will continue and persist to define what we are tomorrow. We can grow. We can become something new. We can learn. We can refine ourselves. We can work on the things that we’re not good at; that is fundamentally what a growth mindset is.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m going to cite two authorities for you, about what growth mindsets can do.
The first is the wonderful American psychologist, Carol Dweck. Carol’s work focuses on how growth mindsets are strongly correlated with success and thriving lives. A growth mindset being the idea that we can constantly learn.
The second authority is someone many of you would have met yesterday. Dylan Soh told us that the little red dot isn’t actually that little; it’s actually quite big, and that we can grow into new perspectives of ourselves. And I think that’s a fundamentally important story for the undiscovered Singapore.
The second story that I think we all need to be much more aware of is a story that defines what kind of group we are. What are we as a collection of people? Are we a crowd of unconnected people, disparate entities, with no links or relationships to one another?
Or, are we a community; a community with connections and relationships and links that can come together to achieve big things?
A few years ago, we embarked on a process called ‘The Singapore conversation’– a process of communities coming together to define what our collective aspirations, visions, hopes and dreams were.
In 2009, the great political scientist, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for researching ‘what the role of communities can be in managing common resources?’ And what she found was that communities, in certain circumstances, are actually able to achieve far better outcomes than markets or governments functioning in, what she called a process of central direction.
When we are a community, that story can propel us to achieving things that no crowd on a collection of people can do alone.
The third thing that I think is going to be really important for the kind of stories we tell, is about how we relate to the systems around us. We could think of the system as this rigid entity, and blame all of what happens to us on these external forces; cold and impersonal as they are, or we can believe that we influence that system.
The fundamental belief here is about where our locus of control lies. An internal locus of control says that the determinants of our destiny come from inside us; we are the ones who make choices which affect that future.
An external locus of control says that it’s everything outside of us that affects the future: the boss, the nasty person out there, the rules, the culture, the system; and we have a choice about which of those beliefs we subscribe to.
And I think it’s an important story to tell ourselves if we do want to move to be an undiscovered country or to become something bigger than we are now, that we can actually influence the system and that we have an internal locus of control. We need some amount of external locus to make sure we’re not reckless and arrogant. But fundamentally, I’d like to think that more of us need an internal locus.
There’s a fourth story as well, and that focuses on how we perceive the resources around us. We could look around us and see the gaps: the weaknesses, the deficits and all the things that are going wrong, or we could look around and notice the gifts and the assets that we have; the wealth and abundance of things that are at our disposal.
Much like Crystal Goh, who you also heard yesterday, who noticed, not just a condition or the things that she couldn’t do but the gifts and the abundant assets that she possessed, which allowed her to completely redefine a future; that’s a new story that I think we can tell.
Equally critical is how we perceive our life. Do we think of our life as a disconnected set of events? I was born in 1979; I went to school, in primary school in 1986; I started secondary school in 1992; graduated from University in 2002, and now I’m standing here in 2015, after a series of shenanigans and adventures.
That could be one way to look at a life, or I could think of it as a series of connected events; that my life is a campaign movement. And what I like about a story that involves campaigns and movements, not just disparate events, is that we start to be kinder to ourselves when we see the connections in everything that’s happened to us.
The great Jewish thinker, Rabbi Tarfon in the ‘Jewish ethics of the fathers’ reminds us that we should not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. We need to do justly now, love mercy now, and walk humbly now.
Now that’s hard to do if you think of your life as a series of disconnected events, because one failure can end up persisting and defining what you are tomorrow.
But if we remember that life is a campaign and that what we didn’t manage to do today, we can try again to do tomorrow, then it’s a lot easier to go to sleep at night. And we are reminded then, of the next part of Rabbi Tarfon’s wonderful quote, which is that maybe it’s not for us to complete every task that we start; maybe it’s okay that we just go part of the way, but we have to remember that we’re not at liberty to desist from the task either.
And that, I think, is quite fundamental to the new stories that we can tell ourselves.
One last story that I think is important to share, which is, sometimes we feel bombarded by having to be so many things to so many people, and we can’t solve problems like that; we just feel pulled apart by the tension and the contradiction of all of them.
But the nice thing is that what cannot be solved, can actually be navigated and celebrated. I had a story I was going to tell here, but I was very struck by Melissa’s slide so I’m going to use her example about leadership. She said, leaders have to be decisive and expert, and empathetic at the same time.
And it’s easy to look at all of that and say, ‘Oh my God, I cannot be all those things. How am I decisive and empathetic at the same time? The more decisive I am, the less empathetic I can be to individuals. The more empathetic I am, the more I try to involve everyone, the more I might appear to be indecisive.’
But the trick, of course, is not to try and balance that contradiction intention. What we need to do is just accept that contradictions are a part of our lives, and that we can manage them and celebrate them.
The great Walt Whitman, in one of my favorite poems, actually asks himself that question, ‘What happens when I contradict myself?’ and I think, the answer he gives is wonderfully matter-of-fact. ‘Very well then, I contradict myself but I am large. I can contain multitudes.’
The story that Whitman tells us is a story of being able to contain tension and polarity and contradiction, rather than being defeated by them.
I’ve told you stories about growth, about community, about having an internal locus of control, and what gifts and assets, campaigns, and embracing contradictions. And what gives me hope for the undiscovered Singapore is that we need to learn why these stories even matter. There’s a very fundamental part of what kind of community we can become. And the big reason here is that we grow into the stories we tell ourselves. We don’t just write the stories, the stories write us.
This picture is a sculpture of the Greek Titan, Prometheus, who dared to defy the gods and steal fire from them. And there are different parts of that story, right? One part of it says, this is the man or the Titan who went and stole fire and dared to defy the divine. It is a story of empowerment; a story of autonomy and choice.
But there’s also the part of the story that says, Prometheus then got imprisoned and had an eagle come and eat his liver everyday. That is a story of disempowerment.
And depending on which part of the story we focus on, we grow into that story and we can allow that story to write what we become.
Thankfully, I have several friends who are telling stories of growth, of community, and of gifts, and of internal loci of control.
Friends like Jeremy and Jia Chuan, who founded, what they call ‘Conjunct consulting,’ bringing the skills of consultants to the social sector and helping nonprofits to benefit from sound corporate practice. They like to call this ‘consulting with a heart’ or in Jeremy’s case, ‘consulting with many hearts.’
Then there’s Bernice, who founded something called ‘Singapore Youth Incorporated’ and that eventually got called SYINC for a while, and now it’s called Zeroth Labs. Bernice is rewriting the story of design and public policy, bringing them together in interesting ways and allowing the human aspects of design to bring new empathetic aspects to the world of public policy.
And then there’s James. James, whose story is very complex; has tons of subplots, all interweaving in them. He’s a technologist; he’s an entrepreneur; he is a life-hack; and he’s bringing all of those things together, starting up new businesses, investing in other businesses, and forming communities which redefine what business can even mean in the world of the future.
And what’s most telling, as I think of the stories of Jia Chuan and Jeremy, and Bernice, and James, is that many of these stories are not actually that new. This picture is of the first cabinet that led Singapore into independence; and I wonder what kind of stories they were telling themselves, as we were thrust into nationhood.
Lee Kuan Yew story, at least the one that we remember now, is a story of how mudflats could become a metropolis; that’s a story of growth, of accepting gifts and assets, not focusing on weaknesses and deficits.
[Broking Sue’s] story was one that said, it is all right to be audacious and think that the swamps on the western end of the island can become a thriving and abundant Industrial estate one day.
Unless we think that Singaporean stories are all about the practical and functional, let’s not forget that Mr. Rajaratnam story was one of how individual tribes, and creeds, and communities could come together and transcend their differences, united in their diversity.
These are all audacious stories. They were stories of a country that at that point, had not been discovered and that now has been lived out. And I think, it’s important to remember that actually these stories have been with us for a very long time. All that we’re doing today, is recognizing things in that story that we may not have seen earlier on.
These are probably my favorite lines in the entire English language, from TS Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’ What does Eliot tell us? He says, “We will not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to return where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I like to think that what he’s saying here is that one day, Amelia will grow up and understand what the whispered words of her childhood actually mean; that I will keep being able to look back at the original stories I told myself, and understand where they’ve taken me and where they might take me in the future.
So, let me end by asking you a question and expressing a hope. The question is, what’s your story for the rediscovered Singapore? The one that we might have to go back to but discover new things in. How does that story link to the earliest memory that you thought about at the start of these 17 or so minutes?
And the hope is that those stories will be stories of possibility, of promise, of coming together to grow and learn, and being the best that we can all possibly be.
Thank you very much.