on comparing ‘success’, survivorship bias in Raffles & imposter syndrome

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This is the follow-up for a piece I wrote 2 years ago on defining success, life priorities, and my fatigue towards the rat race.

A lot has changed since I posted it: back then, I had been days away from starting my first-ever job as a junior doctor working mad hours, while battling severe burnout and less-than-ideal mental health. 2 years on, I’ve escaped from the rat race (relatively unscathed) as a self-employed doctor, and still very much refusing to be entrapped by the pursuit of conventional success.

My interest in this topic was revived after conversations with T about Raffles’ school culture & how it seemingly sets students up for success, and further inspired by a brutally honest chat I had with my clique of long-time girlfriends earlier this week (we’ve been friends since 2012, where we were classmates in RGS).

success and ambition are relative

Over dinner on Monday, I met up with my girls. One of them, a vivacious and extremely career-driven investment analyst working abroad, had been posted to Singapore temporarily on an expat package, so we gathered to welcome her back.

After benign conversations and catching up on each other’s lives, the topic shifted to our respective careers. Out of the 5 of us, 3 are doctors, 1 is a scholar working in the private sector, and 1 is the aforementioned financial analyst. So yes, they’re all pretty high-flying and ambitious, which leaves me – as the only one with a more laid-back outlook towards her career – feeling like a fish out of water at times.

We shared about our career objectives and differing views on how we’d find fulfillment in life, in which they asked me if I was really sure I wasn’t interested in building a career and if I’d be fulfilled by pursuing simpler things in life that made me happy (like writing/family/hobbies/travel).

Looking back on all the decisions I’ve made over the years, I’ve been remarkably consistent in setting my life up in a way that aligns with my personal definition of success and fulfillment, so I’m happy with where I’m at in life.

By all standards, shouldn’t I count as a relatively successful and sufficiently ambitious person? Unfortunately, it seems that success (or at least the conventionally-accepted definition of it) and ambition are relative; it’s all too easy for people to fall into the trap of trying to project an image of success and appear more ambitious than those around them, often just for the sake of it (rather than intrinsic passion).

In a tiny font cos this is a secular blog, but this verse – treat it like a tumblr quote if you’re not religious – sometimes crosses my mind when I feel conflicted over my relative lack of ambition: But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)

What’s the utility in comparing ambition/life goals anyway? We’re all wired differently and shaped by different lived experiences, so it’s perfectly fine for us to want different things out of life. Isn’t it enough that each of us is contented with the place we’re at, and support those around us to achieve their possibly-loftier goals?

survivorship bias

Speaking of success, as someone who attended the trifecta of Raffles* schools (RGPS, RGS, then RI), it seems that all the people I spent my formative years with have all grown into conventionally successful, high-flying, elite-university-educated individuals.

*for non-Singaporean readers, here’s some context: RI/Raffles Institution is one of the better local tertiary schools, with an unusually high proportion of students ending up in professional university courses or top universities like Oxbridge/Ivy Leagues.

From techies in Silicon Valley/government scholars/startup founders, to a ridiculous number of doctors/lawyers/investment bankers/PhD candidates, it seems like everyone ‘made it’.

But surely that can’t be the case? I have a theory that survivorship bias is what creates the perception that almost all Rafflesians are ‘successful’:

Survivorship bias occurs when researchers focus on individuals, groups, or cases that have passed some sort of selection process while ignoring those who did not. Survivorship bias can lead researchers to form incorrect conclusions due to only studying a subset of the population.


Much like this old Mediacorp ad, we tend to only hear the good stuff.

Survivorship bias is likely confounded by the fact that the ‘less successful’ alumni aren’t on LinkedIn extolling their latest achievements (side note: r/LinkedInLunatics is corporate comedic gold), and understandably won’t openly share about their relative lack of success – emphasis on ‘relative’, because it’s reductive and terrible to view success as all-or-nothing.

When googling around, I only found one article (I’m An RJC “Failure” Who Did Badly For A Levels But I’ve Got No Regrets) written by a senior, in which she openly shared about her academic experience in RI. I recall everyone re-sharing it when it was first posted, but there haven’t been any similar posts since.

It’s understandably difficult to be vulnerable and open about one’s struggles or perceived incompetence, especially in Raffles’ culture of glorifying only the highest of high achievements. Looking at the school’s list of notable alumni, there’s far too many politicians, judges, CEOs/successful startup founders, national sportspeople, artists, two white collar fraudsters, etc.

If my batch were to have a class reunion and you threw a stone (a metaphorical stone, because we’re nonviolent people), you’d either hit a doctor, lawyer, or scholar.

What would ordinarily be outstanding in most other alumni circles is seen as the norm in our school, and it’s not difficult to imagine how spending your formative years in such a highly-competitive and excellence-oriented environment could create some form of imposter syndrome.

imposter syndrome

I’m sure most of you (especially doctors) are familiar with this, either having experienced it yourself or knowing someone who’s facing it.

Imposter syndrome is a form of intellectual self-doubt, defined as ‘a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon do not believe they deserve their success or luck.’

This excerpt sums the feeling up pretty well:

In those moments, he says, he didn’t just feel he was lacking certain skills. He wondered whether he belonged there at all. “There’s a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim,” he says. “But I wasn’t just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, ‘Am I a swimmer?’”

Feel like a fraud?

I used to suffer to some degree of imposter syndrome back when I was working in hospitals, sometimes hardly believing that I was actually a full-fledged (albeit junior) doctor that nurses/patients/families would turn to for actual medical guidance.

Oddly enough, it’s all but faded away over my months as a General Practitioner, mainly because I have a good track record so far and hence have grown in confidence when it comes to managing patients independently.

Side effects of chronic imposter syndrome include anxiety and depression, with the irony being that most suffer in silence (instead of seeking professional help), fearing that their symptoms/poor mental health are going to be exposed as well.

So next time you see someone looking a little less confident at work, or getting scolded by their supervisor, why not show a little kindness and find ways to affirm & support them? You might just be helping to alleviate their imposter syndrome.

final thoughts

In this world full of people who foolishly compare achievements, competency & wealth as if those are the metrics by which to define a person’s value, I want you to know that you are enough. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone nor prove that you’re more successful than anyone; and you never had to. especially you, you know who you are 🙂

At the end of the day, you only owe it to yourself to lead a life that’s aligned with your priorities and that makes you happy.

Don’t take it from me, but renowned social psychologist & author Dr Daniel Gilbert, who’s done decades of research on happiness said this:

I loved writing “Stumbling on Happiness.” I loved making a television show because I got to be a student again and learn about a whole new industry. I love teaching introductory psychology. I love working with Tim and my graduate students on research.

But none of these is my greatest source of happiness because my greatest source of happiness is my family and friends — and especially my unbelievably adorable granddaughters. Like most people, my greatest source of happiness is social. Unlike most people, I know it.

Stumbling on happiness, interview with Daniel Gilbert

Maybe we’d – both idealists and cynics alike – all do well to take cues from someone who’s studied happiness, focusing less on achieving & comparing ‘success’ and more on the simple things that make life worth living.

I’ll be in the UK for half of March (and probably recovering from jetlag afterwards) and there won’t be a Locum Lokun post this month, so be sure to follow me on Insta or Facebook to stay up to date with my latest posts and life/travel updates! (there will be plenty of Instagram travel spam, you’ve been warned :P)


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