Benny graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Faculty of Law in 2012, and presently teaches at the faculty. He was previously a Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel at the Attorney-General’s Chambers. He now also acts, on a pro bono and ad-hoc basis, as defence counsel in criminal cases. Till today, he is still not quite sure how he ended up doing law, when younger he wanted to be a magician, music conductor, chemist, film-maker and entrepreneur.
This letter is addressed to himself at the start of the second semester of his first year in law school (NB: this was at a time when there were modules with exams at the end of semester one, and grades for those modules counted).
Several weeks ago you received your first set of grades in law school. You did not do anywhere as well as you had imagined. You came to law school with the lofty ambition to make the Dean’s List. But in your hands now is a letter from the university, warning you that it will withdraw your scholarship if your academic performance continues to be in the bottom half of your cohort.
Where do you think you will go from here in the next 5 years? Let me give you two possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: You recover from the shock, and continue to work even harder, insanely hard. But the modules get tougher, and although you manage to do better in your next two years in law school, you still don’t make the Dean’s List. You try everything you can to do better. You read virtually every law exam guide book that you can find. You meet amazing teachers and mentors. You force yourself to step out of your own comfort zone and participate actively in class, even though your heart will beat ever so quickly as you prepare to raise your hands. You gain confidence, bit by bit. Eventually, in your final year, you make it. And after you graduate, you transit to the working world.
Scenario 2: You recover from the shock, and continue to work even harder, insanely hard. Eventually your health starts to take a toll. And I don’t just mean the occasional flu. You struggle with anxiety. You learn what “palpitation” means. Afflicted by panic attacks, you glimpse a living hell. For a period of time, not a day passes by without being stricken by the feeling that one or more parts of your body is breaking down, by fear, by uncertainty, and by sheer vulnerability, at its very core. Many moments, you are not even sure you are able to enter and survive the working world.
Which scenario would you choose? The first one no doubt. But I will share with you that you will not have a choice. Both will happen to you.
And as much as you find it hard to believe me now, let me assure you that in time to come, you will deeply appreciate going through the latter; arguably, more so than the first. Because through such a path:
You realise that we are as much our achievements, as our darkest experiences. We all seek to live the most meaningful life, and it is when you are at your most vulnerable and most pained that you accelerate the journey of understanding yourself, of finding what gives you the most meaning in life. And only because of what you will go through, you make it your priority to create a positive difference, no matter how small, to the lives of others; to bring to others a little more laughter, a bit less pain, a slightly better life.
You realise from going through pain and vulnerability how to become more genuinely compassionate and empathetic, towards others. You learn to understand others at a level you could otherwise not have understood. Everyone goes through dark moments. You simply cannot understand how best to relate to and help others when you only live through successes and achievements.
You learn to treasure the most overlooked asset of any human being: good health. You learn to let go. You learn to transcend materialistic things which you thought most important but in the long run are really not: like grades, titles, external validations. And then you learn to find deeper meaning in all things you do. You learn to attend and participate in classes because it is a privilege to be able to learn from greater minds. You read cases and articles because they are a record of others trying their best to resolve difficult legal issues that affect people’s lives, and you actually have the opportunity to learn how they are doing so. You may even be able to offer views and contribute to the endeavour. And as a result you find your journey through law school a little less distressing, and that much more enjoyable.
Above all, you learn that you are not superman. You learn that as a human being, you have your limitations, and to overcome obstacles and achieve many things, you will need help. If necessary, professional help. Do not be afraid to look for help. Embrace help. Find your support structure. And treasure those who are part of your support structure. You cannot go far without them.
In the long run, the vast majority of us will experience roughly an equal number of things that go our way, and things that don’t. As we go through life, our successes may become greater and our pleasant experiences more positive. But likewise, obstacles may get more difficult to overcome, more distressing; life may turn or feel more “unfair”.
The trouble is, we humans seem to be born well able to live through the things that go our way, but we are woefully ill-equipped to handle those that don’t. Yet, we are unlikely to be able to stop many things that don’t go our way from occurring. What we can control though, is how we come out of them. You will discover that, amazingly, pushing through moments of adversity and vulnerability, plus your concerted effort to deeply reflect on and learn from the experience, is one of the most powerful sources of resilience, strength and wisdom.
Therefore, no matter what, there is much for you to look forward to, many opportunities for growth, starting from the letter you are holding now.
See you on the other side,