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Whether you can or you can't, you're right

We are a fortnight into 2021 and, boy, it has opened in the same manic way that 2020 has closed. Indeed, 2020 is a year which we would rather forget. It has been a year of exceptions, with many of us being tested in ways we have never been; save our parents/grandparents who survived WW2. I am sure many of you had let out a sigh of relief at the turn of the new year, looking forward to a better and brighter year. Yet these past two weeks have presented a shaky start with the attack of MAGA-fans on the US Capitol, the dangerous posturing of the US State Department on Taiwan and Iran, the crash of the Air Sriwijaya plane killing all 62 souls on board, the earthquakes in Russia, Hawaii, Indonesia, Japan, Chile and Argentina, and the return to lockdown in Malaysia, with the government imposing a state of emergency until 1 Aug 2021! All in a span of 2 weeks!

Yet, amidst all these negative events, there are rays of hope. The vaccine rollout is one of them. The upcoming inauguration of President-Elect Biden, with the promise of a more even-handed foreign policy, is another. The slowdown in unemployment in Singapore at the start of this year is yet another. So with 2 weeks of 2021 out of the way, how do you see 2021 to be?

you could view the next 50 weeks of 2021 either with hope or with hopelessness


I ask this question because there are of course two ways you could view the next 50 weeks of 2021 - either with hope or with hopelessness. Some people will say that it depends on the person's current situation. If the situation right now is positive, they will view the situation more positively. If their current situation is negative, they will tend to have a more negative outlook for 2021. That may be true for some people, but here is where I disagree. And not just me; I recently spoke to Ronnie, Sylvia and Terence and they too disagree. Here are their stories:

"In 2020, I let the universe impact me. In 2021, I will impact the universe."

The Go-Getter Gets Going Again!

Ronnie had for the longest time been a go-getter. He is a hands-on problem solver. Where he lacks in education and certifications, he more than makes up for it in experience, and his never-say-die attitude. While he can be stubborn in areas where he is passionate about, he is always embracing new challenges, new opportunities, new ideas, new knowledge. In 2019, when the company he was working for, for almost a decade, changed leadership, he decided to move on. So he tendered his resignation without securing the next role. He thought he could give himself a three- to six-month break before looking for the next journey. At the age of 45, he still had many good years ahead of him, so what was three or six months? Little did he know that the Singapore job market is not friendly to people above the age of 40, and trying to re-enter the job market would be an uphill task! Yet, he was optimistic during Christmas 2019, that 2020 would finally be that year he embarked on his new career. Then Covid19 hit, and the job market collapsed. Then, in the midst of that, his wife also lost her job. With 3 school-going children and an ageing mother-in-law in the house, it was a very difficult situation to manage. While there were (and still are) opportunities to enter the gig-economy, Ronnie resisted because he wanted to be there for his children. Furthermore, the earnings for food delivery people were pittance compared to what he used to earn, and it would not be able to make much of a difference. Finally, the risk of injury or catching - and passing on - the virus was too high. So he sat out the whole of 2020, surviving on his savings, which he has had to stretch quite far. Needless to say, he was getting very anxious. When I spoke with him on 31 December last year, I asked him, "What will make 2021 different for you?" Expecting him to say that he will leave it to chance, he told me, "In 2020, I let the universe impact me. In 2021, I will impact the universe." At the time of this publication, he told me he had already secured a job offer and is waiting for response from another company! The difference? The way he embraced hope for the future!

I will hire me! And I will hire others like me. I will go out there and create a non-profit that helps women like me overcome the stigma of being let go at the peak of our career!

Loyalty does not have the same value as it used to

Sylvia had worked for the same company since she graduated from university, rising up to the position of Vice President in the 30 years she had been there. Being only 52, she had a good decade of economic contribution left before she would allow herself to retire. Being an unfortunate early-widow with two school going children, Sylvia was determined to ensure that the children had all that they needed, and were provided for all the way to university and beyond. The next 10 years would ensure that. Unfortunately, Covid19 descended mercilessly on the company, and being in the hospitality industry, there were massive layoffs. The company cut headcount by the levels, until it came to her turn. Unfortunately, her 30-year tenure did not count for much in the face of negative earnings, and she too was asked to go. And since the situation was dire, the company could not pay much severance. She was unceremoniously let go without even a thanks from senior management (they were too embarrassed to speak to her!) At 52, with school-going children, and being the only income earner, her situation was also dire. I spoke to her on New Year's Day. I asked her what she thought 2021 would be like. She told me, "I will not kid myself. At my age, I doubt if anyone will hire me. So you know what? I will hire me! And I will hire others like me. I will go out there and create a non-profit that helps women like me overcome the stigma of being let go at the peak of our career! Because, you know, right? Being a woman with this age in Singapore is way worse than being a man!" "How do you know this will work for you?" I asked. Her reply was, "How do you know it won't?" Touché!

"2020 is a washout. Not because of Covid, but my attitude. So even if there was no Covid, it would still have been a washout."

You Only Live Once

Terence is the youngest of these three. At just 38 years of age, he should be enjoying a steadily-growing career as a teacher in the Ministry of Education. However, in 2018, he realised that his passion lay somewhere else. Having heard all the exciting stories of entrepreneurship from his group of national service buddies, he thought that he would also take the plunge. After all, he told me, "YOLO!" (That is "you only live once", to my non-Millennial friends!) Unfortunately, like many startups, it didn't get off the ground. Then came 2020, and he was practically locked in his room at his parents' place for the whole year. With no income and no business, there was really no reason to rejoice or to go out. And with ageing parents, it was better not to risk their health even when businesses were allowed to open and he could go out with friends. "No point to go out. There is nothing to talk about. And it is quite embarrassing. I am one of those failures." So he spent 2020 practically playing online games the whole year through. Fortunately, the government grants came in handy to pay for food. I met him at the turn of the new year, and also asked him, "What will make 2021 different for you?" He paused, and said, "2020 is a washout. Not because of Covid, but my attitude. So even if there was no Covid, it would still have been a washout. Actually, thank God for Covid. At least I got some government grant. But I was thinking to myself, 'How long do I want to cower here in my parents' place? Sooner or later, I have to get my act together.' So I figured, 2021 will be that year. If I fail, I will fail on my terms!" "What will you be doing?" "Starting another business. I was inexperienced for the first one. This time, I know better. I will do better."

Half Empty or Half Full

What characterised these three different individuals' response is that despite their current situation - which, for many of us, sound bleak - is their attitude toward the future. It is their hope for something better. Indeed, for Ronnie, that hope had already paid off! You can call it optimism, hope, positive thinking, or growth mindset, but resilience, by any other name, still pulls people towards a brighter disposition. Indeed, everyone is empowered by these same perspectives - you can see the glass as half empty or half full. In the words of Henry Ford, "Whether you can or you can't, you are right."

But if you want to build a brighter 2021, I would implore you to adopt the positive outlook because it has been shown by research, conducted by Prof Marty Seligman, that learned optimism is a condition in which we create a positive narrative for situations that happen to us so that we can learn and move on from that. Indeed, bad things happen to both pessimists and optimists, but Seligman discovered that pessimists ascribe permanent and pervasive causes for their situation; and, optimists see the temporary and specific causes of their suffering. Taking Terence's situation as an example, pessimists may see this as "Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. I don't have it in me to be one, and if I keep on trying, I will continue to fail. Better to return to teaching!" Can you see that? Permanent (I don't have it in me) and pervasive (I will continue to fail). But optimists may see Terence's situation differently. They may say, "I assumed that being an entrepreneur was easy - just have a good idea and a positive outlook. I now realise that there is a lot of management science in entrepreneurship, and if I want to get better at it, I have to learn that." So, temporary (If I want to get better, I have to learn that) and specific causes (I assumed that being an entrepreneur was easy...")

As you can see, either perspective can fit the narrative. But which would you choose? Which is better for you? I would choose the optimistic route, because it allows me to get past my initial "failures", learn what I did not know, apply that new knowledge, and get better. The longer I do that, the better I will be and the more successful I will get. Learned Optimism; that is was Marty Seligman calls that.

We just call it the growth mindset!

Wishing you a positive, optimistic and growth-filled 2021!


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