Chasing Dreams \\ on success, life priorities and why I'm dropping out of the rat race

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Chasing Dreams is a multi-part series chronicling my thoughts, dreams & changing ideals over the years (since 2018), including burnout, quitting the rat race, migration and trying to find my path in life

This post was initially written in a pretty nihilistic tone, drafted nearly one year ago, when I was feeling conflicted and guilty over wanting to consciously achieve less than my peers around me. In the first draft, my opening line was: “Will it ever end, or are just mice running helplessly on the wheel of life, fated to keep running till the day we die?” Pardon the dramatics, but that was honestly how I felt at that juncture in my life.

But one year on sorry for being such a huge procrastinator, I’ve become a lot more accepting of the fact that my definition of success will never be aligned with that of majority of my friends/peers, and that 1) it’s okay to have a different definition of success, 2) don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it, 3) don’t feel pressured to fit into the mold.

I was inspired to resuscitate this piece after talking to two friends. One is an ambitious lawyer, and he suggested that I pursue all my dreams, on top of having a successful career, because there’s more than enough time in one lifespan to do all of those. The other is a medical student based overseas with a more laid-back approach to life; he’s chosen to prioritise enjoying life & relationships over climbing the metaphorical ladder.

My younger self would have agreed with the first friend, believing that any time not spent chasing or achieving lofty goals was time wasted. But at this stage in life, after having spent 5 years just to obtain my degree, and faced with the prospect of taking even more postgraduate exams & training, I simply no longer have the drive to endlessly chase one achievement after another. When will it ever be enough?

Some people are built like steam engines, and can plough through life with an insane amount of energy and drive without ever fizzling out; but I’m definitely not one of those people. I’m aware that I need to draw the line somewhere, and say ‘enough is enough’, hang up my boots and just lead a quieter life.

What is success anyway?

The intensely competitive lifestyle and over-emphasis on one’s achievements are problems prevalent in any corner of the world, but it feels particularly insidious in Singapore and other equally fast-paced cities.

I suppose we all have a choice as to whether we want to be an active part of the rat race, or just sit by the sidelines and watch the others fight it out. I know this sounds rather nihilistic and depressing, but after being trapped in environments of high competition since I was a child, I can’t help but feel that way.

My whole life, I’ve been conditioned to chase the stereotypical Asian definition of success, and even now that I’ve supposedly ‘made it’ (having a degree and a job), I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded. I missed out on so much ‘life’ along the way – a carefree childhood, staying out late with friends as a teen, going backpacking, pursuing my artistic passions, etc.

The rat race sucks

I’ve seen all the ugly facets of success (and the pursuit of it) over the years, either from firsthand experience or as a bystander. Unhealthy competition, extreme stress, backstabbing, mental health issues and the sacrificing of one’s dreams. And at the end of the day, is it honestly worth it?

I spent all my years of education in schools that were extremely success-centric (grade-centric, and also in terms of holistic development) and had excellent track records for producing ‘successful’ or prominent members of society. We were exposed to the idea of single-mindedly striving for achievements and constantly improving ourselves.

While the notions of not stagnating and seeking ways to develop oneself (in career or personal growth) are definitely admirable, they can get tiring, especially if that’s not how you were programmed. Everyone is made differently, and not all of us want to or can keep up with that relentless pace of life.

I used to be an insane overachiever, but after a massive burnout when I was 17, I never managed to regain the energy and drive that so many of my peers still possess after all these years. I dragged my burned-out self through med school, doing the bare minimum to cross the finish line (instead focusing on enjoying life/chasing happiness), paling in comparison to some of my peers who’ve been blazing with passion, fervour & determination all the way from their early teens till now (in their mid-20s), and they don’t even seem remotely close to burning out…or at least they’re doing a great job of hiding it.

So long story short, the rat race is well-suited for some people, but not for me.

Rethinking my life priorities and redefining success

I had a second round of burn out in my 3rd year of med school, coming close to dropping out, because I knew I wasn’t as passionate as most med students and simply couldn’t imagine being bonded to M0HH for 6 years, until I was 30*. I hit an emotional rock-bottom and was really forced to sit back and reevaluate my priorities in life, as well as what I wanted to achieve at the end of it.

*2023 edit: I broke the bond and am now self-employed, because I could no longer justify the 70-hour work weeks nor the sacrifices I was having to make in my personal life & health. You can read about my struggles and journey in this post I wrote about my resignation!

Even at 23, I’m still very much a work in progress, and sometimes I’m still unsure of what I want in life, especially since I have so much deprogramming to do after so many years stuck in the local rat race. But I recently had a deep convo with a friend, and it helped clarify my life priorities:

  1. Spending quality time with family & close friends
  2. Pursuing the hobbies & passions I never had the time to
  3. Just enjoying life (stopping to smell the flowers)
  4. Helping others
  5. Having a job to earn money (not interested in a career)

You can’t take your success, money or power with you when you die, but the memories and relationships/connections you made will live on, and those are far more precious to me.

I’ve kept up with the rat race for 23 years of my life, over a quarter of my lifespan (assuming women live till 85), and I think it’s finally time to stop. I just want to learn how to be contented with what I have, instead of constantly chasing after the next big goal. Contentment in itself might just be a form of success?

Final thoughts

To put a spin on the old adage, one man’s success is another man’s poison. The world can get overwhelming at times, and people are flexing their ‘success’ everywhere you look. But everyone has a different definition of success, and it can be tiring to subscribe to the worldly definition of it. Maybe you want a quieter life, with more time for your family or hobbies, and some people may belittle you or insinuate that you’re lesser than them, but it’s ok, just keep doing you. You’re the only one who can define your own success.

So this is me tapping out of the rat race for good, and finally giving myself permission to rest.

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If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, doctoring, psychology, random musings), or check out my most read series below:

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