January 4, 2019

2018 has been a life-changing year and my biggest regret was not doing what I did—earlier. For the past 13 years, I have been going through the motions of life until one day, I decided to say ‘yes’ to everything that came my way.

So how did I get into this state of flow by letting go of all my inhibitions and placing my trust in the universe? Sometimes life takes over unknowingly and we don’t realise that in order to lead a meaningful and purpose-driven existence, we mustn’t be afraid to let go of whatever constructs of ourselves that we have in our heads and seek out new challenges outside of our comfort zone. I wish I could tell my younger self that, but at 22, after serving National Service, I ORD-ed* as a musician for the SAF Band with a song in my heart, a spring in my step and zero academic qualifications to my name.

(*ORD is an abbreviation for Operationally Ready Date and also marks the date when one ends his conscription.)

Eight days into my final year of Diploma in Marketing, I dropped out of Temasek Polytechnic because I wanted to pursue music. It was also an act of rebellion against my parents who forbade me from enrolling into NAFA (the school of my choice). One could hardly blame them though. Back then, a career in the arts was considered foolhardy and highly unpragmatic if anyone wanted to make a decent livelihood.

My passage into adulthood was faced with doubt and uncertainty, but I knew with certainty that I wanted a career in the field of music and education. My conviction paid off and in 2007, I got a job offer to be a concert band conductor at my alma mater. Without hesitation, I accepted it—and 11 years later, it is a vocation I still love and brings me much joy.

Alongside teaching, I also dabbled (I use this term very, very loosely) in entrepreneurship by turning a personal interest into a potential business opportunity. For my first venture, 5stones, I tapped on my love for wrist accessories while Strictly Black Tie was spurred on by my interest in make-up services for men. I jumped in with the right spirit but was unfortunately bogged down by a non-existent business plan and a “let’s see how it goes” mentality, because I always had a safety net. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the life-changing lessons were from these failed ventures—my younger, inexperienced self was more spontaneous and less reflective, choosing instead to quickly fall back on the comforts of teaching and moulding young minds.

But all that changed in December 2017, when my contract with a school I was teaching at for four years wasn’t renewed. I remember feeling devastated and, for lack of a better word, sad. It was such a strange feeling of displacement, as I’m not one to dwell on time-wasting emotions like sadness and nostalgia. Slowly, I began to doubt my expertise as a music educator, to the point where I started questioning my self-worth and wondered if there was more to life than my current situation? Having my contract ripped away made me realise the fragility of my career where, at any given moment, I could easily be replaced by a shinier, newer conductor that could do everything I did—at half the price.

I was fast losing my sense of purpose. However, the upside to all this career upheaval was all the free time I gained—I only had to work two days a week. With all the spare time on my hands, I decided to find something that could excite me in the same way teaching music did when I first started. I knew I had to make a concerted effort to rediscover and reignite that spark within me that would hopefully, give my life more meaning.

On January 1st 2018, I made a promise to say ‘yes’ to everything life threw at me. And they fell into two categories: doing things outside of my comfort zone like hiking Bukit Timah Hill and taking on projects that would challenge my abilities.

My first ‘yes’ was to create The Food Project SG (TFP), with the aim of writing long-form food reviews and telling the stories of food entrepreneurs in Singapore. TFP laid the groundwork for almost everything I’ve achieved in 2018. I wasn’t sure why I put so much effort into interviewing people and spending hours upon days transcribing recorded interviews. For the most part, I often wondered why anyone would say ‘yes’ to being interviewed by me and my humble website with hardly any traffic to speak. Gradually, I discovered that everyone has a story to tell, and they do want to share their story with someone who is willing to listen, so I became that person.

Through a TFP food review and interview with Chef Firdauz of Noods & Meats, I was invited to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Bangkok to write a Halal street food guide for a travel company (that was owned by a friend of Firdauz). After that trip, I filled the rest of the year with weekly interviews and media tastings with various restaurants where I witnessed first-hand the power that good marketing strategies and public relations had on the success of an establishment. With my new-found knowledge, albeit little experience in the field of Marketing, I summoned up the courage to email a Marketing/PR plan to Noods & Meats. I didn’t hear back from them until 6 months later when Chef Firdauz offered me a job as their Marketing and PR manager. In between, I poured myself into writing and doing good work for SG Narratives (an organisation I co-founded with two of my best friends back in 2017).

I was approached by another friend who asked if I would like to be a writer for a huge freelance rebranding project that he had undertaken. That was my first big foray into a different kind of writing, beyond food and profile pieces. And it was also the first time I would be paid for my writing, which, if you asked me five years ago, was something I never imagined would have happened.

Writing for TFP gave me the opportunity to meet many people in the culinary industry who reignited my love for cooking. It was also important to me that I understood how flavours came together if I were to have any ounce of credibility reviewing food or working in the food industry. In September, I chanced upon an advertisement on Instagram by Living Menu for their Chef programme and after going through their induction programme (where I had to cook in a classroom-type setting), they invited me to do a cooking demonstration at WeWork as part of their marketing outreach.

In that same month, on a whim and completely of my own accord, I decided to edit a food review on sethlui.com because I thought that it needed a grammatical clean-up. I emailed the edits over, not expecting a response, and barely an hour later, I got a reply asking if I would like to come on board as a freelance contributor. A month later, after reading a fantastic piece by Sihan Lee on “The Art of Ageing fish”, I submitted my resume to the editor of High Net Worth with the hopes of becoming a food reviewer. As you can see, I am now writing for them.

I did not get all these wonderful opportunities by sitting around and waiting. In fact, I went to look for them. The hardest is taking the first step and putting yourself out there by boldly declaring that you’re good enough for whatever the universe has to offer. At times, I do think that my writing could be further improved or that I could have put together a more compelling marketing pitch—but the question remains: When will I ever be good enough? When I’m six feet under or when I’m ‘old and grey and full of sleep’?

The art of saying ‘yes’ also involves a level of compartmentalising. The truth is I can’t possibly devote my time and energy to everything. As much as I would like to write four articles a month for the two publications I’m contributing to, I know I can’t. And even though I would love to teach people how to cook on a weekly basis at Living Menu, I know it’s not possible, too. So I have learned to isolate the most pressing issues first and work out the areas that require my most immediate attention. Once significant progress is made, I move on to the next in a clockwork manner; that’s how I maintain my sanity.

The possibility of failing comes with the territory too. And that’s something I had to remind myself: no matter how many times I fall, I can always pick myself up again. Too often, I see the people I’m working with dwell far too long on their setbacks or their present situation—causing them to get stuck in a constant cycle of anger, disappointment, and sometimes self-pity. It is okay to allow yourself to feel your emotions but not to a point when it becomes debilitating and counterproductive.

I hope that reading this will spur you to not only say ‘yes’ to whatever life brings you, but to also make 2019 your year of starting something meaningful. Start with the small ‘yes-es’ like taking that salsa class you have always dreamed about or finally deciding to declutter and ‘Marie Kondo’ your home. There’s no need for grand gestures to make life more fulfilling. Your year of ‘yes’ can be as big or as tiny as you want it to be.

As we enter the new year, friends have asked me what 2019 holds for me. Honestly, I don’t know. It could be a year of focusing on my health, getting rid of toxic relationships or being more vulnerable. Yet it could also be the year of just living my life with the wisdom, knowledge and experiences that I’ve learned from the past year. Until then, my heart and mind remain open and ready to accept whatever challenges and inspiration the universe throws my way. Life is a journey and as much as we would like to focus on the destination, it is the journey itself that really shapes you as a person.