Looking back over the past 12 months, recalling memories both fond and forgettable, I find it tempting to compartmentalise my year into a series of fortunes and misfortunes. Indeed, I could quite easily conclude, based upon the weight of successes and disappointments, whether 2013 has been a net loss or net gain, as if life were in fact a corporate balance sheet. But to do so would be to overlook the broader picture, and to forget that this year has brought with it a great deal of change and plenty of new experiences which can’t be so easily quantified or compared.
With that in mind, in this post I reflect upon some of the more general ideas that have occurred to me during the year, and which I hope to keep in the back of my mind as I embrace the unexpected challenges that 2014 is bound to present. To begin with, I would like to open on a practical note, on a topic that we can all immediately relate to.
Getting a good night’s sleep
Having talked to others my age who would routinely stay up until the early hours of the morning, I stubbornly thought that I too could manage on 6 or 7 hours a night. However, I’ve learnt on more than enough occasions in 2013 that consistently staying up late will invariably result in a series of knock-on effects, from a general feeling of fatigue to a miserable state of depression.
I realise now that if I don’t get enough sleep—I’m trying to get my eight hours a night—then I’ll have a hard time concentrating in class, struggle to finish a decent run, and worst of all, I’ll be a miserable person to be around. As my dad reminded me, you can’t burn the candle at both ends. Granted, people’s sleep requirements do differ, but I realise now that, for me, sleep is not an area in which I can simply choose to skimp. So in 2014, I’ll be doing my best to burn a bit less of the midnight oil.
There’s no shame in quitting
If asked to choose one podcast that I’ve found myself revisiting time and time again as the year has gone by, both for reassurance and for a sense of perspective, it would have to be “The Upside of Quitting” by a show called Freakonomics. An economist’s take on the old adage—or rather, the myth—that “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins,” this episode makes a comprehensive case for quitting often, and quitting quickly.
Obviously it pays not to be too impulsive about important life decisions, and there are no hard and fast rules as to when you should and shouldn’t decide to throw in the towel. But for me personally, I find great benefit in at least questioning why it is that I devote my time and energy to various pursuits, even if I don’t then go ahead and give them up entirely. Asking yourself such questions may help you to evaluate whether or not there is any point in continuing to expend time and effort in a certain area, as well as clarifying the purpose or purposes for which you are doing it, and hence, to what extent you should devote yourself to it in the future. I could write a lot more on this topic alone, suffice it to say, there’s only shame in quitting if you feel shame.
Put yourself out there
I’m grateful and relieved, if not especially overjoyed, that I have had a successful year where school is concerned. However, when I consider my proudest achievements, gaining Excellence credits doesn’t register very highly. This is not to say that I consider school pointless or easy, but to some extent, I would say that it is straight-forward; my success in school is mainly on account of the fact that, most of the time, I follow teachers’ instructions and do what is expected of me. The result at the end of it is a certificate, university entrance, and another line on my CV.
All of which is not to say that school itself is a waste of time—far from it, school provides all of those essential social and intellectual skills that we’re often reminded of—rather, I would contend that school alone will never help me to achieve my most ambitious goals, or find the same sense of joy that comes from self-driven pursuits. Such success, I believe, takes initiative and a willingness to part ways with the herd.
Most of my proudest achievements this year have come either partly or completely of my own volition; helping to start a student magazine, winning a writing competition, sharing an article that I wrote among educators across the country, and offering my services as a web designer to a number of small businesses. I also happen to think that, where my reputation and skills are concerned, these achievements are far more distinguishable than an NCEA certificate alone. In 2014, I hope to take my own advice and devote more time to these pursuits and more. The opportunity cost of doing so, which probably amounts to a bit less time spent mindlessly browsing the web, is not a steep price to pay for the potential feeling of gratification.
I would encourage you, particularly while young and relatively free of responsibilities, to pursue the areas which interest you and to extend yourself beyond the confines of the school curriculum in 2014.
Remember how fortunate you are
At Christmas every year, we are reminded that for a great many people living right here in New Zealand, they go without the shared spirit of happiness and coming together of family that I tend to associate with Christmas. Instead, many parents feel a burden of guilt for being unable to afford presents, while many children are lucky to be fed three meals a day, let alone receive a Christmas gift.
Another reminder of the contrasting fortunes within our own communities can be seem in Christchurch, currently amid a period of post-quake recovery which seems to unfairly favour the more fortunate. It is bad enough that 270,000—or 1 in 4—New Zealand children are living in poverty, but here in Christchurch, this issue is only compounded by the fact that the poorest in society are overwhelmingly the ones who are struggling to find adequate housing. Meanwhile, the wealthiest, who could afford to build on more stable land in the first place, experience little of the hardship and stress with which the less fortunate are forced to grapple. These stresses shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, research released this year has shown that living under the conditions of poverty can impose a burden equivalent to a drop of 13 IQ points.
These issues are understandably complex, and deserve far more attention than I can offer in a couple of paragraphs. But when children miss school because their parents can’t afford lunch or a pair of school shoes, and when a good bed, fruit and vegetables, and visits to the doctor are luxuries beyond what the wages of two parents, working full-time, can afford, that is when you know there is a problem.
For me personally, this realisation serves as a reminder of just how incredibly fortunate I am. I have all of the material goods one could ever really need, as well as the comfort and opportunities afforded by a safe home, supportive parents, and an excellent education. Rather than feeling guilty about it, in 2014 I want to make a greater effort to both better understand the issues around social inequality and poverty in New Zealand, and begin to actually do something meaningful about it.
Your mileage may vary
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle
I realise that you might disagree with some of the notions presented above, or on the other hand, you might agree wholeheartedly. I needn’t say that we’re all unique, and the different areas in which we hope to improve ourselves over the next year will naturally reflect that. Besides provoking thought about the ideas I have discussed above, I hope that after reading this blog post, you will use this opportunity to consider what you personally have learnt in 2013. Write down your thoughts, share them with others, and I would encourage you, as you push ahead into 2014, to repeatedly remind yourself of these ideas in the hope that they may evolve into good habits that stay with you for many years thereafter.