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Piece by Piece I Rise with the Times

“If anything is certain, it is that change is certain.”
-Philip Crosby

The Unexpected Gets a Vote

Three years ago I got a brief taste of what my life would become today. It all started with a new year’s resolution: to make all of my work count for something by seeing it through to the finish.

In February 2008, my friends and I moved into a new apartment in a new neighborhood back in Malaysia (where I did my undergrad). We spent about half of the day moving in furniture and trying to put things in order - a hideous task, to be honest.

By day’s end all the furniture was in place except for one computer table that needed to be assembled. It was 2am, I was exhausted, and I had zero IQ in woodwork.

Any other time I might have decided to put it aside until the morning and then wake up three months later to see it still undone. And I probably wouldn’t be bothered by it either.

But I had a new year’s resolution to execute. So I quickly opened the package before my mind changed.

The sight was overwhelming; a bunch of wood boards, several sets of screws, and not an instruction manual in sight. Someone had forgotten to include the instructions in the box! All I had as a guide was the big picture of the finished table, but no clue how to get there. After an hour I still found myself half-wittedly staring at the wood boards and screws with no sign of progress.

Extracting Meaning from Chaos

It cannot be found by seeking, but only seekers shall find it.”
—Sufi Proverb

As I longed for clarity, it became obvious that I was not going to accomplish anything by thinking about how to start. The new plan was to take action and just do something, anything. So I took the table picture and put it where I could easily see it. I then started to search for similar pieces and worked at trying to fit them together.

Thirty minutes later, I had managed to set up two storage drawers. Suddenly, I was resurrected with a total presence of mind. I became able to recognize patterns and filter out everything except the one cue I was looking at. Another thirty minutes later, I managed to build a case for my drawers and the legs to support them. The motion was motivating; I just kept on going and going. Two hours later, I had the most stunning computer table in front of me.

Trading Comfort for Uncertainty

“Maturity of mind is the capacity to endure uncertainty.”
-John Finley

In the fall of 2009, the woodwork story made its reincarnation, only this time I was looking at a picture of my academic career. My goal was to earn my master’s degree in the U.S., but the path to get there was not yet clear.

I made contact with American University to express my interest in their master’s degree program. They unfortunately voiced their regret to decline my interest. They explained that the credit hours of my degree did not meet their requirements and I hadn’t done enough coursework for the program I wanted to apply for. Even if I met the requirements, I still needed to succeed on the GRE examination. And they made clear that doing all that would still not guarantee my acceptance.

I took a moment to think about what I was doing. Subscribing to this idea meant doing an extra year of undergrad, and succeeding on the unexpected GRE in approximately three months. The stakes were high and the sacrifice was excruciating, but I welcomed the challenge.

Putting the Pieces Together

After a series of persistent negotiations, American University agreed to recognize my degree if I made up for the required credit hours, but the real challenge was the GRE examination. I had to deal with an old antagonist: Mathematics! I had hated the subject most of my life, and here I was, solve for ‘x’ or forget about it. I had three months and three chances to pass the test before the application deadline.

I scheduled an exam for the first time on November 17, 2009. I underestimated it. Guess what? I failed it! I thought to myself, “You didn’t respect it, so you deserved this.”

Committed not to make the same mistake twice, I decided to do it again, only this time I was prepared to work. I sacrificed my December holiday, bought three textbooks and studied like my life depended on it. Feeling prepared and a bit more confident, I scheduled my second exam for December 19. I was nervous; I had put so much work into it that I just couldn’t bear the thought of failing again.

The day arrived. I did the test and posted another mediocre score. I was utterly disappointed. I thought to myself again, “Will this upset be the hole that sinks your ship and sends you spiraling downward or will I accept the challenge to continue putting the pieces together?” Obviously I wasn’t done yet, but the question was, how do I move forward?

Keeping My Eyes on the Big Picture

"We can't guarantee success, but we can deserve it."
- Winston Churchill

Fortunately, I had one more month, one more shot to get it right. I set up the date for the next exam and took a week off to recuperate. And that’s when I realized, I didn’t fail the second test because of ill preparation. I failed it because I was unconsciously propelling myself to do so. I realized all along I had focused on not failing when I should have been resolving to succeed. Just like with the computer table, I suddenly felt that I had found the pattern – I was able to filter everything else out and focus on the task at hand. Backed by an unwavering winning mindset, I intensified my studying plan and put more hours into mastering the basics.

On January 19, 2010, I took the test for the third time. I was nervous again, but this time I liked it, I knew I was on to something greater. Guess what, I passed the darn test. And a few months later, I got my acceptance letter from AU.

Let Go and Trust

“The truth is the only thing that’s ever going to be constant”
-Will Smith

Over time the woodwork story has continued to bring insight on many complex situations in my life. Unpredictable things happen - it rains when the prediction was for sun, new people and places come into your life, and sometimes, someone forgets to include an instruction manual. You can’t always follow the original plan, but you can never lose your responsibility to get to the end goal.

Now it’s 2011, and again I am staring into the eyes of uncertainty: in my career, relationships, family, security and everything else I want to improve. Once more the vision is clear and the path is unknown, but that’s okay I believe the pieces I need are all around me. I’m aware that the task will be difficult but the truth gives me confidence. The truth that what we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not because the nature of the task has changed, but because our power to do it has increased. I will prevail.