Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Story of Me (VII) : The Big C

*Update 3/5/07
This post is so darned serious that it should be prefaced with a bit of humour

Even though I was doing well, there was still something niggling away at me. Like the feeling you have at a restaurant, when the meal you've ordered has arrived....and it's good...but you can't stop looking over at the next table cos you know you really wanted that bloody rib eye instead of the poached fish.

I quit my agency at one point, fed up with the politics and full of my own ambition to start up one of my ideas. But I lacked the courage and the confidence at the time. I didn't have any direction. I wasn't ready and unable to let go of the security a steady paycheck brings (and all the things you can buy with it). I wasn't ready to take any sort of risk. Lacked the maturity and discipline. I guess I was a pro at my job, but still an amateur when it came to my life. I didn't want it enough.

Then in 2005, during a yoga retreat we were practising self-awareness within our physical body when I became aware of this slight heaviness on the side of my face. I looked in the mirror and ... you know how when you've stared at something so long you don't see it anymore? I really SAW my face properly and noticed there was a swelling on the right, under my ear into my jaw. I didn't think much of it because it didn't hurt but went to see a doctor anyway.

He sent me for an MRI and the results shocked my entire family into silence. We immediately took the scans to the director of the National Cancer Centre in Singapore and he said"it was the worst case of salivary gland tumours" he had ever seen. There were literally hundreds of them infesting the right side of my head. Who would have thought there was so much space in my head for them??

The good news was I wasn't going to die. The bad news - to get rid of them would require extensive surgery. He would start by slicing down the side of my face from the top of my ear down to my jaw, then along my neck until under my chin, then up my chin to the cleft of my lip whereupon he would get a saw and split my head open like a watermelon (or like the Predator) and then cut away all the tumours. The surgery would most likely result in some of my facial nerves being severed resulting in permanent paralysis to the right side of my face.


We went to see every single head & neck cancer specialist in Singapore - they said the same thing. We sent the scans to specialists in Australia, they couldn't offer guarantees.

How can I explain my conviction this was not the only way? That somewhere there would be a surgeon who would be willing to use every bit of technology and time and sweat to peel away every last tumour without cutting the facial nerve? This was my fucking face. The way I communicate with the world. The mirror to my soul.

It was a hard time. Getting your hopes up every time you heard of a great surgeon. The disappointment when they see the scans and you watch their expressions change. The crash when they say the same thing. It wasn't easy falling asleep at night during that period.

But finally....finally! We found a surgeon in London who looked at my MRI and he said "I'll bet you've been to see lots of doctors and they've said this was the worse they've seen. Well, this isn't the worst I've seen." Do you believe me when I say it felt better than winning the lottery?

So Mr David Howard operated, and it took ten hours and he didn't have to split my head open nor cut my facial nerve. But guess what, my face was still paralysed at the end of it. And the recovery was fucking hard. It sucked having people stare at me. And it sucked not seeing friends in a long time and watching them do a double take. It was a real bitch going from being pretty to being different. But I could take it. Because I knew we had done everything we could possibly do to influence the outcome. We did our bloody best.

Don't get me wrong, there were days when I felt so fucking sorry for myself I wouldn't be able to get out of bed. But I would give myself permission to wallow for the day - watch movies that make me cry. Write Hate entries in my diary. Yell at my parents. Yell at my boyfriend. Whatever. But I'd only allow myself a 1-day pity party. I'd force myself get up the next. If I wasn't strong enough to see friends, then I'd take my sorry ass to a cafe and read. I made myself participate, however small the ways.

So here's the thing.

If you believe, then keep looking until you find the answer or at the very least, enough evidence to convince you that you're wrong. I could never have stepped into that operating theatre not knowing I'd exhausted every route - how could I endure the outcome otherwise?

Never ask "why me". I didn't ask "why me" when good things happened. Why should I question the bad things? Just don't waste your energy because there are plenty of other things to fret about, believe me.

Take control. I spent hours reading every medical journal, patients' forum and textbooks about my disease. We became very well acquainted, my tumours and I. Some people hide their head in the sand, scared by their disorders. You own the disease. Never let the disease own you.

Accept the diagnosis but challenge the prognosis. There are always alternatives. You pick the best option for you.

Never be a victim. It's not a good look's kind of pathetic.

Don't let other people tell you how you feel. My mum (bless her heart) kept telling me how sick I was. Not to do this, not to eat that. I didn't want to be a sick person. I trusted my body to tell me to rest when it needed to, and I listened to it. There's no need for other people to tell you what you can, or cannot do.

Do not let your illness define you. Once you let that happen, you're well & truly screwed. I loved the sympathy. It was tempting to say "but...but....BUT I HAVE CANCER!" when things didn't go my way. But don't you dare. I was really active in one of the best patient forums for parotid gland tumours, it was a wonderful support group. But there were members who had been there for years. Still talking about their disease long after it had gone. Reliving their ordeal over & over. Your disease is not your friend. It's an unwanted houseguest that has long overstayed their welcome - don't cling on to it because you think it's all you have.

My mum would say be thankful to God. I say God will only take you so far. The rest is up to you.

Things to be happy for:
  • The most amazing family, boyfriend & moomoo in the world
  • My friends, especially Lonzo, James and Mark, who let me be and understood when I didn't want to come out and play
  • An amazing boss who looked after me every way she could, and more (thanks Caro!)
  • The privilege of being able to look overseas for surgeons
  • Strength of character
  • A sunny disposition
  • An ego that won't stay down
  • An unfailing sense of humour
  • Books, my constant companion for life
  • The bullying and lonliness of my youth that made me strong
  • Every guy who rejected me because they opened the doors for Chris, who held my hand and peeled my grapes every step of the way
Here I am today.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Story of Me (VI) : Corporate Chrissy

After university, my friends and I got down to seriously avoiding responsibility. We were young, a little reckless, feeling grownup and lived a brief life of excess until one of us ended up in rehab.

It was a wake-up call and forced us to take control of this next stage in our lives. Again, decisions to be made. Barrister or solicitor? LPC or the Bar? Pupillage or articles?

I opted for none of the above.

Law school was fun because things made sense. It was so rational, so analytical. Poking holes in arguments is so much FUN (my boyfriend hates it)! But it wasn't something I could commit my life too. I acknowledged pretty early on that my lack of interest would have produced a very mediocre lawyer.

I ended up in an ad agency as an account executive. And did pretty well for myself because I loved it. I loved the creativity, the consumer insights, the hands-on production, the design. The cleverness of it all. I loved how it was all about forging new paths, new ideas, doing things that haven't been done before.

I loved the learning, it kept me so motivated and interested, and the end of every job well done was so gratifying! Watching the ads on TV or in print, watching the reactions of people who saw them, winning awards....

I started in 1999 with no advertising/marketing experience whatsoever as an Account Executive (basically a glorified personal assistant) on the princely sum of S$1800/mth (approx US$1000 at today's rates). By 2004, I was an account director looking after blue chip brands like Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson for Asia Pacific on a six-figure annual salary.

I was privileged to work under some amazing bosses from whom I learnt all my good habits - Kerry & Laurent, Matt, Joff & Caroline* have been the most amazing role models. But I also did well for myself because I was passionate, I worked hard and I genuinely cared about the job, the client, the process. I've been in countless fights with colleagues, proper screaming rages, because the job matters so much.

Moral of the story: You have to give a shit
Giving a Shit => Passion => Commitment => Working Hard => Becoming a Pro
And I'm not talking about being a professional like a lawyer or a doctor (ie by my parent's definitions!)

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield distinguises the professional from the amateur best:

"The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps.
To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To a pro it's his vocation.
That amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.
The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week."

Striking it out on your own is a scary road. There will be many, many challenges. If you're not a professional you may never make it. Even if you do, you'll never be as good as the pro next to you. And to turn into a pro, you need to really care. Otherwise you'll just be faking it.

There are countless success stories of entrepreneurs who have 'made it' without having worked a day in their lives for anyone else. They pride themselves on never selling out to the corporate beast. Good for them.

But for me, my years as Corporate Chrissy taught me how to be a pro.

*Kerry Fitzgerald & Laurent Garnier, my account manager & director first at APL, then at Batey Ads for the Mercedes-Benz account from 1999-2001
Matt Bartelsian, my group account director at Lowe Singapore on the Zuji account from 2000-2001
Joff Carter, my CEO at Quickcut from 2002-2004
Caroline Slocombe, my regional business director at Lowe Asia-Pacific for BPW & J&J from 2004-2006

The Story of Me (V) : Legal Spreadeagle

Luckily for cat-with-nine-lives me the school term in Australia starts in Feb but in the UK, term starts in September. Just enough time to apply and switch course/schools/countries AGAIN!

This time, I picked Law. Why? Because my mum was a lawyer and she told me to.

But the difference this time was that it was actually something I could do! Holy moly mother of macaroni!

The University of Bristol was brilliant fun. My confidence returned because I got it. Classes didn't leave me feeling stupid and frustrated. Things made sense. I could see a point to them. I was engaged.

Moral of the Story: Know what you're good at
Even if you don't have a clue what to do or where to go with it, acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. What do you like doing? What jobs/tasks feel like fun? What kind of things make you procrastinate? We don't live in a perfect world and will never find a situation that ticks every box. But if you're a round peg, you'll never fit into that square hole no matter what anyone says. I've read job-interview strategy books that 'coach' people into saying things the employer wants to hear when the infamous strength/weaknesses question pops up. WTF? Why bother pretending to be something you're not - you'll only disappoint in the end.

It sounds bloody obvious but look at how long it took me to figure it out. Not all of us consciously know what we're good at doing...I certainly didn't. I kinda stumbled upon it. But there are a whole bunch of psychometric tests available on the internet. Tickle has a Classic IQ test which is pretty fun to do and free, and tests your right/left brain skills. There's an incredibly helpful job-hunting book called What Colour is Your Parachute? that helps you consolidate your aptitude and choices.

Ok this is NOT THE WAY you should do things, but it's the best example I can give to show how much a difference it makes to do something you have an aptitude for. In my first year, I was having waaayyy too much fun and hardly made it to any classes. I got a letter halfway through the 3rd term requesting an official letter of withdrawal if I had dropped out. Needless to say I failed the end of year exam. BUT I applied myself for the re-sits a month later and studied those SWOT books (they're legal textbooks that have been summarised down to the bare principles). And I passed. This is law school - that shit is HARD. "Getting it" enables you to understand in 1 hour what would otherwise take months, if ever.

Knowing what you're good at isn't going to magically reveal the meaning of life or the secret of your destiny. But I think any decision should start from here, be it brainstorming a new biz idea or choosing a career or deciding on a course. It will save you alot of grief down the road!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Story of Me (IV) : Who, What, Where?

My 2 years in Sydney, first at SCECGS Redlands then at the University of Sydney reaffirmed the fact that I still didn't have a clue what I was doing and where I was going. Never quite fit into SCECGS. I matriculated with good grades but nevertheless disappointing considering what I was capable of . Had no idea what what degree to pursue at Uni and forced into making a decision, I chose Accountancy because one of my parents said that it was a good degree to have under my wing.

Pity no-one thought my numerical dyslexia might get in the way. One term into the first year I realised what a dreadful mistake I'd made. Again. Faced with spreadsheets crawling with numbers that would literally move into different places everytime I looked at it, I escaped into books and unfulfilling relationships. Trying a little bit of this, having a taste of that....but finding nothing that satiated me.

I haven't even kept pictures from this period of limbo. I made some great friends but was as directionless as ever, and starting to take some knocks to my self-esteem because in spite of everyone's high hopes for me I just did not know what I was supposed to do! I was just treading water.

Everyone else seemed to have a plan. Where the hell was mine???

The Story of Me (III) : Teen Angst

When I was 11, I moved over into the local school system. Tanglin Junior was too expensive and the path would lead to the International Baccalaureate. My parents are both educated in the UK and firmly believed in 'O' Levels! So I switched across to Henry Park Primary School which was just around the corner from our condo. I had to take an entrance exam in English, Maths & Science. The curriculum at Tanglin Junior was vastly different and I failed miserably in Maths and Science. Miserably. Like, 5/100 marks or something as pathetic. BUT I scored 99/100 in my English test which I'm sure is the only reason I was admitted, albeit to the lowest-ranked class with all the other delinquents.

Henry Park was a turning point for me. No more bullying!!! I really came into my own and moved from the lowest-ranked class to the top class in the space of a few months. Our school system imposes national exams at every educational stage to judge admittance into the next phase. We had the Primary School Leaving Exams (PSLEs) and I ended up being the top scorer for my year, achieving 277 points in a year where the national high score was 281.

I am often grateful to my parents' decision to move me. They were clueless about the bullying, even then I wasn't much of a complainer! But I think if I had stayed at Tanglin Junior School and moved on to United World College, I might have always remained in the shadows. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows?

My PSLE score ensured entrance into one of Singapore's best secondary schools, Raffles Girls', and thus began my journey into adolescence. Boys were a great way to get the attention I missed during the early years!!!! Books, less so :P I count many blessings in the opportunities that have shaped my life - RGS is one of them. I'm so easily influenced and RGS provided such a safe environment to grow in, tempering my natural risk-taking with prudent sensibilities. I was a very rebellious teen and drove my mother mad with my revolt, got into lots of trouble but somehow, always landed safely.

Needless to say I didn't repeat the sparkling honours in my 'O' Levels as I did at the PSLEs, but I did well enough to get into Raffles Junior College.

Streaming is a promiment feature of the Singapore education system. They believe that all students are not created equal, and children are seperated by ability. Yeap, it's controversial! But one of the by-products is the need to decide from early on what you want to do with the rest of your life because one must choose what 'stream' to elect i.e. Science, Arts etc. At 30, I still didnt know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life much less at sixteen! I was still trying to figure out which boys were good to kiss!

I figured since I love my granny very much, and wanted to be able to look after and cure her of all ailments when she got older and I also like helping people (it's an Aquarian thing) "Hey, why not be a doctor?"

So I opted in for the Triple Science stream - Physics, Biology, Chemistry. Pity no-one told me I actually had to be a left-brainer and have an aptitude for Science. I could see myself headed straight for failure at the 'A' Levels so my family huddled and we re-strategised. It was too late to switch streams at RJC because I would waste a year, so I decided to zip over to Sydney and matriculate in 1 year, re-selecting my core subjects.

The Story of Me (II) : The Early Years

I was born in Malaysia in 1974, and when I was 4 years old my parents moved the family to London. We lived in a little red brick apartment off High Street Kensington. The building had one of those antiquated lifts with cast-iron gates you had to use all your strength to clang close before the lift would start. We lived on the top floor and I would race my parents up - them in the juddery lift and me legging it up the stairs. I usually won.

I went to a small chapel school called Allandale where they force-fed us stodgy rice pudding every lunch time. I still live in mortal fear of THE RICE PUDDING *retch* I remember Allandale being huge at the time, but when I went back as a grown-up, it just looked like an after-thought.

The family then moved us to Singapore when I was about 9, and I spent a few years in Tanglin Junior School (now known as Tanglin Trust), a school for expat kids. I was bullied mercilessly for being Chinese in a mostly white school. There were only a few of us at the time, and kids can be MEAN! Many of them lived in the same condominium, and when we were all let off from school, I wasn't allowed to go up in the lift with them. The few times I tried, I'd be violently shoved back out, arms pinwheeling, skidding on my bum, skirt flying up, sounds of laughter.

There are many things I remember from that time, but most of all, I remember always being alone. Playing by myself behind the apartment blocks. Swimming in the pool practising holding my breath underwater. Exploring. Inventing my own games. Seeking refuge in books.

My sister was too young to be good company at the time and besides, we were bitter rivals!

I believe this is where the seeds of my independent nature grew. I developed roots within myself, learnt how to water them and preserve them in times of drought. Now, I'm not afraid of being alone.

The Story of Me (I) : No-One Special

A dunce then, and still a dunce now

This is a blog about my dreams and the bumpy road to make them a reality.

I'm an ordinary girl, living an ordinary life. I haven't been gifted with extraordinary drive or focus. I'm not a genius. I don't have access to a million-dollar trust fund. I don't have any particular talent or skill. I've never had a calling to do anything. My parents aren't self-made gajillionaires that mentor me. I have no ties to Ong Beng Seng.

I'm no-one special.

But I hope. I believe. I reach.
I also doubt. I fear. I fail.

I've read countless books on starting a business - but for some reason, it always seemed as though the entrepreneurs already had a clue to begin with. Or endless pits of money. Or an MBA. Or endless energy. Or were fantastic salesman that never stayed down...but how do ordinary people do it??? Correction - how do ordinary people full of doubt and fear of the unknown do it?

So I wanted to chart my progress - my successes, my failures, my learnings - to encourage you, aspiring entrepreneur, and also to share my resources and ideas. And whether I succeed in this venture or fail miserably, or never get it off the's proof I tried.

But first gather around, children. Let me tell you a little about me and the long, winding road I took to arrive at today.